As a media consumer, I usually have more to criticize than praise. Our televisions are constantly filled with stick-thin celebrities, diet ads, and negative messages about women’s bodies. So when a show has a woman-positive, even feminist message, it deserves recognition.
Enter Parks and Recreation, a sitcom about small government in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. In a recent episode, “Smallest Park,” simple-minded assistant Andy decides to take a class at a community college. By randomly pointing to a page in the course catalog with his eyes closed, he chooses Introduction to Women Studies.
In the first class, not only does the lecture fascinate Andy (who sits there open-mouthed and wide-eyed), but it also amazes the people with him: his sarcastic and apathetic wife April, and unflappable boss Ron. Women’s Studies is portrayed as a field that is interesting and relevant to all kinds of people. When the lecturer says that “many societal institutions were established solely to oppress women,” and “some feminists have even condemned marriage as a glorified form of slavery,” I couldn’t believe that this wasn’t being played as a joke.
Making fun of feminists is an easy TV joke—just throw in some crazy woman talking about how all men are monsters, add a laugh track, and you’re done. So it’s even more impressive that not only did Parks & Recreation resist this temptation, but they actually chose to promote Women’s Studies, making it seem not only serious and legitimate, but also exciting. At the end of the episode, Andy registers for the class.
This is not the first time that Parks & Recreation has gained feminist cred. The main character, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, is a woman trying to succeed in government who self-identifies as a feminist. There are dozens and dozens of examples of Leslie promoting feminist values (one of my favorites is in the episode “Beauty Pageant,” where she evaluates beauty queens based on something called “the Naomi Wolf factor”), but one great example is her love interests. While Leslie has a very spotty dating history (“Skywriting isn’t always positive,” she warns, reciting a list of her worst break-ups), both the men we see her date on-camera are entirely respectful of her as a working woman and a feminist.
Dave, a shy police officer (played by Louis CK), is intimidated by the pictures of powerful women Leslie has in her office (“Is that your grandmother?” he asks, pointing to a picture of Madeleine Albright). However, he goes home and does his homework, figuring out who all the women are so he can impress Leslie. Instead of being scared off by a smart, feminist woman, Dave works hard to show her that he’s worth it.
Ben, a nerdy budget consultant played by Adam Scott, first becomes smitten with Leslie in the episode “Flu Season,” when he sees her give an incredible pitch to local businesses under the influence of a terrible flu and three times the suggested amount of flu medicine. After the speech, Ben gushes to the camera, “That was amazing. That was a flu-ridden Michael Jordan at the ’97 NBA finals. That was Kirk Gibson hobbling up to the plate and hitting a homer off of Dennis Eckersley. That was Leslie Knope.”
His attraction to Leslie is based on her competence—on something amazing she can do, not just how she looks. And when they break up, it’s so that Leslie can pursue her political career, something Ben supports so much he even gets her a “Knope 2012” button as a break-up present.
The show isn’t perfect, but it’s a long way better than most TV shows. And the best part is that the show doesn’t even advertise itself as a feminist show, or try to market to women—it simply treats feminism and feminist values as something normal.
Check out this clip where Leslie tries to cover for someone else’s hunting accident for a great example of how the show acknowledges and criticizes sexism: