The Leslie Knope Standard

Last night the Boysaw and I saw World War Z on a bit of a whim.  It’s summertime, I didn’t have to get up early, and the timing was right after our taco dinner.  We scurried off to catch the 8:15 in 3-D (which, when all is said and done, was a bit unnecessary…but that’s beside the point).  We liked it a lot.  I was captivated, my fists clenched almost the entire time.  At one point, the BF was so overcome with anxiety that he actually gagged and thought he was going to throw up.  (I have to say that I laughed at him a little bit.  As deserved.)

So it stood to reason that we needed a palette-cleanser after such an intense flick.  We agreed to put on a carefree, laugh-out-loud sitcom when we got home, just to flush the nightmarish visions of knashing rotten teeth, decaying flesh, and bloodshot eyes from our minds.

Enter Parks and Recreation.

We snuggled in, iPhone in hand, Netflix streaming cued up on our personal electronic device.

I was a latecomer to the Parks and Recreation Fan Club, but now I’ve been fully, whole-heartedly initiated.  When I first saw glimpses of the show, I assumed that its main character, Leslie Knope, was a female incarnation of The Office’s Michael Scott.  Awkward, cringe-inducing, socially inappropriate, and barely likeable.  Barely.  And she is almost those things.

But Leslie brings more to the table than that.  People don’t only begrudgingly like her.  They genuinely love her; respect her; stand up for her.  Sure, she has some of Michael Scott’s quirky naivete, but she also has a sense of integrity and selflessness often missing in Scott’s character.  She possesses a sensitivity and a moral compass that he lacks.

Leslie is infectiously honest, smart, and driven.  She’s a waffle-loving hot mess at times, but she does it with leadership.  Sure, her colleagues’ good intentions to support her are frequently bumbling and riddled with missteps.  But Leslie still manages to motivate an otherwise mismatched, lazy bunch of townies to actually care about what they do, about town politics, and about each other.  She sees the best in her friends and co-workers, and she believes in them despite their often un-likeable, un-relatable qualities.  And if she doesn’t like you?  If you’ve given her a reason to peg you as the enemy?  Well, you’d better get your guard up.  And fast.

This girl knows who she is.  She’s unapologetically genuine and starry-eyed.  She truly believes that miracles and grand gestures happen every day.  (Largely because she makes them happen.)  She will not be stymied by the rival town’s snobbery or superior funding; she will stop at nothing to advocate for her causes (even if it means digging through rubble during her own bachelorette party in the dark).   She’s silly and childlike at the same time that she’s socially aware, political, and respectful.  She maintains a moral integrity often remiss in public officials.

Like every good hero, though, Leslie is also flawed.  Her single-minded good-doing is sometimes her Achilles Heel.  Take, for example, when she plants Indian artifacts in the aforementioned rubble in order to stop the construction of a fast-food restaurant on a plot of would-be park land.  Of course, eventually she can’t manage to follow through on the poor decision.  She owns up to her (admittedly horrific) error in judgment, without excuses or justification.  She owns it, and makes good on her commitment to integrity.  And we still root against the fast-food giant and for Leslie…misfired ethics and all.

Leslie’s feminism reveals itself in surprising ways.  She posts photos of female political leaders – her role models – on the shelves in her office.  She chooses partners who know and embrace her flaws as well as her strengths, and describes her ideal man as “George Clooney’s mind with Joe Biden’s body”.  She loves relentlessly, but she doesn’t compromise who she is for anyone.  She’s sassy and dependable, playful and driven, proud and humble, all at the same time.

I recently shared this article by Linda Holmes on my Facebook page, feeling especially discouraged by the extreme lack of women in this summer’s movie line-up.   (If you haven’t already, it’s well worth the read.  Check it out.)

And I know that one character doesn’t change the face of American pop culture.  Katniss doesn’t mean that people will now see (or look for) just as many heroines as heroes.  Bridesmaids doesn’t mean that people now believe the truth that women can be funny.  These examples are easily dismissed as outliers; the exceptions that prove the rule.  But the more Leslie Knopes that we see out there, that we create and consume, the more we have a fighting chance of presenting female role models to our young girls; of equalizing the number of male and female characters in our books, movies, and TV shows; of reminding the American public that, despite what they are consuming in unbelievable quantities, girls can be powerful and heroic and smart and funny.  And everything other quality that makes for an interesting, unique, memorable character.

Watching a few episodes of Parks and Recreation restored a little bit of my faith in American popular culture, at the same time that it rocked me to sleep and swept away the nightmares of World War Z.  It isn’t revolutionary, but if we’re looking for female characters, Leslie Knope is a damn good standard.  It’s time we started holding ourselves to that bar.

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