Leslie Knope and the Challenges for Female Candidates

Amanda Marcotte and I are usually on the same page when it comes to pop culture, and I think this season of Parks and Recreation has been a bit rocky. But I think she’s somewhat off in tracing the show’s problems to Leslie’s relationship with Ben:

Then the writers decided Leslie needed a boyfriend. This shouldn’t be a problem in itself; Leslie has had boyfriends before without any meaningful compromises to her character. For some reason, however, the writers decided that hooking Leslie up with Ben, a nerdy assistant city manager played by Adam Scott, meant returning to tedious Hollywood clichés about how women can’t have both their careers and their love lives. To drive the knife in, throughout season four, Leslie stops being the hero of her own story and spends much of her time being rescued by her new boyfriend…the formerly competent administrator needed Ben to rescue her at every turn. When Leslie, who once swiftly dumped a boyfriend to keep the job she had, finds herself unable to break up with this new boyfriend to get the job she has always wanted, Ben saves her by dumping her first. Ben also comes to the rescue when their relationship is revealed to their boss; he quits so that Leslie doesn’t lose her job. Ben immediately goes to work as Leslie’s campaign manager, because by this point in the show, it’s just assumed that he’s her natural caretaker.

I think this argument underestimates the extent to which running for office is not just a big deal for Leslie, it’s a big challenge. And it is for all women. A 2008 Brookings report found that “men continue to enjoy more comfort, confidence and freedom than women when thinking about running for office…Women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign. They are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office. They are less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. They are less likely than men to think they are ‘qualified’ to run for office. And they are less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.” The “tedious Hollywood cliches about how women can’t have both their careers and their love lives” are a little bit more true in Hollywood than they are in other settings. It’s one thing to be Gabby Giffords and be married to a freakin’ astronaut: it’s another to be a chipper bureaucrat who got caught dating her boss, who is still trying to get rid of his reputation for being arrogant and reckless with public funds. I’m not saying that’s fair for Leslie to be judged by who she dates, but I don’t actually think it’s unrealistic to say that it would be a small-town scandal.

Now there’s no question that Leslie’s overcome some of these obstacles: she’s confident in her abilities and qualifications, she’s willing to work hard to stay in the race, and she was recruited. But she was also dropped by her recruiters as a likely loser, which no matter how willing Leslie was to bull on without their support, must have been a blow. And even though she’s in the race, Leslie might be right to perceive some challenges and to feel real nerves about them. As Brown University political science professor Jennifer Lawless wrote “Voter bias against women candidates also appears to be on the rise: nearly one in every four Americans agree that ‘Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women.'” So it makes sense that as Leslie enters this stage that’s new not just to her, but to her friends, that she’d hesitate, vacillate, misjudge conditions, and make wrong decisions out of justifiable caution and nerves.

And speaking of first-time candidates, I don’t think that Ben is Leslie’s campaign manager because he’d a dude. I think he’s her campaign manager because Leslie tried to foist the job on Ann, who is totally unsuited for the position for reasons that are specific to her character rather than to her gender, and comes to realize that it makes much more sense that for the only person she knows who’s run a successful political campaign (and who, by the way, needs something to do with himself) to coordinate her efforts. It’s not as if Leslie’s just kowtowing to Ben’s decisions like a vulnerable kitten, either: she pushes back against his negative ad, and ends up coming up with a much more powerful idea. During “Bowling For Votes,” Leslie was wrong and Ben was right about how she was spending her time, but the reasons she was wrong were understandable. Almost all of Leslie’s victories while at the Parks Department have come when she’s been able to win over one person or give a one-off good performance. And Leslie’s fantastic at striking deals with Ken Hotate, or helping get to the root of Kelly Larson’s Twilight obsession, but she has less experience with people who don’t like her, or with the need to conserve her emotional energy by connecting with a lot of people at a much shallower level. There’s no question that Leslie is at a core level hyper-competent, but that doesn’t mean that running a campaign or switching jobs doesn’t require new skills—and it would be a pretty boring gambit if Leslie didn’t have to learn or grow by shifting settings, something that’s been good for characters like April and Jerry, too. Having the campaign be a hard, transitional, vulnerable experience doesn’t mean it’s anti-feminist.

All of this said, I do think the show has struggled with how to handle the having-it-all dilemma. It’s not so much that I think that the question of how women balance work and love is a silly one to ask as I think that Parks and Recreation has struggled, like some of its network cousins, to figure out a new and meaningful answer to that question. On The Office, Pam’s essentially given up on the career half of the equation, reconciling herself to work at Dunder Mifflin and avoiding dealing with her problems in sales. On 30 Rock, Liz has reached a point of decidedly modest expectations, laboring away on a lowest-common-denominator show and dating a guy who’s good-looking but whom she essentially supports. Parks and Recreation, I think, would like to reward Leslie with a happy outcome, even though it’s not necessarily easy when your dream job opportunity and your dream guy arrive at the same time (Leslie is, I think, far more involved with Ben than she ever was with Dave, which makes the choice more difficult). And I’m sympathetic to that as a narrative challenge: in a world of antiheroes, it’s hard to think of a television character who I’m more emotionally invested in than Leslie Knope. Finding a way to give her realistic challenges that help her grow is something the show’s struggled with this season, even as I think they’re right to recognize the difference between catching a possum and achieving not just a functional but idealized adult life. With luck, Parks and Recreation will continue to find ways that Leslie’s campaign can expose the ways in which she and Ben are different, while giving them both opportunities to grow into different versions of themselves.