For those of you that don’t know, Leslie Knope is the main character of the phenomenally successful American sitcom, Parks and Recreation. Set in the fictional town of Pawnee – the fourth most obese town in America – the plot follows Leslie’s role within local government and the Parks and Recreation Department. The show was a huge success, running for seven seasons, earning the cast several awards and becoming a favourite of fans and critics alike. Widely praised for its portrayal of positive female characters, the show – specifically its portrayal of Leslie Knope – has come to be seen as a truly ‘feminist’ sitcom. As for Leslie herself, she has been hailed as an extremely well-written, positive character and a role model for women everywhere.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
From the very first episode, Leslie strives to be in control of what she does. She doesn’t always succeed – mainly because she has to contend with a lot of other characters trying to do the same thing – but she always tries every single time. She tries to get an empty lot of land made into a park, she tries to get herself elected to the city council, she tries to make her hometown a better place. Most of the time, she’s successful, but even when she isn’t, she doesn’t let it hold her back.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Leslie is a character with one very clear goal that drives her through all seven series: she wants to become President of the United States. This is a dream she’s had since she was a little girl, and she pursues it to the best of her ability all through the show.
Her hobbies and beliefs are very well-established too. Leslie is a die-hard feminist who believes in equality for people of all genders and sexual orientations, and we see her actively working to make this a reality during the show. Likewise, we also see her love of arts and crafts in many different episodes: she loves making things for her friends and family, such as quilts, throw pillows, and mosaic portraits of her best friends made from the crushed glass of their favourite soda bottles.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Leslie is a pretty consistent character. She’s very energetic, very idealistic, throws herself into every activity she can and never forgets her goals. Her skills stay at a constant level too: she displays an aptitude for bureaucracy, multi-tasking and roller-skating. Her talent for arts and crafts is particularly well-established: not only do we see her making things during the course of the show, but we also find out that this is something she has done since she was a child (although her projects were not quite so ambitious then).
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A determined, energetic government official who works tirelessly to get ahead in politics and improve her hometown.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Leslie’s love life generates a substantial amount of the show’s more emotional moments, and often provides some of the more heavy-hitting drama. While it’s definitely not the show’s main focus, it is nevertheless a crucial part of her storyline. The most significant relationship she has is with city manager, Ben Wyatt – the man who eventually becomes her husband – and because they have to work together, they needed to keep their relationship a secret or one of them could lose their jobs. When Leslie realises that this could jeopardise everything she has worked for, they break up, in a scene that is so heart-breaking that every time I watch it I have to pretend someone’s been cutting onions.
They eventually decide to get back together and damn the consequences, but it’s with the understanding that Leslie isn’t going to compromise her beliefs or forget about what she’s been aiming for, and it’s this that marks out their relationship as something really special. Leslie’s love life certainly does factor into her decisions, but it doesn’t overwhelm her original goals. Most of her decisions are influenced by her desire to get ahead in her career and do a good job at work, and she never loses sight of her ultimate goal.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Leslie develops very subtly over the course of the TV series. She doesn’t necessarily work to overcome her flaws in the way that other characters do, but she matures, accepts that sometimes her plans are going to fail, learns to put her own concerns aside for the greater good, and stops being petrified of breaking the rules a little. It’s a very slow, gradual change that’s heavily tied into the events that affect her as a character, but it’s a very clear progression that allows the core elements of her personality to shine.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Leslie can be deeply, deeply cringeworthy.
I’m just kidding. A lot of Leslie’s weaknesses are often linked to her strengths. She has a clear vision of what she wants to do, firmly believes that she knows what’s best for other people, and has a phenomenal amount of drive that helps her succeed. This often translates into her steamrolling over other people’s opinions, a certain amount of meddling in her friends’ lives, and a tendency to dismiss people when they try and get her to confront things she doesn’t like. She can also be quite selfish, has absolutely no idea how to relax and occasionally struggles with her self-esteem, as she always feels the need for approval. These are all very realistic weaknesses that tie into the other parts of her personality, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
No-one gets captured or killed in Parks and Recreation – Pawnee’s raccoon problem isn’t quite that bad – but nevertheless, Leslie is still a real force in terms of the plot. She’s constantly driving the story forward, whether it’s with her plans to build a park, get herself onto the city council, or to make the step up into federal government. Her decisions have a huge impact in pretty much every episode, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In some ways, Leslie is a very traditional woman. She meddles in her friends’ romantic lives, enjoys traditionally feminine pastimes such as sewing and arts and crafts, and eventually settles down with a husband and three children. At times, her romantic life suffers because of the demands of her career – something which comes up much more frequently in female characters’ storylines.
But that’s pretty much it. Leslie is a government official who works her way up to a position of power, proving that she can handle the responsibilities that come with local and federal government. She’s proactive, determined to succeed, can’t stand the thought of being idle and wants to be the best in absolutely everything she does. She has a set of very clear goals that she’s followed for most of her life, and chooses to carve out a career in politics – not a career women are traditionally associated with. She fights for equality wherever she can, whether she’s creating a programme that encourages young girls to be more self-sufficient or upholding a gay marriage for a couple of penguins.
What’s more, Leslie is the first character I’ve looked at that is a self-confessed feminist. She faces a hell of a lot of prejudice in the workplace, particularly from the male council members, and actively has to work against the stereotypes they try to associate her with. She also desperately wants to win Pawnee’s ‘Woman of the Year’ Award, and goes to great lengths to show how much she values her female friends and colleagues.
This is exactly the kind of character that I would like to see more often. Leslie’s character shows that traditionally feminine pastimes and goals don’t necessarily mean that a character is weak. She’s just as capable of sewing together a unity quilt as she is of running a country. She doesn’t have to deny the feminine aspects of her personality in order to convey her strength, and she doesn’t express her strength by throwing other female characters under the metaphorical bus.
In short, I want her to teach me everything she knows.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Leslie has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. Most of the female characters we meet on the show are Leslie’s friends, and as I mentioned earlier, she goes out of her way to make sure they all feel appreciated. She creates an annual holiday to spend time with them that she calls ‘Galentine’s Day’, and seeing as it seems to involve exchanging presents, eating waffles and getting pleasantly drunk, I think this should be made legally binding.
But this isn’t all the development that her relationships with her friends get. She idolises her best friend, Ann, even when she’s disagreeing with her. She tries to mentor her intern and eventual subordinate, April, even when she finds it difficult to relate to her because of the age gap. Her relationship with her co-worker, Donna, starts off a little tense and eventually matures into friendship. Leslie’s other relationships are just as interesting: she is constantly trying to prove herself to her mother, looks up to – and eventually meets – several famous female political figures, and eventually develops something akin to a blood feud with her colleague’s ex-wife, Tammy. It’s a range of relationships with a range of different characters, so she passes this round.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Another perfect score! Leslie is a character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, a consistent personality and level of skill, and has an impact on the plot in every single episode. She matures over the course of the story, has some very well-established beliefs, goals and hobbies, and isn’t completely defined by gender stereotypes. She’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my favourite cheesy films – Labyrinth. Sarah Williams, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.