I love Leslie Knope (and all of her emotions)

I have a few fictional role models.  Peggy Olsen, from Mad Men; Mrs. Frizzle, from The Magic School Bus.  But perhaps my favorite fictional role model is Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation.

There are many things I love about Leslie Knope.  I love that she is a self-proclaimed feminist who has framed photos of the women who inspire her in her office.  I love that sometimes she gets drunk and does ridiculous accents.  I love that she has positive female friendships that aren’t about competing or judging each other.  (Sociological Images has an informative pinboard with examples of how women are portrayed as being inherently catty and in competition with other women).  I love that she gets really excited about her job, her relationships, or whatever is going on in her life.  I love that we are both ENFJ’s (my sister tells me I should get this tee shirt, which also seems perfect for Leslie). I love that she can accept compliments without deflecting.  Most of all, I love that she is allowed to experience and express the full range of human emotion without being dismissed as an irrational, emotional woman or being reduced to a “bitch”. 

This is especially significant in that Leslie Knope isn’t just allowed to express “safe” emotions like excitement or anxiety; she is allowed to express anger and frustration, and frequently does.  While she isn’t always in the right, and has had to apologize for those times when her words or actions were out of line, she never apologizes for having emotions or feeling angry.  It’s a non-issue.   This is nothing short of revolutionary, especially in a culture where women are socialized to be passive and indirect.  

An article published by the American Psychological Association notes that both men and women experience gender-based expectations on their expression of anger, and that “girls are encouraged to keep their anger down”.  This means that first women and girls have to overcome the idea that it isn’t okay to be angry; and secondly they have the extra obstacle of having few examples of what healthy expressions of anger look like.

I did not grow up in a very assertive family, and so this is a struggle that is familiar to me.  In high school I was basically the queen of passive-aggressive communication, and it wasn’t halfway through college that I began to express myself more freely.  I gradually became more assertive, slowly and surely, and today I even teach an assertiveness skills group in my job in community mental health.  (True story: when I first began this position and I was telling my mom the groups I would be leading, she literally laughed out loud when I told her one of them was “Decision Making and Assertiveness Skills.” )

One thing I’ve learned in my time teaching this topic is that many people do not know how to recognize assertive communication.  Assertiveness is essentially giving oneself permission to have and express ones own feelings and opinions, as well as the authority to set one’s own limits and priorities; to make decisions based on their needs and wants, as well as to not feel responsible for other’s feelings and behaviors.  Assertiveness is often described as “you’re ok, I’m ok”; and while that is super cheesy, it is also pretty accurate.  Because if I have the right to make my own decisions and have my own emotions, even if they don’t make sense to you, then you also have the right to have emotions and priorities that don’t make sense to me.

And this is definitely how Leslie is portrayed on Parks & Rec.  She is never depicted as feeling guilty or apologizing for her opinions or emotions, and nobody reacts to her as though she should feel guilty for expressing anger, frustration, or disappointment.  It is beyond refreshing to see a complex, likeable female character who freely shows emotion and isn’t punished for doing so.  To celebrate, I’ve selected my top 5 favorite angry Leslie moments to share with you all below.

1.  Leslie Knope goes on Pawnee Today (Season 2, episode 1: “Pawnee Zoo”)

Blonde woman in a blazer, giving an exasperated look to the camera


What it’s about:  In this episode, Leslie has been promoting the Pawnee Zoo and decides to marry 2  penguins, who (unbeknownst to Leslie at the time) are both male.  Leslie is asked by a spokesperson of the Society for Family Stability Foundation to resign her position as Deputy Director of Parks & Rec.  Leslie goes on the talk show “Pawnee Today” to defend herself.

Why I love it:  Leslie stands up for herself and her beliefs, even if her position isn’t popular.  She doesn’t back down just because she’s being challenged.

2.  Leslie says No!  (Season 2 episode 2: The Stakeout)

Gif of a blonde woman scrunching her face and then saying "no!"

What it’s about: Tom gets arrested after getting locked out of a van while he and Leslie were staking out the community garden/Ann’s house for suspected marijuana plants/Ann’s first date with Mark.  Leslie shows up to bail Tom out of jail.

Why I love it:  Leslie is nothing if not loyal to her friends and she isn’t going to leave until she is heard.  And, sometimes when you’re angry, it’s difficult to express that in full, coherent, sentences.  Who hasn’t had a moment where they just wish they could just shout and bang their fist on the table?  Sometimes when it seems like everything is going wrong you just want to shout “No!” over and over until something happens.

3.  Greg Pikitis (Season 2, episode 7: “Greg Pikitis”)

Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation wearing a blue shirt and a black hoodie, scowling

Image via here

What it’s about: Every year a statue gets vandalized on Halloween, and Leslie is determined to catch the kid who did it.  This year it gets more personal as her office gets vandalized.

Why I love it:  Mainly because we get to see her make her angry face.  When you’re told over and over that women and girls aren’t supposed to be angry, you learn how to hide that.  This may mean smiling silently, while fuming inside.  But with Leslie? You always know what she’s feeling, whether that is excitement or anger.  I also really like Leslie’s determination, even when it no longer makes sense to the people around her. 
4. First Fight with Ann (Season 3, episode 14: The Fight)

What it’s about:  It starts because Leslie wants Ann to apply for a job in City Hall that Ann isn’t sure about, but turns into a drunken fight where both air some pent up frustrations.

Why I love it:  While I typically think its cheesy to have a big blow up fight that resolves within a single episode, I think its great that Leslie and Ann have a big fight and it doesn’t ruin their friendship.  Even though Leslie always has her friend’s best interests in mind, she sometimes crosses the line in regards to trying to run other people’s lives. Leslie clearly isn’t perfect, but she’s able to acknowledge her flaws.

5.  Model UN (Season 4 episode 7: The Treaty)

What it’s about: Leslie and Ben are trying to be friends after dating, but it isn’t working.  While Ben is helping Leslie run a model UN event for the local high school, he cuts her out of a treaty and Leslie decides that her country is going to declare war on Ben’s.  It leads to both of them getting expelled from United Nations.




Why I love it:  One of the emotions that often underlies anger is pain, and sometimes anger helps us recognize where our boundaries are.  Both Ben and Leslie are dealing with their break-up, Ben realizes he isn’t ready to be friends, and Leslie attacks Ben in an effort to preserve her own dignity.  So often when people are angry, it’s difficult to remember that underneath that person is hurting.  Leslie and Ben were totally out of line in derailing the Model UN, to be sure; but their actions serves as a great reminder to consider what’s going on beneath someone else’s anger and that attacking and hurting someone else doesn’t make one’s own pain go away.

So, what about you guys? What are your favorite Leslie Knope moments (angry or not), or who are your favorite female characters on television today?

Parks &Recreation airs on NBC, Thursdays at 8pm.  Season 6 has a ONE-HOUR season premiere Thursday, September 26th.  Seasons 1-5 can be viewed on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus.