Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
There is no shortage of smart and amazing working women in my life who inspire and encourage me: my mom, my friends, my coworkers. I’m very lucky to have them. But, as a creative person, I’m constantly looking for more inspiration — the kind that sparks big and new ideas and pushes me out of my comfort zone. I never thought I’d find that person in a network sitcom. And, yet, Parks and Recreation — and more specifically the main character, Leslie Knope — has shown me the light.
I didn't love Leslie Knope from the start. In the early episodes, she’s kind of grating — overeager and baldly ambitious. It seems Amy Poehler and the gang hadn’t quite figured out the purpose of their show in the first season. Was it The Office set in Indiana? Was Leslie Knope just Michael Scott in a Macy’s pantsuit?
But, there is a line in the first episode that gives viewers a glimpse of what’s to come. It sums up Leslie in just a few words, and while it’s a little silly — some might even say pathetic — it introduced me to the role model I didn’t know I was looking for:
“I’m barely 34, and I’ve already landed a Parks Department exploratory subcommittee. I’m a rocket ship!”
I love to work. And, I’m ambitious. Those are not necessarily popular things to say, but they’re true. I think that’s why I find it so easy to relate to Leslie Knope. She loves to work, too, and she’s not afraid to admit it. Over and over again, she proves her dedication to her job, working through government shutdowns and suspensions. Sure, she gets discouraged sometimes, like when coworker Ron Swanson wins the Woman of the Year award for her project, or when she feels outdone by the Parks Department in Eagleton. But, at the end of the day, she truly believes in what she does, even if her job involves a lot of red tape and governmental bullshit. She doesn’t mind clearing the parks of rabid raccoons and pushing drunks out of slides; she always goes above and beyond. Leslie wants to prove that women can do anything men can do, whether it’s working as garbage collectors or being elected President of the United States. Yes, she wants bigger things for herself, but she never lets her ambition get in the way of the day-to-day grind, and I find that so admirable.
One of the show’s best episodes is season 3, episode 2, when the citizens of Pawnee — Leslie included — get struck with the flu. Of course, it’s bad timing, because she’s trying to get the Harvest Festival off the ground by hosting a huge forum with dozens of local business leaders. She’s sick in the hospital, but she sneaks back to the meeting and in a fever-induced haze gives the speech of her career. Ben is rightly in awe:
“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...that was Leslie Knope.”
But, the thing about Leslie Knope — beyond the binders and the workaholic tendencies, beyond her love of meetings and subcommittees — is that she still wants a life. She looks for love. She is a fantastic friend. Some of the show’s sweetest scenes capture her unlikely friendship with mustachioed, meat-eating, secret-sax-playing man’s man Ron Swanson. Despite his raging libertarianism, he admires her faith in government and becomes a kind of mentor and one of her closest friends. And, any scene that involves Leslie and best friend Anne Perkins getting drunk is worth watching more than once. Also, hos before bros; uteruses before duderuses. Leslie struggles to juggle her career and personal life, and sometimes it doesn’t work out the way she wants it to. But, at the end of the day, she has an amazing support group to keep her going.
Parks and Rec really delves into the issues of working women trying to have it all in a way that few shows have done successfully. And, part of that portrayal is exploring the highs and lows of Ben and Leslie’s relationship. Here are two very ambitious people trying to figure out how to make love and careers work at the same time — and it’s rough. Leslie considers breaking up with Ben in order to run for public office. The two risk their careers to have a relationship, and Ben even loses his job when they make things public. They fight over her campaign. He moves to DC, and they struggle with a long-distance relationship. They have trouble finding enough time to spend together. They may be fictional, but their relationship is so real — and it’s so relatable (okay, okay, and filled with so many “awwww”-inducing moments).
Any working woman knows how hard it is to find enough hours in the day for your career and your personal life. And, sometimes you fail at it; sometimes you get it wrong. But, Leslie Knope would argue it’s worth fighting to have it all. And, there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, working hard, loving what you do, loudly declaring your enthusiasm for your friends and your partner and breakfast foods. In an era when it seems no one wants to admit to having strong feelings about anything, Leslie is there to remind us it’s good to feel things.
Last year, I told a colleague that she reminded me of Leslie Knope. I think she was a little offended, but I honestly couldn’t think of a higher compliment. This woman is strong, organized, funny, crazy-smart, and supportive (not to mention the fact she does a mean Kaitlin impression). Despite many years of working with terrible female coworkers (think of all the stereotypical struggles of working with other women), this particular colleague reinstated my faith in my own gender. She's just like Leslie.
We've since gone our separate ways, on to new jobs, and I landed at Refinery29, where I'm very lucky to work with a host of Leslie Knopes. Everywhere I look, there are smart, ambitious women who inspire me daily and push me to work harder. Some days, when I edit an amazing story, have a great idea, or receive positive reader feedback, I feel like a total rocket ship. On days I don't, there's always Leslie Knope — and all her real-life counterparts — to encourage me to accomplish my goals. They make me believe I can have it all, with a side of waffles.