Work Worth Doing: A Tribute to Leslie Knope.

The same reason I love politics is the same reason I will never go into politics – the concept of fighting the system, of trying to make the country better, when so many people want things to either remain the same (broken) or destroy it further. I feel like politics are for either the most lion-hearted of optimists or the coldest of wonks. I just bingewatched the first season of House of Cards and I compared it to cotton candy – deliciously empty.

That is why I am so thankful for a show like Parks and Recreation, which ended its wonderfully improbable seven-season run two weeks ago. I say improbable because the show, by the end of its run, had less viewers than the population of Indiana, but those viewers were fanatical in their devotion. They kept the show going when everyone thought it would fail. They were the personification of Parks and Rec‘s indefatigable leading lady, Leslie Knope.

In its initial, truncated first season – only six episodes, or the length of a longer than average movie – Leslie Knope was faced with obstruction, mockery, and outright indignation at every turn, and her personality is more grating. Her goal, to turn a local pit into a park, was ridiculed by most of her staffers, who saw her as an annoyance rather than an inspiration. Andy, a local kid who had broken both of his legs by falling into said pit, was trying desperately to win back his ex-girlfriend, nurse and rule-breaking moth Ann Perkins. Everyone else was more or less a cipher, and the show didn’t look too promising. I watched the first episode because it premiered after The Office, and didn’t think too much of it. It looked like Michael Scott running a Parks Department, but we already had a Michael Scott.

Then, over the course of the next year or so, the entire feeling of the show changed. Rather than reacting with mockery, the members of the Parks Department started to respond to Leslie with warmth, admiration, and even love. Leslie transformed from a clumsily eager government employee with weird ideas into a force of optimism and progressive social change that kept getting obstructed by the city she so desperately loves (“Pawnee: First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity.”) She adored waffles, female politicians, and Lil’ Sebastian, a local celebrity that also happened to be a miniature horse. So help you God if you call him a pony…

Leslie wanted to have it all, but unlike the Lean In philosophies that I have issues with, she quickly realized that just asking for something wasn’t going to get her everything. She was elected to the City Council, but then was quickly recalled because nobody wanted her brand of government. She had to perform a filibuster in rollerskates in order to stay a vote, then watched as the vote went through anyway. But in true Knope fashion, she plowed on, a little bent but never broken. She was also the leader of the Pawnee Goddesses, the first wilderness troupe specifically for girls. But after a debate about gender equality, they included boys in their ranks. She also taught a group of senior citizens how to use birth control and put on condoms, much to the chagrin of the more conservative townsfolk.

Leslie Knope was extremely unlucky in love for the first and second seasons (with references to a horrific romantic history – “I can’t tell you how many of my ex’s weddings I’ve been to!”), although she did have a lovely little romance with Officer Dave, played to perfection by Louis C.K. However, they broke up when Dave went to San Francisco, and I was starting to worry that Leslie would become one of “those” girls. You know the girls – the girls who have a high-traffic career that they love and are very good at, but as a result they never find love or personal happiness from outside of work. Everything gets sacrificed for the job. You might remember that this is pretty much what the writers did to Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother: because of her job, Robin and Barney decide to divorce, and she spends the next twenty or so years with great professional success, but every time she hangs out with the old gang again she gets sad and nostalgic for a life she doesn’t have. In short, her personal life is complete shit because she ‘sacrificed’ it for her career.

As a working professional, I call bullshit. So does Leslie Knope. At the end of season 2, she met an Indiana state auditor, super nerd, and calzone enthusiast named Ben Wyatt, and despite the fact they weren’t supposed to be together, this happened. And it was amazing.

Later on, they would marry, have triplets, get elected to government positions on the state and national level, and then in a flash-forward in the series finale, it’s heavily implied that one of them is the Commander in Chief. (At first I thought it was Leslie, but Ben is wearing a flag pin, so maybe he is? Either one of them would make an awesome POTUS.) They both had to make sacrifices for their relationship but neither of them sacrificed who they innately were to achieve the goals that would make them professionally and personally successful.

My point is, Leslie Knope truly had it all. By the end of the series, she’s a wife, mother, highly successful politician, and has served two terms as governor of Indiana with a library named after her at Indiana University (“Aw f*ck, the library?”) and she didn’t have to sacrifice shit. Sure, she was frazzled and frustrated at times and there were moments she got super drunk and had fights with her friends – Snake Juice will do that to a person. But she was also bold, brave, terminally optimistic, and full of hope for her country while also very much aware that there were things about it that needed to change. She also loved waffles.

Recently I’ve started watching House of Cards, which might be the most pessimistic view of politics ever put on screen. While it’s fun to watch people be absolutely terrible to each other, I prefer the viewpoint of politics put across by Parks and Recreation, which, while complete wish-fulfillment, was also an optimistic view of where our politics could maybe take us. It was all exemplified by its star. I wish we could all be in the position in this world to be Leslie Knope, and I feel we would be better off as humans if we emulated her spirit.


P.S. If I could recommend any one episode of Parks and Rec that sums up why I love the show so much and why it was so necessary to feminism as whole, it would be the season 7 classic “Pie-Mary.” In the episode, Leslie chafes at the tradition that congressional candidate’s wives participate in a pie bake-off (“The loser is all women”) so Ben volunteers to enter the competition himself and wear one of his five personalized aprons (I LOVE BEN WYATT). They manage to piss off the Indiana Organization of Women for even considering the contest at all, as well as the Male Men, a men’s rights activist group that are REALLY angry that women are getting all equality-crazy (“Men have had a really rough go of it for just recently”), and by the time Ben has to speak on his economic platform, he and Leslie use that media coverage as a way to go after every single stereotypical thing political candidate’s wives have to deal with on a campaign trail. It’s a beautifully sharp satire that cuts right to the heart of everything going on currently with our country’s views on feminism, and it articulated just why I’m going to miss this show so much.

Published by The Curious Ally Cat

I'm a 34 year old adjunct professor and writer in Connecticut. People seem to like me because I am polite and I am rarely late.

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