An Ode to Leslie Knope

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It’s been over a year since I was dumped. I’ve stitched the pieces back together and, honestly, I’m pretty content with where my life is at (#humblebrag). However, this time last year there were days I didn’t want to go to class, days I couldn’t get out of bed to see my friends, days I ate my feelings and cried to my roommates. It’s only now that I have the strength and mental well-being to look back and be introspective.

Last year one of my roommates came home with a strange looking vase-meets-jar thing and tells me that she is going to write notes of every good thing that happens to her this year and place it in the jar. Then, on New Years Eve (…or day, let’s be honest) she would open the jar and read all her notes to reflect on the year. Being the hipster that I am, I had a spare Mason Jar lying around so I decided to do the same under her encouragement. On New Year’s Day this year I opened my jar and shared my notes with my family and friends, only to find out that my roommate had stopped writing her notes half way through the year. Another thing I discovered upon reviewing my notes was that, despite feeling morose for most of my final semester of college, I had a pretty amazing year filled with accomplishments, travel, and friends.

Afterwards I decided to write out some New Year’s resolutions and start a jar for 2016. My list is as follows:

  1. Be more like Leslie Knope
  2. Love thy body
  3. Read for fun
  4. Travel

But let’s start from the beginning.

***

I had been dating my best friend for almost 3 years. This was the person I was going to marry. This was the person I decided to reveal the most intimate and vulnerable parts of myself. This person convinced me we were going to have children together. I sincerely believed I was going to have a ring on my finger soon. And then, the week before my winter finals it ended…over the phone. And then he started dating someone else like three weeks later….

Not only had I lost my partner, I lost my best friend.

Fucking bullshit.

Thus, began my slump into that most human of experiences: heartache. I cried a lot. I ate a lot. I remember several of my friends being home for the holidays asking me to go out, but I couldn’t physically bring myself to get out of bed. This weight I couldn’t shake off consumed me. My mother made subtle (read: not subtle) comments that maybe I should think about getting prescribed medicine.  I cried to my OBGYN when trying to hold a conversation about switching my birth control pills. Like a cartoon cloud that perpetually hung above my head, a subdued depression poured over me.

During my free time laying in bed over break, I decided to do what anyone would in my situation: distract yourself with Netflix. This was the beginning of my affection for ‘Parks and Recreation’ and its many beautiful, multifaceted characters. As I felt my world crumpling, I escaped into the lives of Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, and Tom Haverford. I know it’s probably cliche, but in a small way I think this show saved me.

There are many articles that describe the optimism and feminism represented on ‘Parks and Rec’ and I wholeheartedly agree with those authors. I don’t mean to repeat what has already been eloquently said, but maybe I can bring my own nuance to the show because of my lived experiences.

Leslie may have started out as a goofy, Michael Scott-esque boss, but ultimately she was a dedicated public servant, feminist, and loving friend.  She worked hard at her job even when it meant working with people who disagreed with her (Ron) or were just plain jerk-faces (Councilman Jam and pretty much all the sleazy men on city council).  She may have forced her dear friend, Ann Perkins, to watch all seven Harry Potters and eat an entire cheesecake at a party, but she was also fiercely loving and supportive. There is a scene where Ann has just been dumped and Leslie comforts her while driving home. Leslie recounts all the truly awful ways men have dumped her.

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The first season was a little rough, but I persevered and continued to dive deeper into the character development (is there a metaphor in there?). Then, before my eyes this adorable character who is a nerdy, workaholic, zealous friend finds a guy that just gets her, man! Leslie and Ben are both equally ambitious, nerdy, and thoughtful. They had it all. Of course, I realize these are fictitious characters, but my god did they give me hope. Not just hope about maybe one day being with someone (if that’s what I decide to do), but hope that hard work and nurturing friendships can provide for a fulfilling, complete life. If eccentric Leslie Knope could find a partner, rewarding career, and maintain amazing friendships why couldn’t I?

As I quickly learned this show was more than just for laughs, it was also filled with small life lessons and great role models.

At one moment, Chris Traeger fatherly tells Andy, upon failing his entrance exam into the police academy, that the way we respond to tragedy defines us. And, ever so slowly the cartoonish cloud perpetually over my head began to dissipate.

***

I loved Parks and Rec so much I was told that I needed to watch ’30 Rock’ with the hilarious Tina Fey. I was very excited and maybe my expectations ruined me because ultimately I was left wanting. Recently, I finished reading Tina Fey’s 2011 “Bossypants” book (resolution 3, I see you) because I’m five years behind the times apparently. But again, I just didn’t find her book that hilarious. Just as there have been articles championing Leslie Knope, there are also articles that praise and vilify Liz Lemon, most notably about Lemon’s brand of feminism. But don’t Liz and Leslie both kind of represent white feminism? They are both white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, successful women. To prove my point in one episode Liz tries to argue that women are more oppressed than black people, which I sincerely hope was supposed to be a critique on white feminism; otherwise dafuq? People give Liz a lot of shade for being so flawed and representing the “bad” side of feminism, but maybe at the time the world needed a Liz Lemon so that there could be a Leslie Knope. 30 Rock premiered in 2006 and ended in 2013 after seven seasons. Parks and Rec premiered only two years later, but while Leslie and other characters continued to grow, learn, and live fulfilling lives throughout the 7 season run, it seemed that Liz Lemon only shrunk. But maybe it was a generational divide? My older sister loved 30 Rock, while I felt more attached to Parks and Rec. I’m sure the next generation will soon be critiquing Leslie’s shortcoming given the badass woms like Amandla Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard making waves in show biz.

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What does it matter if Liz was a shitty person? I mean Leslie’s enthusiasm can be a little much at times, amiright? Ben once described Leslie’s passion as if he was “arguing with the sun.” I guess my point is that both characters had their flaws and that doesn’t make them awful people, it makes them human. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope have paved the way for women comedians on television. Now we have shows like Broad City,  The Mindy Project, Inside Amy Schumer, and so much moreWhile the market is still saturated by white males, there is definitely more variety available. Women who are “flawed” or unapologetically crude stand alongside depictions of successful female doctors, teachers, and presidents.

We each have our Lemon and Knope inside us, but it’s up to us to decide which side should dominate.

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***

I showed my sister my list of New Year’s resolutions after she loved the jar idea. She asked me why I had put “be more like Leslie Knope.” While I was reflecting on what I wanted to work on and how I wanted to grow this coming year, I started to think of attributes: kindness, warmth, resilient, empowered, exuding love, gratitude, patience, resourceful, being diplomatic with people I disagree with, etc. I told her that there were all these characteristics I could write down, but ultimately they could all be summarized into simply being more like Leslie Knope.

Maybe Leslie Knope is just another fictitious character that I’ve romanticized, but what she represents — her principles, integrity, and love — are what anyone hopes to achieve.

Leslie, thanks for giving me hope. Thanks for giving me the courage to go out and have fun with my friends.Thank you for providing a light when I felt consumed by darkness. Thanks for showing me that facing my fears will only make me stronger. Thanks for showing me that caring is an expression of female strength and ambition.

In Gratitude,

Shan

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