Feminism, Gender, and Politics in NBC’s «Parks and Recreation»

by Erika Engstrom (Author)
©2017 Textbook VIII, 146 Pages


Widely hailed as one of the best feminist-oriented series on television, NBC’s Parks and Recreation (2009–2015) presents a multifaceted text for examining the incorporation of feminist ideology into its storylines. This book analyzes the various ways the series presented feminism as a positive force, such as the satirical portrayal of patriarchy; alternative depictions of masculinity; the feminist ideology and political career of main character Leslie Knope; the inclusion of actual political figures; and depictions of love and romance as related to feminist thinking. A much-needed treatment that adds to the literature on feminism in media and popular culture, this book serves as an ideal resource for instructors and scholars of gender and mass media, women’s studies, and media criticism by investigating Parks and Recreation’s place in the continuum of other feminist-leaning television programs.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1. Primetime Feminist Strategies: The Case of Parks and Recreation
  • Beyond Primetime Feminism
  • Preview of Chapters
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2. Pawnee: Portrait in Patriarchy
  • A History in Murals
  • Portrait in Patriarchy
  • Levels of Control: State and Civil
  • Uncivil Civil Society: Oblivious Patriarchy
  • Modernizing Tradition: The Saga of Article Two
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Episodes Cited
  • References
  • Chapter 3. Pawnee’s “New Man”: Manly Men and Male Feminists
  • Mass Mediated Masculinities
  • Leslie’s Male Allies: Challenging Hegemonic Masculinity
  • Ron Swanson, Manly Man
  • Tom Haverford, “Mr. Swagger”
  • Chris Traeger, “The Perfect Human Being”
  • Ben Wyatt, “Elf King”
  • Jerry Gergich, a.k.a. Gary, Barry, Larry: Family Man
  • Andy Dwyer (Bert Macklin, FBI)
  • Emotional Expressivity as Common Thread
  • Ron Swanson, Woman of the Year
  • One Ticket for “Women,” Please
  • The Johnny Karate Way
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Episodes Cited
  • References
  • Chapter 4. Personal Politics and Everyday Feminism
  • On Beauty Pageants
  • Feminism and Sex Work: Stripping at The Glitter Factory
  • Pawnee Goddesses
  • Women in Garbage
  • Love, Leslie Style
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Episodes Cited
  • References
  • Chapter 5. “Knope We Can!”: Making Politics Personal
  • Leslie’s Wall of Inspirational Women
  • “Knope We Can!”
  • Leslie Meets Her Women and Men Heroes
  • “Pie Mary”
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Episodes Cited
  • References
  • Chapter 6. Parks and Recreation in the Continuum of Feminist Television
  • Notes
  • Episodes Cited
  • References
  • Index

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Team. This book is a labor of love by not only the author, but all those who helped her. I thank all those who brought the town of Pawnee to life and for providing viewers and those viewers who study and write about TV so many laughs, tears, and wonderful stuff to talk about with our students and fellow scholars. I thank those who provided me with their own research on Parks and Recreation: Isaac Mayeux, Rich Collins, and Joseph Sanders. I thank my colleague and fellow Parks fan Sara VanderHaagen for always listening. My department chair, David Henry, and my dean, Rob Ulmer, granted me the time I needed to finish this book. I thank the reviewers of both the proposal and the manuscript for their invaluable suggestions. I also need to thank some feminist rock stars who have fostered my career over these many years: Felicia Campbell and Sheila Gibbons. To my soul sister, Mary-Lou Galician: Arigato gozaimashita for your cheerleading. As always, Mary Savigar was there to usher this project along. Lastly, I have to acknowledge the constant love, support, and friendship of my own Ben Wyatt/Ron Swanson: my fiercely feminist partner, Ted Greenhalgh, Ph.D. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →

· 1 ·


The half-hour sitcom Parks and Recreation debuted on NBC in the spring of 2009. It ran for seven seasons, concluding in the spring of 2015. The situational setting of this half-hour series is the Department of Parks and Recreation in the small fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana, which serves as a small-screen venue for telling big-picture stories, especially the story of the optimistic and pragmatic Leslie Knope and her cadre of coworkers and friends who work together to make their town a better place. This betterment includes not only the improvements to the parks and recreation of Pawnee, but in the lives of its citizens. The potential for progress becomes especially salient when considering the overtly feminist beliefs of Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, and her tangible efforts and achievements regarding gender equity for the people of her town and, by extension, the world presented on television and the one lived by its viewers. Poehler herself personally identifies as feminist, and produces a web series titled “Smart Girls at the Party,” which promotes the achievements of young girls (Rosenberg, 2012). In addition to her lead role on Parks and Recreation, Poehler also is credited as a producer.

Most of the show’s episodes center on the dealings and goings-on, special projects, and daily tasks of the city employees. The description found on NBC’s web site for the program states: “From Emmy Award-winning executive ← 1 | 2 → producers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, this ensemble comedy follows mid-level bureaucrat Leslie Knope and her tireless efforts to make her American town more fun” (“About—Parks and Recreation,” n.d.). Modeled after its NBC progenitor, The Office (2005–2013), which at various times it either preceded or followed on that network’s Thursday night primetime scheduling block, it uses the mockumentary approach in which the series’ characters are followed by a team of (unidentified and unseen) filmmakers. Both Parks and Recreation and The Office were created by Daniels, who holds writing credits along with Schur. In addition to recording the parks and recreation employees in workplace and off-workplace interactions, footage includes characters speaking directly into the camera, in confessional-style segments familiar to viewers of reality programs. Despite its relatively low ratings, the show enjoyed numerous Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and won the American Film Institute’s Program of the Year in 2009 (“Awards for Parks and Recreation,” 2013).

As often happens, the treatment of real-life issues and problems depicted in a fictional television show, film, or other literary form becomes a way to bring attention to them. For example, Parks and Recreation offers a text with which to examine Americans’ view of government, politics, and civil servants. Hendershot (2013) noted how the program offered a “retort to the Right by insisting that government is a positive force that provides necessary, basic services” (p. 206), with the characters of Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson (Leslie’s boss) representing liberal and conservative-yet-libertarian political stances, respectively. Norman and Kelso (2012) addressed how these characters offer a reflection of the American public’s view of government, in that the sympathetic portrayal of Leslie Knope “offers an opportunity to heal the self-image of public administration students and practitioners,” while Ron Swanson, ironically, holds a deep disdain for the very government he works for, thus presenting “the flip side of bureaucrat bashing—citizen dismissal” (p. 145). Even though Norman and Kelso focused on the ways in which Parks and Recreation depicts municipal government, with that portrayal serving as a positive image of civil service, they also noted how Leslie saw herself as “part of the continuum of powerful female influences in government and integrates her feminism (and she actually uses the word) in much of her work serving the public” (p. 145). The positivity of feminism thus becomes part of not only the characterization of Leslie herself as the center of the show’s narrative, but also the essentiality of feminism as part of government, and by extension, the law. Taken to its logical conclusion, the resulting message is that gender equality ← 2 | 3 → can be and should be an implicit aspect of everyday life, including the civic and political spheres.

Parks and Recreation’s pro-woman, pro-equality messages have attracted positive attention from an array of media critics and feminist commentators, from major news outlets to feminist web sites and blogs (Becker, n.d.; Butcher, 2013; Dailey, 2010; Gandert, 2013; Moeschen, 2014; Moshenberg, 2011; Ryan, 2015; Sady, 2010; Stanley, 2015). Media attention and commentary have consistently praised the show’s treatment of feminism and feminist concerns, and the portrayal of women’s studies as legitimate and important (Becker, n.d.). Amy Poehler’s portrayal of the highly competent and much-loved Leslie Knope “is one of the most hilarious, positive portrayals of a woman anywhere on television” (Rosenberg, 2012). Poehler’s personal sensibilities, noted co-creator Greg Daniels, have influenced the onscreen portrayal of Leslie Knope; Daniels has described Poehler as “very knowing and very kind,” with Poehler’s own values coming through via the Knope character (Rorke, 2013).

The Poehler-Knope integration adds to a deliberative feminist perspective that characterizes Parks’s strategies for incorporating the ideals of gender equality into its text. Galo (2015), in an article in The Guardian, specifically addressed this conscious effort as emanating from the show’s creators, writers, and Poehler herself. “The creator of Parks and Recreation, Mike Schur, made sure that we were always speaking very intelligently and frankly about feminist subjects,” noted Parks writer Megan Amram, “and of course Amy [Poehler] has been such an amazing and vocal feminist presence in everything she does.” The women who surround Leslie, noted Amram, offered a countertype to other comedy treatments of female friendships in that “the women all love each other and are supportive of each other on our show in a way I think is so healthy” (Galo, 2015). Fellow Parks writer Aisha Muharrar pointed to the constant female presence in the show’s writing room: “At times, women were half the writing staff, which from what I’ve heard, is rare” (Galo, 2015). A formula that combined a serious treatment of feminism, a light comedic touch, female writers, and a feminist woman playing the central character surrounded by feminist characters thus resulted in what Whyte (2015) called the “casual, normalized feminism” of Parks.

Garnering accolades such as being a “giant feminist treat” (Wallace, 2009), perhaps “the most feminist show on television” (“Is Parks and Rec,” 2012), and “the most feminist sitcom on TV at the moment” (Wood, 2012), this program manages to offer an everyday version of feminism, one that promotes ← 3 | 4 → “feminism for everyone” (Magdalena, 2011). Stevens (2011), writing in The Atlantic, highlighted what seems as “intentionally pedestrian” storylines as an appeal of the program. This low-key approach and Everytown, U.S.A. setting combines with treatments of its women characters in non-stereotypical ways (Wood, 2012). On the popular culture site Paste, Gandert (2013) noted that in addition to main character Leslie Knope’s feminist politics, “Parks wants to be responsible, and part of that has always been actively pursuing feminism, not just having a strong female role model.”

Comparisons to NBC’s 30 Rock (2006–2013), which starred Poehler’s professional friend and former Saturday Night Live cast member Tina Fey, have made note of how the Leslie Knope character contrasted with Fey’s Liz Lemon (Dailey, 2010; Mizejewski, 2012). These observations included the Lemon character’s problematic characterization of a smart but unhappy self-professed feminist who lacks genuine female friendships, as opposed to Knope’s version that includes such relationships (Dailey, 2010). As Wallace (2009) explained, the reason for the rarity of the Leslie Knope character on primetime TV is because she is written as “a female comedic lead who is openly feminist, career-focused, kind, smart, optimistic, and multidimensional.” Its depiction of a competent, kind, serious, smart female—and other, similarly competent, kind, serious, and smart characters—makes Parks and Recreation an important example of televised feminism.

The overt manner in which feminism is depicted in this low-key, half-hour comedy show makes it unique among past offerings in the television landscape consisting of both broadcast and cable networks. In short, Parks and Recreation “simply treats feminism and feminist values as something normal” (Magdalena, 2011). Using textual analysis, in the following chapters I address the strategies by which this televisual artifact forwards a feminist agenda. By identifying both the subtle and overt ways in which feminist ideology is folded into the narrative and visual aspects of Parks and Recreation, I aim to contribute to the “understanding of the role that public discourse plays in women’s lives” by “producing scholarship geared toward creating positive change in women’s lives” (Dow, 1997, p. 104). Such scholarship becomes useful when integrated into course content, as textual examples can serve to reify theories and concepts, tying theory with practice. An accompanying goal of this book is to offer instructors of courses in gender and media, women’s studies, and gender communication ways to utilize episodes to illustrate feminist theory and practice. ← 4 | 5 →

Beyond Primetime Feminism

The central aim of the current inquiry undertaken by a scholar identifying as feminist is to uncover how the text in question—a television comedy—forwards any semblance of feminist advocacy. An appropriate starting point for the current inquiry is rhetorical and media scholar Bonnie Dow’s (1996) conception of feminism as a means by which people collectively and with intention effect changes in the current patriarchal power structure, which functions at both governmental and civil societal levels. Much of the research on the treatment of feminism in contemporary mass media, notably television and films, has taken the form of content analyses of specific media products with the aim of uncovering, unpacking, and revealing to what extent feminist ideology exists within narratives or presentation of characters. Dow (1992) analyzed the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown (1988–1998), for example, and found that while the on-the-surface feminism touted by press coverage surrounding the program and depiction of a strong female lead may have placed the series within a decidedly feminist vein, the polarized version of a feminist woman belied its feminist intentions. The characterization and portrayal of Murphy Brown refused to “permit integration of traditionally bifurcated masculine and feminine qualities attached to the public and private spheres” (p. 152). The program, according to Dow, illustrated the familiar theme of ambitious women not being able to have it all, that “a woman cannot be both professionally successful and retain traditional qualities of femininity” (p. 151). Further, she concluded, the framing of Murphy as a “comic scapegoat” whose comeuppances resulted from her character flaws (strong, willful, and unfeminine) made unappealing any violations of gender roles based on patriarchal rules of appropriate behavior.


VIII, 146
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (July)
Network television Comedy Mass media
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. VIII, 146 pp.

Biographical notes

Erika Engstrom (Author)

Erika Engstrom (Ph.D., University of Florida) is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of The Bride Factory: Mass Media Portrayals of Women and Weddings (Peter Lang, 2011) and co-author of Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2014).


Title: Feminism, Gender, and Politics in NBC’s «Parks and Recreation»