Five feminist teachings in Parks and Recreation

Amy Poehler has created a brilliant feminist TV series and, more importantly, differential feminist models we can all look up to. Parks and Recreation is about a government employee who believes in change above anything else and her endeavours to change her hometown Pawnee, despite the stagnant pace of government action.

Leslie Knope is the most obvious role model in the show, as her office has numerous inspirational women hanging on the wall and her policies and plans are clearly focused on gender equality. But as I was rewatching the show this weekend, I realized there is more to this show than the remarkable strength and determination of Leslie Knope.

Parks & Rec is extremely clever writing, I daresay it is even better than 30 Rock. If you are a feminist, you should watch it, and if you’re not a feminist you should watch it too because it is simply hilarious. Pushing the envelope, though an odious expression, Amy Poehler had confronted traditional gender roles and the way women (and men) are portrayed on TV and movies. How? Well, here’s a list.

1) Friendship between women is not catty and bitter, it is beautiful.

There’s a myth going around, and I believed it once too. The word on the street is that women can’t be friends with each other without being catty and giving each other backhanded compliments. This is made worse by young girls believing that being friends with boys somehow makes them superior. Have you ever heard a girl say “I don’t have any girlfriends, I really prefer being friends with boys.”(insert smug smile here). Girls, let’s get something straight; this perpetuates the idea that men are superior to women, that their friendship somehow has more value than that of your own gender. 

That’s not true, we are all people, no matter what our gender or gender identity, who have great things to offer each other in a scenery of friendship! And Leslie Knope’s friendship with Ann Perkins is a great example of a beautiful girl-friendship. They look out for each other, they protect each other and they help each other.

Leslie also celebrates her girlfriends on February 13th every year (Galentine’s Day!) by giving them presents and taking them out for dinner. What’s not to love about gal-friendship? Absolutely nothing. So shut up, Seth Macfarlane.

2) Don’t tell women to smile, they don’t have to please you

April Ludgate hates everything and she barely ever smiles. She’s cynical, bored, often mean and loves trash. She is not eager to please, ever.

And that’s fine. That’s who she is. I can imagine many people will have called her frigid or bitter or even a bitch, words that are only ever used to describe women. But she’s smart, determined, inspired and wonderful – and she does not feel the need to be girly or smiley.

Recently, there has been a street art campaign that teaches people to not tell women to smile. Women don’t owe you a smile. If a woman is in a bad mood, she should not have to pretend you’re not bothering her. If she doesn’t have a ‘sunny personality’, she doesn’t have to change herself. And if she doesn’t smile she should not get abuse for it and be called a bitch.

Strangers (male or female) don’t owe you anything.

3) Women can do ‘manly’ things

There are no ‘manly’ things, and we should not be limited by that label. Nonetheless, Poehler shows us that activities and jobs that are considered to be manly can also be done by women. We can do it; physically and mentally!

Leslie proves this time and again in the series. She picks up trash to convince the sewage department to hire more women – and does the rounds better and quicker than the men. She’s a great hunter, and amazing with a shotgun.

There is a particularly compelling scene where she covers up for someone who mistakenly shot her boss because they don’t have a hunting license. The officer who writes the report is very sexist and starts by asking if she got that “tunnel vision thing girls get”. She uses typical excuses men use to bring women down and doubt their own actions to explain something she didn’t do, to protect the man who did it.

“I let my emotions get the best of me. I cared too much, I guess.”

“I was thinking with my lady parts.”

“I was walking and it felt icky.”

“I thought there was gonna be chocolate!”

“I don’t even remember! I’m wearing a new bra, and it closes in the front, so it popped open and it threw me off.”

“All I wanna do is have babies! I’m just going through a thing right now.”

“I guess when my life is incomplete, I wanna just shoot someone.”

“This would not happen if I had a penis!”

“Bitches be crazy.”

“I’m good at tolerating pain; I’m bad at math, and… I’m stupid.”

There you go, Amy Poehler disproves myths and excuses used to bring women down with sarcasm and mockery. It’s gorgeously delivered, too.

4) Women can have flaws and depth, other than the usual clumsy syndrome

Are you tired of watching Catherine Heigl films where she’s unbearably clumsy, but her male counterpart realizes that she’s adorable anyway because of her sunny personality? The only flaw women are allowed to have on TV is being a little bit awkward so she can be funny in the only way women can; physical comedy. Ha! She fell over and embarrassed herself in front of the guy she likes! So hilarious.

Shut up, Heigl. You’re the worst thing that ever happened to the representation of real womanly characters. No depth, no real flaws, nothing – just a gorgeous woman.

I’ve already mentioned April Ludgate, who is not eager to please and really doesn’t care about what anyone thinks. Leslie is a dork, something that could be seen as a flaw. She can also obsess about things and issues in a very unhealthy way – and fans of the show know she has done some dodgy things to get what she wants.

Ann Perkins is pretty, but she has serious issues when it comes to men, absorbing all of their interest into herself and forgetting that she is an individual. Donna is rude, but she is also somewhat of a diva so all is forgiven in my eyes.

The point is, these characters have depth that most TV writers have failed to accomplish when writing female characters. They aren’t over shadowed by their middle aged partners whose ‘happy’ marriage is measured on a sex-for-a-treat basis. No, these are real women, with real personalities and real problems.

5) Men are feminists too! But also, government is still very sexist.

Most of us already know this (I hope!) but men can be for gender equality too! And that means they are feminists and support strong women. Ben Wyatt, Ron Swanson, Officer Sanderson (played by the great Louis CK), Tom Haverford and Andy Dwire all support the female characters in the show. In short, all the men are feminists and are wonderful role models for the next generations of men.

A positive side of this is that men and boys who watch this tend to think the women in the show are badass because of men’s attitude towards them, and maybe one day they will mirror these attitudes.

On the other hand, some exaggerated sexist characters bring sexism and misogyny to the table (as councilwoman, Leslie’s menstrual cycle is mapped by male government bosses so they know when she will be PMS’ing and use that as an excuse). The exaggeration serves a purpose; government dinosaurs still look down on women (for more on this see all current news) and that we need to push sexism and misogyny out the door.

So if you haven’t watched this show yet, I strongly recommend that you do. It’s great and it teaches you about misogyny, sexism, gender equality and government sexual politics.

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Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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