Amy Poehler: Parks and Recreation and Leslie Knope as a Third-Wave Feminist
Though created over thirty years after the premiere of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Parks and Recreation and Amy Poehler’s character Leslie Knope share surprising similarities with Moore and Mary Richards. Much like Moore, Poehler is heavily involved in the production of Parks and Recreation (2009-present), producing and often writing and directing episodes, but she did not create the show or her character Leslie Knope. Parks creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur explained in interviews that NBC asked for a show, and they created the program as well as the character Leslie Knope with Amy Poehler in mind. Daniels explains that though season one featured a somewhat “deluded” Leslie, as the show progressed the audience saw that Leslie “isn’t Amy doing Hillary Clinton. It’s what Amy Poehler would be like in small-town government.” In sum, he admitted, “the show would inevitably reflect Ms. Poehler’s sensibility.” Much like Mary Tyler Moore, Poehler had a show and character created for her, which ultimately led to both comediennes portraying much less domesticated characters.
Like Mary Richards, Leslie Knope is very clearly a feminist. Her office is decorated with headshots of female politicians whom she admires. Determined to leave a legacy in the “boy’s club” of local politics, she is a strong voice for female empowerment. When Leslie is offered a position judging in the Miss Pawnee beauty pageant, her coworkers are shocked she would be interested in participating in what they presume to be a sexist assessment of physical beauty. Leslie explains her interest with, “whoever Miss Pawnee is, is going to be the representative of womanhood in our town. And as a judge, let me assure you that this year’s Miss Pawnee will be chosen for her talent and poise.” Her custom scorecard includes “presentation,” “intelligence,” “knowledge of ‘herstory,’” and “the Naomi Wolf factor,” referencing one of the leading spokeswomen of the third-wave feminist movement. She also created and leads the Pawnee Goddesses, a Girl Scout-like group formed in opposition to her own inability to join the male-only Pawnee Rangers.
[The "Beauty Pageant" episode can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly]
Leslie’s feminism, though most similar to Mary Richards’s, is best juxtaposed with its contemporary, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and her own brand of non-feminism, often criticized as “Liz Lemonism.” Though she describes herself as feminist, Liz exemplifies several negative stereotypes about working women. The first problem is that Liz is “an ‘exceptional’ woman: the only smart, capable woman in a field of slutty, slobby, neurotic morons… not friends or equals, but reminders that other girls can be so, so dumb.” She associates almost exclusively with men, and even then still has a losing dynamic with her boss Jack Donaghy, reiterating the feebleness of women. In contrast, Mary Richards and Leslie Knope form strong female bonds and champion the abilities of other women, even if both characters are more successful than their female friends and coworkers. When Mary’s best friend Rhoda criticizes herself, Mary always stands up for her; Leslie obsessively compliments her best friend Ann and works tirelessly to show April, a young uninterested intern, her full feminine potential. Liz, on the other hand, just shrugs off Jenna, her impossibly self-centered best friend who happens to star in Liz’s show. Instead, she invests her time in only her boss Jack Donaghy and her slew of flawed boyfriends. Though Fey was the most involved of these three in the creation of her program, she fails to portray a strong woman and her character’s supposed feminism reiterates stereotypes of female inferiority. Mary and Leslie, on the other hand, succeed as feminist role models, even though the characters themselves were created by men.
Another clear indication of Mary and Leslie’s feminism as compared to Liz is in their attitude towards sexuality. Unlike Liz Lemon, who often complains about sex and has countless sexual hang-ups, Mary and Leslie publicly proclaim and own their sexual desires. Mary notes in passing that she is on the pill, and though her character is defined by her independence and “making it on her own,” she often dates men and is implied to have sex with them. Leslie dates too. When her best friend Ann suffers a harsh break-up, Leslie tells her about her impossibly comical dating past. She tells Ann stories like, “one time I was dating this guy for awhile, and then he got down on one knee and he begged me to never call him again. One guy broke up with me while we were in the shower together. Skywriting isn’t always positive.” However, she ends up very happily married to fellow government employee Ben Wyatt, the man of her dreams, and often talks about how much she loves “making out” with him. Liz, however, hates sexual contact and dreams of a sexless relationship. Liz’s lack of sexuality reiterates traditional domestic, passive female stereotypes, while Mary and Liz’s sexual freedom symbolize their feminist ideologies.
Gracie, Mary, and Leslie, the three characters not specifically created by the actresses are by far the most feminist and independent when considering their historical context. While Gracie was still subservient to her husband in some sense, her conscious rebellion against him and assertion of female power in her 1940 run for Presidency is unparalleled in Liz’s constant losing to her boss Jack. The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards also embodies feminist ideals, perhaps because of her historical context and the concurrent Women’s Liberation movement. Historical context does not always define character, however, as 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation premiered just three years apart, but the differences in feminist ideologies between Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope are substantial.
 Chris Harnick, “Amy Poehler and Leslie Knope: How the Actress’ ‘Parks and Rec’ Portrayal Saved the Show,” Huffington Post, February 12, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/12/amy-poehler-leslie-nope-parks-and-rec_n_2669461.html (accessed January 29, 2013).
 Dave Itzkoff, “It’s Not ‘The Office.’ The Boss is a Woman.” New York Times, March 26, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/arts/television/29dave.html (accessed January 29, 2013).
 Sady Doyle, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon,” Tiger Beatdown, March 24, 2010, http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/03/24/13-ways-of-looking-at-liz-lemon/ (accessed February 3, 2013).
 Kate Dailey, “Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, and the Feminist Lessons of NBC’s ‘Parks and Recreation,’” Newsweek, April 8, 2010, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/blogs/the-human-condition/2010/04/08/leslie-knope-liz-lemon-and-the-feminist-lessons-of-nbc-s-parks-and-recreation.html (accessed February 1, 2013).