In 2012, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) ran a successful campaign to become Pawnee, Indiana, city councilor. It is, perhaps, one of the most celebrated campaigns in recent memory led by a female candidate who achieved near-universal adoration. It is also fictional.
A decade after Parks and Recreation‘s season 4 (2011), real-life female political candidates are still betting on the “Knope We Can” campaign strategy. Boise, Idaho, council member Luci Willits refers to herself as “the Republican version of Leslie Knope” in a 2022 profile of her for her local paper. In Washington State, Kelli Hughes-Ham, who in 2022 is running for election to the Washington House of Representatives, lists Leslie Knope as the “fictional character she would most want to be” in her response to Ballotpedia’s Candidate Connection survey. Indeed, a Google search for “Ballotpedia” and “Leslie Knope” results in over a dozen candidate profiles claiming Knope as an aspirational figure.
Emily Styron, former Parks Department Deputy Director and current Mayor of Zionsville, Indiana, declared, “I am Leslie Knope” in a 2022 interview. Similarly, current Kansas Governor Laura Kelly is often called a “real-life Leslie Knope” because Kelly ran the Kansas Recreation and Parks Association before she was elected Governor. This shared job title certainly makes Kelly’s and Styron’s claim to the “Leslie Knope” title more legitimate – but what are we to make of all these “Leslie Knopes” on the campaign trail?
Why are these real women candidates so drawn to likening themselves to a fictional character–one whose show is no longer even on the air? There are real women holding important offices in the US: in congress, on the Supreme Court, and even in the Vice-President office. When candidates and elected officers appeal to Knope, what are they signaling? It seems that Knope’s figure is a “stand-in” for a hopeful, energetic feminist appeal. This approach, however, may not straightforwardly operate in the real world.
Indeed, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope represents a brand of white female empowerment in the political sphere. However, a closer look at this character reveals that Leslie Knope’s postfeminist outlook undermines her campaign, destabilizes her identity, and ironically stalls her feminist undertakings. In fact, by the time election day arrives for Pawnee, Leslie Knope has been forced to change tack and rethink her understanding and presentation of female empowerment.
When she begins her campaign, Knope’s ethos is influenced by the perspective of postfeminism, what scholars Kristina Horn Sheeler and Karrin Vasby Anderson define in their book Woman President (2017) as “the politically charged assertion that feminism’s work is complete, and, therefore, feminist policies are irrelevant or unnecessary”. Put another way, Leslie Knope’s persona is one of “girl power”, an almost joking assertion that men and boys are stupid, immature, and untrustworthy. In contrast, women are smart and capable and must step in to clean up the messes boys make. The phrase, when uttered by a young woman, is typically accompanied by an eye roll and a small smile.
Leslie Knope makes her first public hint of her plans to run for City Council of Pawnee when giving a press conference responding to one male city hall employee’s acts of sexual harassment. She states, “When men in government behave this way, they betray the public’s trust. Maybe it’s time for more women to be in charge”. It’s that “soundbite” about women being in charge that causes Knope’s advisors to push forward the official announcement of her campaign, revealing that this position on gender and competence is central to her position as a candidate: She is a woman, and therefore she should be elected.
Inherent to this postfeminist positioning is the belief that gender-based oppression and discrimination are largely over – that outright sexism and misogyny are rare and quickly dismissed by the majority as outdated and backward. In taking a postfeminist approach, Leslie Knope is running her campaign assuming that greater female representation is necessary and, to some degree, inevitable. The days of outright gender-based discrimination are supposedly over.
This perspective comes through in the “Pawnee Rangers” episode of Parks and Recreation. Notably, this episode explicitly mentions Leslie Knope’s campaign, but it subtly reveals much about her thoughts on gender and its role in leadership.
Leslie Knope and her co-worker Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) are the leaders of the male and female scouting groups: The Pawnee Rangers and the Pawnee Goddesses. As both prepare for weekend camping trips, Knope seems desperate to “beat” the boys. She insists that Swanson admit “her club is better”. In this exchange with Swanson, Knope mocks a sexist perspective, saying in an exaggerated southern accent “Oh, my stars. I’m just a little lady. My fragile constitution cannot handle the fearsome outdoors”. When Ron responds, “I have no problem with strong women, ” Leslie doubles down, replying, “Who’s Leslie? My name is Annabelle Vandergraf, and, y’all, I just fall to pieces when the sun shines on my hair”.
Notably, when expressing sexist ideas, Knope applies them to a fake persona, even giving herself a fake name, implying that she believes those sexist tropes, even though they may have existed somewhere, sometime, couldn’t possibly be levied at her now. But, as viewers, we know that’s not true. We’re told in this scene that the Pawnee Rangers kept girls out of their club to give boys space away from them.
However, on some level, Leslie seems to know that postfeminism doesn’t ring true. Her insistence that her all-girl club is “better” than the all-boy club– even when Ron does not want to play along – perhaps reveals a preoccupation with gender that may very well come from what she is facing as a political candidate. In the internal timeline of the show, Leslie Knope has already encountered some setbacks to her campaign that could be linked to sexist notions (such as when her advisors reveal that 13% of Pawneeans think she’s “crazy-eyed”).
Because of her postfeminist position, Knope does not see these as structural, sexist issues. Instead, she responds by trying to be more “likable”. Likeability is one of those concepts that, on the surface, appear gender-neutral, but it comes up far more often for women in positions of power than it does for men in the same positions. We see this in the “Campain Ad” episode, which features Leslie declaring that she “hates negative ads and [she] would never do one in a million years”. Instead, her ad hilariously is just her listing a litany of things that she supports without ever mentioning politics or that she’s a candidate for city council–a stance that, while charming, makes enacting structural change nearly impossible.
Leslie’s desire to be liked and the repressed sexist notions that often hide can be seen in the episode “Bowling for Votes”. Here, she becomes obsessed with receiving the approval of a male Pawnee citizen, Derek (Kevin Dorff), who said Leslie seemed “uptight” and that she wasn’t “the kind of person you could go bowling with”. When Ben (Adam Scott), Leslie’s boyfriend and campaign advisor, first reviews these comments with her, Leslie says, “That is so sexist. It’s just because I’m a woman. Would they deign to say such things to Woodrow Wilson or Benjamin Disraeli…?” but as Ben smirks at her, she stops herself, seemingly taking back that comment and admitting “okay, I see what you’re talking about”. Leslie comes close to acknowledging the implicit biases and structural sexism in play but ultimately dismisses that perspective because pointing such matters out makes her less likable.
Instead, Leslie hosts a bowling night as a campaign event and engages in increasingly dramatic actions to win over Derek. Tellingly, when Ben asks why she is so hung up on this comment, she replies, “I can’t do anything about my gender or my height, but I can win that guy over”. But it becomes increasingly clear that the issue is Leslie’s gender. Derek dismisses Leslie, interrupts her as she’s talking, tells her, “try not to break a nail”, and later says that if he beats her in a game of bowling, she needs to “clean his house for a month”.
Eventually, Derek says he will vote for Leslie: he’ll “just write in ‘bitch’”. This is the first of a few interactions wherein Leslie learns that some people aren’t going to like her, regardless of her skill, talent, or qualifications – these are things that people “wouldn’t deign” to say to male candidates. In these cases, “likeability” isn’t worth pursuing.
Shortly after that realization, Leslie participates in the city council candidate debate. Her opening statement ends with the claim, “I believe that I’ve earned your vote. Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) [her competitor] believes he can buy it. And maybe that’s because he’s never earned anything his entire life”. This claim is almost word-for-word the “negative ad” Ben made that Leslie refused to run. Giving some credit to her instincts, it doesn’t work. The debate moderator chides her to “keep it civil”, and Ben advises that she’s “coming off as a bully”.
Leslie, however, doesn’t retreat into her everything-is-perfect-all-the-time optimism or worry that her harsh but true critique will make her less likable. She is emboldened in this new approach due to her competitor’s significant threat to Pawnee. As the son of the richest man in town, Bobby wields considerably more privilege than the average Pawnee citizen. Bobby reveals – in cartoon villain fashion – that if Leslie is elected, he’ll get his father to move his company Sweetums Candy – the largest “provider of jobs and candy” for Pawnee – out of the country. Leslie is advised to “deal with the fallout tomorrow”, but instead, she pauses and smiles, confident and relaxed, saying, “I can do it. I can crush him.” She then gives her closing statement, which reads, in part:
I’m angry that Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage and threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. It’s despicable. Corporations are not allowed to dictate what a city needs. […] I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t threaten it. You don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your city councilor, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on strong, it’s because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you… I’m not going anywhere.
This statement is just as, if not more, critical of Bobby Newport, but it’s received differently. Even Bobby exclaims, “that was awesome.” It’s this Leslie Knope that candidates in 2022 hope to emulate: one who makes real change and helps the people of her town. It’s true, the real-world American voters like this Leslie–at least at that moment. They elect her to office. But to get there, she had to give up being likable and move beyond a postfeminist perspective.
It’s too soon to know how an association with Knope will influence the 2022 election results–of the previous candidates who mentioned Knope in their Ballotpedia surveys, 5 out of 14 (all Democrats) ended up winning. The “Republican Leslie Knope”, Luci Willits, is settling into her first term on City Council. Perhaps the fictional Knope’s example can make real-world candidates likable to voters–perhaps even likable enough to get elected.
What then? As Leslie learns, being a feminist instead of a postfeminist is a more difficult, precarious position. Her actions while in office, including passing public health measures and advocating for comprehensive sex education, prove unpopular enough to get her recalled and voted out of office. Her work on the city council can be considered feminist – perhaps too feminist for the voters who liked the postfeminist Leslie Knope better. In Parks and Recreation, Leslie’s feminist actions helped her town. According to the show’s finalé, Knope would become Governor of Indiana, and viewers are left with the possibility that she might one day be President of the United States.
This, however, is the bind in which female politicians and candidates often find themselves: a feminist stance equips them to advance important causes, but a postfeminist stance is often more pleasing to funders, supporters, and voters and, therefore key to securing office. Parks and Recreation‘s Leslie Knope embodies a both/and approach to the postfeminist/feminist divide. Perhaps, that is why she is still so prevalent in political rhetoric today. She is a model of postfeminism ideology, certainly, but her character develops in such a way that room is left for real feminist activism too.
Leslie Knope-types could enact radical, feminist changes without betraying their association with Knope. More than anything, the no longer aired Park and Recreation‘s Leslie Knope remains visible in today’s politics because she reminds voters that women have–and will continue to–navigate complicated terrain and adapt to ever-changing circumstances to get elected to public office – and then to get things done.
Horn Sheeler, Kristina and Anderson, Karrin Vasby. Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture. Texas A&M University Press. 2017.