By Jessamyn Neuhaus
Parks and Recreation was the most feminist show on TV ever—just ask the Internet. Web behemoths, pop culture critics, academics, and assorted bloggers all agree that the show regularly alluded to and extolled feminist principles. The women characters were varied and multifaceted. The men characters wittily satirized masculine stereotypes and at times embodied feminist values. And Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was a dedicated civil servant and proud feminist who championed women’s empowerment and political advancement. As Marama Whyte summarized: “It shouldn’t feel revolutionary to watch the hero of a TV show declare themselves a feminist, but it does.”
P&R had a few missteps because, um, flawless feminist texts don’t exist. Early on, Leslie was less “ambitious small town public servant” and more “delusional bureaucrat.” One commentator noticed stalkerish overtones in Tom’s pursuit of Ann and another suggested that P&R reinforced Native American stereotypes. Aside from the very funny 2009 episode “Pawnee Zoo,” the show never tackled sexual identity issues. It fell back on some tired depictions of parenting and I never liked the Jerry-as-office-pariah jokes, although he prevailed in the end. And while its main cast was more ethnically and racially diverse than most sitcoms, P&R did espouse mainstream white liberal heterosexual cisgendered feminist politics, which has its limitations.
But for many feminist-inclined viewers, watching P&R was profoundly gratifying. Aspects of P&R that warmed the hearts of TV-loving feminists are too legion to enumerate here. From casting (Lucy “Xena” Lawless!) to plots (Leslie’s successful efforts to combat gender discrimination in Pawnee’s Sanitation Department) to superwoman shout outs (Eleanor Roosevelt, Laura Mulvey, Naomi Wolf) to sincere women friendships (Happy Galentine’s Day!), P&R hilariously hit the feminist mark time and time again. One notable episode highlight this season was “Pie Mary,” in which both Leslie and Ben directly address the preposterous double standards facing women politicians and indeed all “career women.” Throughout the show, I especially appreciated the marriage of equals between Ben and Leslie: a balanced, evolving, and mutually supportive union based on shared interests and life goals.
However, as we observe the end of this exceptional series, we should acknowledge how exceptional it was. Leslie Knope was a sitcom unicorn: she was a self-identified feminist who put her principles into action. She battled sexism at city hall in her sensible shoes and Ann Tyler pantsuits, suffering setbacks and enjoying professional successes. In sad contrast, our current pop culture is awash with female characters that are sorta kinda feminist but mostly we’re supposed to see them as “empowered” because they casually reference their vaginas in everyday conversation, not because they work towards gender equality and to make the world a better place generally.
Feminists who love pop culture routinely have to strain to find some redeeming feature in most mainstream entertainment, even when it could have easily been better (see: Black Widow in Age of Ultron—why, Joss, why?). When we laud P&R we also have to ask why its a matter of fact feminism was utterly distinctive. Well, actually, we already know why there’s only one Leslie Knope and a million Smurfettes: a dominant entertainment elite that disproportionately impacts what we see onscreen and makes mostly financially low-risk choices catering to a very limited demographic. Even in this era of culture-consumers-turned-producers, there is a tiny group of incredibly powerful Deciders who wield more influence over our entertainment in a single phone call than any YouTube star or cultural critic will have in a lifetime. And incorporating feminism into their products is not high on their list of priorities.
What magic pixie dust did Amy Poehler sprinkle in the corner offices of NBC to ensure P&R remained on the air for seven seasons? She clearly has juice, as P&R’s numerous guest stars from Hollywood and Washington attest. Perhaps one or two A-list feminist-minded actors or cultural power brokers could ensure that we see another Leslie on our screens sometime this century? Or was it the many feminist fans—the bloggers and critics who gave P&R so much love—who convinced some important someone somewhere that the show should continue? Was it the non-controversy of the show’s feminist tenets? Maybe what we need is more resounding silence to finally convince our media overlords that most of us are just fine with basic feminist principles in our entertainment. We promise we will keep watching your programming if it dares to utter the other F Word.
Parks and Recreation was both a triumph as well as a sad reminder of how slowly feminism has shaped mainstream entertainment, even when, as P&R demonstrates, feminism is in fact so mainstream itself. Raise a glass, shed a tear, and say goodbye to Parks and Recreation, an exquisite little feminist fish swimming in our vast pop ocean.
Jessamyn Neuhaus is professor of U.S. history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh.