For a show that was initially pitched as a spin-off of the US version of The Office (2005–13), Parks And Recreation (2009–15) did a lot more than poke fun at the ludicrousness of local government bureaucrats. Through its main character Leslie Knope – played by Amy Poehler – it created an accidental feminist icon with a woman who was smart, unapologetically earnest, ambitious, loyal, nerdy, progressive and sweet all rolled into one. These were character traits that were previously used (and frequently) to define female foils in film and television – see Kimberley (Cameron Diaz) in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) – yet such was the strength of the series writing and the strength of Poehler’s portrayal that Knope morphed into something even the creators Greg Daniels and Mike Shur admitted they “never intended”.
In modern times, you know a character has reached feminist icon pop culture status if they end up on Etsy. That is to say, mugs, t-shirts, crochet wall-hangings, badges and more all with the likeness of said character and usually one of their more famous quotes. Leslie Knope hit that marker at specific point in Parks and Recreation’s seven-season, 125-episode run. Namely, with the tenth episode of the second season Hunting Trip (2009) where Leslie pushes to have the marginalised in the office – including herself – join Ron (Nick Offerman), Jerry (Jim O'Heir) and Mark (Paul Schneider) on their annual boys hunting trip. Originally dismissive and more than a little sexist about her attendance and ability to hunt, Ron and the others are surprised to learn Leslie is an efficient hunter. In fact, more efficient than they are.
“Guys love it when you can show them you're better than they are at something they love,” she says, beaming, directly to the camera in the mockumentary style of the show. The joke, of course, is they don’t “love” that and Leslie is either oblivious to this fact or hopeful that a woman’s ability doesn’t equate to a man’s inability. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” said prominent feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a speech that was later sampled by Beyoncé on her track Flawless. “We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”
Leslie Knope never does that and interlocked with this idea of who the character is Poehler’s real-life persona. As one of the first female cast members to find mainstream success off the back of Saturday Night Live (1975–present), she navigated her way through one of Hollywood’s most prominent boys clubs just like Leslie had to navigate her way through the boys club of politics (and the boys club of the specific episode, where the men feel threatened and emasculated by the fact a bubbly blonde is better at taking down quail with a rifle than they are). One of the ways Poehler did this is through foundational female friendships with fellow SNL alumni and frequent collaborators like Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch. Foundational female friendships were also seminal to Leslie succeeding both professionally and personally, namely Ann (Rashida Jones), April (Aubrey Plaza), and Donna (Retta). And Poehler, just like Leslie, never shied away from speaking about her beliefs in her work: from the “bitches get stuff done” SNL moment to launching Smart Girls, an initiative designed to support and young women.
“Guys love it when you can show them you're better than they are,” says Leslie, but it could have just as easily been dialogue straight out of Poehler’s mouth (even though it technically was). Outside of the context of the episode, it has become one of Leslie Knope and Parks and Recreation’s most enduring lines, speaking to the legion of feminist fans who have emblazoned it on homemade merch. Leslie is aspirational to many women who feel like they have had to dim their personal shine in order to make a man or men feel less inferior. Neither Poehler or Leslie ever do and, in part, that’s what has led to her justified icon status.
– Maria Lewis