I’ve mentioned that I’m on a hardcore Living Single kick (TVOne really needs to have a marathon so I won’t run through my DVR backlog every night), and it struck me that one of the reasons I love the show, in addition to its specificity on race and its Friends-without-the-dopiness vibe, is that Khadijah James reminds me a lot of Leslie Knope.
First, there’s their collective hyper-competence — and exasperation when other people aren’t as committed as they are or up to their exacting standards. I’ve always appreciated the way that Leslie’s collective enthusiasm spills over to her friends and colleagues, turning Ann Perkins from a concerned citizen into a committed government employee (even if she was super-bossy about that final transition); inspiring everyone to reach for new heights to honor Lil’ Sebastian; convincing Ron to save her job even though on principal he’d love to see enthusiastic people like her get out of government and to see government wither away behind them. She gets so much pleasure out of work done right that she’s genuinely uncomfortable when someone like Ann isn’t as excited for or anxious about a job interview as Leslie herself is, and she can’t resist jollying along someone as terminally apathetic as April. Leslie is the rare television character who runs the constant risk of being annoying, but because she’s enthusiastic, rather than wacky. And she redeems herself by painting a vision so compelling everyone else wants to go along with it. She’s the rare female television character her show doesn’t feel the need to humiliate or cut down in any way. Leslie is allowed to be Wonder Woman. Or Diaphina. Take your pick.
Khadijah’s less strange than Leslie — the entire universe of Living Single is more realistic and less hyper-real in the Parks and Recreation. But it’s cool to see her conquer the challenges of publishing (and it’s a nostalgic look back at the industry as it was more than a decade ago). In one episode, she’s working on a corruption story (Living Single has really nice, smart roots in local government with Max’s side gig as city councilwoman) when her parent company forces her to hire an arrogant but brilliant reporter who wants the story for himself. She puts up with him turning in notes to her on candy wrappers, rolling into the office late, and generally mouthing off to her employees, but when he concocts a complicated scheme to get himself arrested to get close to a key source, she shuts him down and reports the story herself. When a rival magazine starts ripping off Flavor, there’s a great screwball sequence of Khadijah getting in trouble for taking down literally every flyer the competitor’s posted in New York City — she only got busted when she stole an absolutely enormous sign and lugged it all the way home. Khadijah’s more stressed than Leslie, but she also has to hustle harder than her Pawnee counterpart, who’s had several seasons of making governing look effortless. And again, the show walks a fine line between showing those struggles and cutting her down to size: an episode where she seeks therapy is genuinely touching and funny.
Leslie and Khadijah are also not the most conventionally attractive women in the casts of the shows they’re on, but both shows are committed to the idea that they’re almost irresistibly sexy and romantically successful. It might have been easy to treat Leslie as Ann’s nerdier best friend in matters of the heart, but Leslie’s love life seems somewhat more successful than Ann’s does. And people tend to single her out as unusually attractive, whether it’s Jerry taking her as an accidental muse or Jean-Ralphio thanking his lucky stars he’s finally gotten a chance with her. Similarly, Khadijah could have ended up second fiddle to the romantic travails of Barbie-pretty Regine or skinnier Max (I appreciate the way she’s essentially a black female Jughead). Instead, men can’t resist her. Her reportorial rival at the Village Voice courts her even as she hustles past him to a blockbuster story. Grant Hill falls for her — and when she breaks his heart, Alonzo Mourning says he’d love to date her but hears she has a reputation for loving and leaving them. It’s just profoundly refreshing to have these shows see these very attractive, interesting women as they are, instead of assigning them pathetic places in the warped hierarchy that is Hollywood attractiveness. And it’s kind of depressing that across the media, female characters this complete and this undefeated are so rare.