The key question at the end of the last, excellent season of Parks and Recreation was how Leslie, who has just embarked on a relationship with Ben, who is nominally her boss, will balance that romance with the chance to run for Pawnee City Council. In a weird way, I’m more interested in the news that she’ll choose between them rather than try to balance both.
The trope of a career woman who figures out how to have it all is one of the most common sub-narratives in romantic comedies. I don’t actually think it’s impossible for women to simultaneously have upwardly mobile career trajectories, and that there is a lot to think about when those sort of stories are done in creative and thoughtful ways. I think Leslie and Ben represent a couple whose careers have the potential for real emotional implications for each other, especially if Leslie’s campaign makes Ben feel insecure about his past failure as mayor, or if his past struggles make her feel anxiety about her ability to perform the job she desperately wants. But I do think the idea that a female character might want something other than a man enough to pick that is an emotion that’s essentially verboten in popular culture. At the end of The Help, Skeeter’s happily single, but she’s dumped by her racist boyfriend rather than kicking him to the curb to head up to New York and set the publishing world on fire. So if Parks and Recreation has Leslie pick City Council over Ben, or has her choose Ben and then spend half the season regretting it, I think it’ll be doing something rare.
And more than that, I’d like to see more romances that don’t have purely happy endings, that have the characters choose not to be in relationships; that have characters compromise to stay in relationships and make the case for that; to have characters have relationships that are good for a time, but are not meant to be permanent. The Wall Street Journal points to a study that suggests mothers who expect that balancing their professional and personal lives will not be difficult are at a greater risk for depression. It would be nice to have more pop culture that reflects that those balances are difficult for everyone, and that affirms that while choosing between priorities may not be fantasy-land style optimal, it’s not a sign of failure and can in fact be a sign of growth.