Leslie Knope - My Feminist Heroine

Curator's Note

Leslie Knope makes me want to be a better woman. I have a picture of her next to my work computer for moments when I feel overwhelmed. Us ladies often talk about our connection with 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, but this is nearly always a claiming of our crap-ness, our undermining of ourselves, our tiny triumphs slogging against the tide. I recognize myself in Liz, but Leslie inspires me. What is it about Leslie Knope that prompts this, what makes for our pleasure as viewers?

Part of it is that Leslie Knope is a self-proclaimed feminist. She is passionate in her support for other women, she tells them they are awesome, her desk is backed by a gallery of her female political heroines. She is a powerhouse of ideas, and displays an unashamed dorky enthusiasm for all things government, no matter how small. For an overworked, unorganized academic always struggling to keep her head above water, Leslie’s inhuman work ethic represents an ideal.

Leslie – to misquote Poehler and Fey’s SNL Weekend Update piece – gets stuff done. Now, the Type-A workaholic woman is not underrepresented in popular culture. Romcoms are full of them. But Leslie is different: she doesn’t fall over. She also doesn’t get punished, brought low and ‘loosened up’ by the love of a good man (I’m looking at you Heigl). In Pawnee, Leslie’s workplace dedication is valued and celebrated. It is part of the show’s fundamental positive outlook and its feminist voice. But Leslie’s brand of sunny smarts is also slightly skewed in a way that we feel warmth, not intimidation. My video showcases clips that demonstrate her combination of hyper-competence and weirdness. The former makes her nearly superhuman, but the latter makes her just like us.

But we can’t talk Leslie without talking Amy Poehler and her comic fearlessness (who else goes all out with a Sarah Palin rap on SNL whilst virtually ready to pop?). Poehler’s innate warmth and worldview chimes with Leslie’s feminism and celebration of sisterhood, the character fits like a glove. The recent funny lady memoirs from Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch and Mindy Kaling all spoke of Poehler’s comic skills, her support of other women and determined refusal to be put into the standardized boxes. Leslie’s appeal is that she fits into no popular cultural box, and that’s why we love her.

Comments

Charlotte Howell's picture

"I'm a feminist"

 Great post, Faye!  I espcially appreciate that you point out Leslie’s self-acknowledged feminism, and I would add to the great list of her feminist actions the importance of her taking the label "feminist."  In American culture, at least in my experience of my generation, "feminist" is still a contested term. It’s seen as passe by some and radical by others, but it’s certainly a term that seems surprisingly—and sadly—rarely self-applied.  (I’ve seen my students bristle when I say I’m a feminist or discuss television studies’ feminist roots.) Yet, Leslie has called herself a feminist repeatedly and has explicated her feminist position in long monologues.  It’s a characteristic that fits her character, for all the reasons you discuss, but everytime she says she’s a feminist, I am shocked that a television character is applying the label to herself (then sad and shocked that I am shocked).  

Leslie Knope: television character equivalent of "This is what a feminist looks like" t-shirts.

Faye Woods's picture

Leslie Knope: This is what a feminist looks like

Thanks Charlotte! I love it every time that Leslie calls herself a feminist - it feels such a transgressive act! But the programme definitely has that voice, as Chris Becker noted with her mention of its representation of Womens Studies. (and Poehler has her Smart Girls intiative)

The show lets Leslie have these opinions, if occasionally showing her reaching a bit too high - it’s often framed as part of her sky high ideas. Though she tries to push Ann too hard at points and certainly had to give up with trying to shape April, the scene at the fancy party when April teels her how much she means to her was really moving. (Particularly in comparison, not to bring up 30 Rock again, but when Liz tries to assert her feminist identity, she’s nearly always knocked down again). I like that this is part of P&R idealist attitude towards life - we can all be lovely to and supportive of each other, and pro-lady too!

 

Lindsay Giggey's picture

Re: What a Feminist Looks Like

Leslie also makes me want to be a better woman.  Her optimism is contageous and one of the key differences between her and Liz Lemon.  I also love Liz, but whereas 30 Rock often positions her as the butt of its jokes (connection to Amanda’s piece perhaps) Leslie gets to be the hero in her own story.  When other characters do make fun of her, it comes from a place of love, which is reinforced by the strong relationships she has whereas Liz is often an island.  

I also love how the show lets Leslie reach high while maintaining her integrity and spirit.  That being said, I also found this year’s story line about her inability to run for office while remaining Deputy Parks Director reassuring.  One of the things I admire most about Leslie is her high level of investment in everything important to her.  However, seeing her in a position where her dedication clashes with her physical and emotional limits is a realistic reminder that although feminism posits that we can have it all we need to make choices and not lose ourselves in the process.  And that prioritizing is a choice is in itself feminist, not an admission of defeat.

Amanda Ann Klein's picture

huzzah for leslie!

This is a wonderful tribute to Leslie Knope, Faye. As I read this I wondered if you (and me) would feel the same way about this character if she were played by a different actress? Could Tina Fey pull off the optimism of a Leslie Knope?

Since being cast in the role of Leslie Knope I have heard so much about Amy Poehler as a person: how she is so supportive of female comedians and is a generally nice person to be around. This leads me to wonder—has playing Leslie Knope led to the positive feelings we have for Amy Poehler or vice versa? Character and actress seem to have hit their stride at about the same time.

Christine Becker's picture

Poehler

 That’s a really interesting point, Amanda. We all know the story of P&R’s rocky S1 start, that the show didn’t hit its stride until the writers figured out how to properly calibrate Leslie Knope. Perhaps part of that was seeing what they had with Amy Poehler, meshing the character better to her particular brand of charisma.

Faye Woods's picture

Poehler perfection

I hadn’t thought of that issue Chris, which seems key - the way that they had to make her less of a doormat/butt of jokes, as that feels less of a fit with Poehler herself.

Amanda - Poehler’s extra-textual identity, her promotion of smart girls with various projects and her mentoring of others, whilst still seeming sunny and unthreatening (to a degree) to the menfolk seems definitely to feed into Leslie. The more i’ve learn of and heard from Poehler, the closer the fit seems to be.

Karen Petruska's picture

humble women

I’m intrigued by your discussion of the woman brought low, so the following thoughts are a muddled attempt to work through the questions you offer here.  Yes, I’m a Heigl apologist, but the humbling of the over-proud woman is a grand trandition.   Think of the Bible’s presentation of the exceedingly meek Ruth as a model of ideal womanhood that has persisted.  Consider Jane Austen’s treatment of Elizabeth Bennet (my favorite Austen heroine, but she is humbled rather dramatically).  If these characterizations are a way to police the behavior of women, then how does Leslie transgress them?  By being good at her job?  By succeeding on her own terms?  Or is her brand of workplace negotiation actually consistent with other, less "feminist", depictions of women? In this way, I wonder if the relationship with Ben is actually the most feminist—because Leslie never yielded to his needs at the expense of her own, she never failed in front of him to make him feel better about being with her, she never had to apologize for herself.  I want to put a picture of Leslie next to my desk—you had a really good idea there.  :)  Thanks for the post.

Faye Woods's picture

Problematic punishment

Karen, I was considering whether this is related to television and the space to breath and not create nice tidy bows of happy endings. But then again, sitcom is often a one and done medium - though P&R does have these ongoing arcs. So I don’t know. And plenty strong ladies get punished elswhere on TV - or undo their strength (Hey, Alicia, don’t buy that massive house if you can’t afford it just to return to cosy pastness through your kids guilttripping. And lets not go anywhere near Mad Men at the moment). I do think the strong female ratio in the writers room - particularly in s1&2, I’ve not seen 3 and some left for their own pilots - does help with this too, not being the only woman in the room voicing disquiet at negative or unrealistic representaions. I’m rambling now.

I think that Leslie and Ben is markedly a relationship of equals, compared to the ‘opposites attract’ that we often see elsewhere - that genre model where one must take on the attributes of the other to create a cohesive whole. He was first attracted to her because of how capable and good at her job she was. He shares her enthusiasm and nerdery. This is part of what makes him swoony.

I also think the blend of weirdness and smarts that Poehler brings is key - Leslie is daffy, but not in the undermining way we often find in filmic representations (oops, I fell down, i’m such a klutz, therefor my beauty is less threatening). And weirdness/daffiness is an or rather than an and in terms of filmic heroines - good at job = uptight, sad and alone, daffy and weird = manic pixie dream girl.

Juliana Rachel Kelm's picture

Winning Both?

 In my American Film class I just completed at UCLA, we talked to a great extent about what it is for a woman character to "win performatively and narratively," meaning can this character perform is ways in which the audiences loves her while also maintaining a progressive narrative text. For many of the women we talked about in TV history, like Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy or Ally McBeal from Ally McBeal, the answer was no. Often times it was one and not the other, like Lucy winning our hearts and "winning performatively" but losing narratively since she can never quite escape her domesticity. I feel like Lesie Knope is a rare example of a woman who actually does both: we love Leslie for her quirks and Poehler for her excellent acting chops but we also love the fact that she is a feminist who brings a positive connotation to the word. Leslie is hilarious but also fights for womens’ rights and wants to be the first woman city council member in the history of her town. In my opinion, Leslie Knope is the epitome of "winning" both performatively and narratively, a combination we rarely have seen in TV history. 

Erika Trujillo's picture

Agree Completely

I really like that others equally enjoy Leslie Nope, and Amy Poehler for that matter, as much as I do. I agree with how the essence of Leslie is admirable and inspiring to someone who posseses none of the qualities she does. Although characters like Liz Lemon are also femnist in the sense that they are successful and educated, there is still the fact that most females are still depicted as dependent on a male figure. The fact that Leslie does not, makes her even more of a role model. The thing about Leslie Knope is that we can relate to her because of her quirks and that makes her character and ideas reachable to a furhter female audience and even a younger female audience - which is really significant with all the current shows that embarass and subdue the images of women.

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