Television

The Politics of Parks & Rec: Is Leslie Knope Still a Progressive Hero in 2024?

Buckle up, Parks & Rec fans, because this one is going to feel personal.

This week, Parks & Recreation celebrates 15 years since its premiere. It’s a monumental anniversary, especially for a show that is still beloved by fans around the world.

For fifteen years, Leslie Knope has been high on the list of the best characters of all time. With a heart of gold, ambition for days, and an unmatched love for her community, Leslie captured our affections from the very first episode.

The Leslie Knope of 2009 was a passionate and tenacious go-getter who fiercely loved her friends, her neighbors, and her job. When we watch the show back, we still see her passion and tenacity.

But did she and her fellow Parks employees have flaws that we overlooked because fifteen years ago, we didn’t know any better? How well does the show hold up today when viewed through a modern lens?

Look, Leslie will always have a special place in our hearts. But if we find out that the characters we’ve long emulated may not be as perfect as we thought, we might have a responsibility to unpack that.

For starters, Leslie starts the first season off with a pretty strong dose of slut-shaming. Parks and Recreation Season 1 Episode 3 introduces a recurring character, Shauna Mallway-Tweep. However you feel about Shauna, put that aside and stay with me here.

Leslie deals with her obvious jealousy about Shauna dating Mark Brendanowicz by repeatedly making comments about Shauna.

I don’t mean to complain, but I think Shauna is being a little unprofessional. She got here 15 minutes late. She’s wearing the same dress she wore yesterday.

Leslie

Granted, this is early on in the series, and characters do grow. But unfortunately this isn’t the only example of Leslie being less than a “girl’s girl.”

Leslie’s treatment of Ann Perkins throughout the series is varied. Sure, she often calls her sweet nicknames (we’re partial to “rainbow infused space unicorn”).

But what about the times when she steamrolls Ann over her dating history or her professional goals?

Ann and Leslie get into a huge fight in Parks and Recreation Season 3 Episode 13 that was always hard to watch, but somehow it’s worse now.

Ann talks about how frustrated she is with Leslie, and for good reason. Even if we ignore the way she pushed Ann into a job she wasn’t sure about, the way she spoke to Ann during that fight was incredibly rude.

It’s not just the way she treats other women. Some of Leslie’s scenes with characters of color on Parks and Rec are hard to look back at now.

Remember when she pushed Tom Haverford to tell her where he was actually from after he said he was born in South Carolina?

That’s just one unfortunate example of racism from Leslie. She regularly remarks on how Ann is “ethnically ambiguous,” making a big deal out of Ann’s race even when it clearly makes her uncomfortable.

Aside from the racism and internalized misogyny, Leslie is just generally unkind a lot of the time.

We get that there’s a running gag where everyone makes fun of Jerry, but it’s honestly pretty unfunny. What was it about the 2010s that made it so cool to be cruel to people?

It’s reminiscent of the way Michael Scott treats Toby on The Office. What exactly is the punchline?

Surely there are better ways to be funny and unite a group of people that don’t involve being cruel to someone.

It feels important to note that Leslie wasn’t some kind of monster. She was often generous and loving and supportive to the people around her.

Honestly, when Leslie was at her best, she was incredible. She was an amazing wife to Ben — thoughtful and open-minded.

Ignoring the time she broke Ron Swanson‘s heart by standing him up (we’re still not over that), she was typically a wonderful friend to him.

She mentored April and spent time and resources helping her achieve her dreams. She also gave Andy opportunities he might not have had without her taking a chance on him.

As a community leader, she was smart, passionate, and in tune with what her constituents needed. It took years, but she finally got that park built, didn’t she?

She was never perfect. It’s hard looking back critically on characters we’ve loved for so long because it almost feels like a betrayal.

But in order to keep growing, we have to make sure we’re not ignoring glaring issues for the sake of preserving who we thought a character was.

If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that we can’t give passes for problematic behavior just because we like someone.

Misogyny and racism can never be excused. Leslie was, of course, a complicated character. She was widely regarded as one of the best sitcom bosses on television.

When we look back at characters from our TV past like Leslie, we do it in hopes of recognizing the problematic tropes we let slide before.

In doing so, we can learn and grow and find ways to engage with content that doesn’t punch down.

Does that mean we can’t enjoy a binge of Parks & Rec on Peacock when we’re in need of a comfort show? Definitely not. It just means we don’t pretend it was perfect to avoid confronting social issues that need to be addressed.

So, what say you, fanatics? Let us know in the comments if you think we were too harsh (or not harsh enough) on our old friend Leslie.

Haley Whitmire White is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow her on X.

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