Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, and the Feminist Lessons of NBC's 'Parks and Recreation'

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From Newsweek

Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, and the Feminist Lessons of NBC's 'Parks and Recreation'

Liz Lemon, the fictional TV writer at the center of NBC’s hit show 30 Rock, is often cited as an example of the modern-day working woman and the face of modern feminism. Her appeal to smart, independent women is understandable; Lemon heads her department at work, struggles with that elusive work/life balance, fights stereotypes about body image and "ladylike" behavior, and often feels like the only sane voice in an office full of lunatics.

But Liz Lemon’s feminism can be problematic. At least, that’s what TigerBeatdown blogger Sady Doyle argues in a fantastic post published last month. She outlines 13 different ways of thinking about Lemon, but here are some of the highlights:
1.    Lemon is portrayed as an “exceptional” woman: the only smart, capable woman in a field of slutty, slobby, neurotic morons. The other women on the show, notes Doyle, are not friends or equals, but reminders that other girls can be so, so dumb—and therefore not worthy of feminism’s spoils.

There is Jenna, of course, whose plotlines typically center around how vapid, unstable, narcissistic, and foolishly ambitious she is; there is Cerie ... whose main role was to use her extremely beautiful body as a means to set up punchlines, those punchlines usually consisting of men getting turned on by her extremely beautiful body, and whose few character moments indicated that she was shallow, oversexed, and profoundly stupid ... there is “Girl Writer,” who had fewer lines than even Josh, to the extent of only having a speaking part in one episode. And the episode culminated with a joke about Girl Writer being date raped.

Liz barely interacts with any of these women. She certainly doesn’t have a deep friendship with any of them ... If Liz interacts with Jenna out of any feeling at all, these days, it’s frustration and the desire to condescend.

2.    The corollary point to that is that Liz spends time almost exclusively with the men in her office or whoever her current boyfriend may be.That current boyfriend of course, soon becomes an ex, because as we're repeatedly told, Liz is SO BAD with men.

She can’t keep a boyfriend, she’s never been married, she rarely has sex, in the company of men she’s awkward, weird, dorky, inappropriate, too smart, not sexy enough, too opinionated, not giving enough, just plain wrong. More than one man on the show has compared her to the comic strip “Cathy.” These qualities are frequently endearing to other women, or frankly irrelevant; there’s a reason so many women, including me, relate to the character. But women never show up and become important to Liz. Instead, she’s got hot- and cold-running boys.

3.    Liz Lemon's defining characteristic is that of an unlucky but principled loser, creating mixed messages about what women should aim for, who they should root for, and what they must give up in the process.   

The character of Liz Lemon is played by beautiful, successful, smart, funny, apparently happy person Tina Fey, and is meant to be unattractive, only semisuccessful, smart, funny, and unhappy. It’s interesting that “smart” and “funny” get to stay in the picture, as long as the looks, the success, and the happiness are toned down; it tells you something about who you’re allowed to like. Cerie, on the other hand, is beautiful, unsuccessful (and unambitious), not smart, not funny, and very happy. And we simply aren’t meant to like her much.

It’s a very bracing, thoughtful, and witty critique, and  has created a fantastic discussion over at Doyle's site: some commenters have argued that Liz Lemon is in fact a conscious parody of traps women fall into, some say that Doyle is overstating these qualities while ignoring Liz's better traits, and some argue that grading women's attitudes towards empowerment—“good” feminism vs. “bad” feminism—does more harm than good.
This discussion recalls a similarly intelligent post written by Melissa McEwan last year. McEwan had grown frustrated with Tina Fey—Liz Lemon’s creator and portrayer—representing the Face of American Feminism. Sometimes, she wrote, she wants to post a critique examining the way Fey excludes or misinterprets some basic feminist principles. And yet:

if Tina Fey weren't positioned as Hollywood's Token Feminist, and if, instead, the entertainment industry was filled with fabulous feminist and womanist women of every stripe and shape and color and age and sexuality and gender and ability and philosophy, whose ideas and projects and opinions were everywhere, as ubiquitous as the ideas and projects and opinions of misogynists, if that's the world in which we lived, I wouldn't even have to care about Tina Fey.

Programs on air now do have a slightly larger range of female—though not always feminist—characters: Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, the Middle each present a different and nuanced view of white, young-ish, able-bodied, middle-class modern womanhood. But the day that McEwan writes about is still in the future. Until that day comes, however, anyone looking for a perspective different from Liz Lemonism should please consider Leslie Knope.  
Knope is the protagonist of Parks and Recreation, another show on NBC’s Thursday-night block. She’s a goody-goody and a little bit of a pill, the too-earnest assistant director of the Pawnee, Indiana, parks department. Like Lemon, she’s a slightly awkward overachiever, unlike Lemon, she has an overinflated estimate of the importance of her job, which at the end of the day is that of small-town civil servant.
Leslie’s a staunch advocate for the advancement of all women through mentorship programs, positive role models, or grating, often unsolicited pep talks. She believes in equal opportunity for, and the untapped potential of, women. She cultivates and values female friendships: witness Galentine’s Day, the amazing ritual she puts on for her female friends every February 13, complete with gift bags and affirmations for the important women in her life. She interacts with her female coworkers, talking to them about more than boys and babies.   
After some early jokes about how bad she was with guys, we’ve seen Knope date (for the most part) handsome, intelligent, noncrazy men; her two sustained relationships have been mature and realistic. They ended not because of her horrible man-keeping skills, or because she’s such a workaholic, but because for various believable reasons, they weren’t working out. She’s a career-minded gal who balances work and personal life. She's in her mid-30s, but doesn’t spend her downtime fantasizing about children or weddings (unlike Liz Lemon, who at one point is so consumed with maternal urges that she steals a baby).

Leslie is competent. She’s good at lots of things—hunting, golf, her job—and isn’t afraid to admit it (due, in part, to her social tone-deafness. "Guys love it when you can show them you're better than they are at something they love," she says in one episode.) Her work is valued, her eagerness tolerated, her role respected by those who know and love her—and her friends and coworkers do love her, rather than pity her, patronize to her, or put up with her.

So what would Leslie Knope think about Liz Lemon? That’s the best part, and the most telling: Leslie would be proud of Liz’s accomplishments. She would respect her desire for a husband and baby, and admire her career achievements. She’d encourage her efforts to get more respect as a female executive, while encouraging Lemon to reach out to the other women in her office. Leslie Knope understands that women’s advancement is about the advancement of all women, and that women need support from one another just as much—in fact, much more—than they need approval and access from the men that surround them. She might get frustrated with Liz; they may butt heads or disagree on certain points. But at the end of the day, Leslie realizes that she doesn't need to compete with "Liz Lemonism," and she's not interested in besting Liz, shaming Liz, or proving Liz wrong. Instead, Leslie wants for Liz exactly what Liz wants for Liz: the freedom and confidence make choices, the ability to command respect, and the opportunity to achieve all her goals.

Because Leslie Knope, overambitious dreamer that she is, believes that all women deserve those same advantages.

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