Thursday, March 15, 2012

Leslie Knope: Hero for Our Times

I sort of missed the big hoopla over Parks and Rec when it first came on, because I was never a fan of The Office, and it seemed like just another ripoff of that, only without Steve Carrell to make me consider watching. Well, I'm here to admit that I was wrong. Woefully wrong. Parks and Rec is unabashedly great, and also pretty damn fun. It's got great likable characters, a fun vibe, and that lovely tendency for blissfully unaware characters to blow their minor problems out of proportion, while still allowing the audience to understand how very small the stakes are. I like it.

I also think it's one of the most nuanced, feminist things on television, and that I'm a little shocked I didn't know it until now.

The gut instinct is to think it's feminist because the lead character is a woman. And she is. Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a mid-level small-town bureaucrat with absolutely no sense of proportion or the importance of her actions. But that's not the only reason it's feminist. It's more feminist because Leslie Knope is feminist. In a quiet, unassuming way, she strives to be a better woman. She wants to tear down the walls of power and be the first woman mayor of Pawnee. And no, she's not wildly ambitious (though she thinks she is), and yes, sometimes she's over the top and completely out of touch with reality, but what's awesome about Leslie is that she cares. She's a feminist because she wants to be a damn feminist, so what if she occasionally misses a detail.

It's nuanced because it doesn't just stop there.

Leslie's not a ball-buster, she gets what she wants by being nice to people. Aggressively nice, in fact. She wants a new park in town, so she pesters people with niceness. She fosters a friendship with Ann (Rashida Jones), the nurse who first brought the potential new park to her attention, and feels that she's mentoring her intern, April, in being a strong and confident woman. The show is as much about the relationships between the people in the office, largely women, as it is about the wacky hijinks of a governmental department.

It doesn't hurt that the other characters are also well written and fully formed people. Ann's determination to get some small part of her life fixed, by converting the empty lot to a park, mixed with her inability to say no to people who ask for her time and help, make for a compelling character who is entirely believable. She's a real woman who could really live in your town. So too for April, whose misanthropy and deadpan refusal to do any work make her hilarious to work, but also very interesting when you realize that she's actually incredibly intelligent, if unmotivated. Her relationships with the other characters, and the moments when you see the ice thaw are what elevate her from stock behind the scenes character, to full-fledged person.

But really, when it comes down to it, it's all about Leslie. Leslie who wants to make a difference so badly, but sometimes doesn't know how to do it. Leslie who accidentally dresses up like a lesbian and brings Ann as her date to a public function, remaining all the while completely oblivious to the opinions of others. Leslie who is not only fully capable of having a deep and meaningful romantic relationship with a man, but just as capable of cutting it off when it looks to interfere with her hopes and dreams. Rock on, Leslie, because you are, in fact, the strong woman you keep telling people you are.

And isn't it nice to see a feminist character whose feminism isn't played for laughs? Lots of things about Leslie are hilarious. Her inability to fully interface with reality is really just the tip of the iceberg. But her actual feminism, and her insistence on being taken seriously, those are just part of who she is, and are counted as no more remarkable or laugh-worthy than her boss Ron's belief in small-government. Leslie is a feminist. Good for her. Much better to mock her for how very much she loves waffles.

So here's to you, Leslie Knope. Thank you for constantly trying, for persisting in your dream of one day running Pawnee, and for giving us hope that someday we can have more fully-realized, realistically portrayed, and genuinely nice feminists on our television screens. Good luck with that.

Vote Knope!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

We're Getting Serious Here!

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And the Men Who Support Them.

This being a feminism site, and this being International Women's Day, we spend a lot of time talking about ladies. That's cool. Women are awesome. But every once in a while it's important to take a beat, and recognize the men who support their kickass partners.

So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the men.

Wash, Firefly
I've sung his wife's praises a couple of times, and I stand by that. But none of Zoe's awesomeness would be nearly as impressive if her husband weren't the perennially supportive, loving, respectful, and Hawaiian shirt clad Wash. Reasons we love their marriage? It's built on mutual respect. Sure, Zoe wears the pants and holds the gun, but when Wash raises real misgivings about something, she listens. They're both each other's favorite person, and they both greatly appreciate what the other can do. Zoe can fight really well, but Wash is equally skilled (arguably more so) at flying the ship. And they both understand that they can't do each other's jobs. That's why they need each other. Wash is great guy, but it's his marriage to Zoe that makes them both better. Plus, who doesn't love a marriage that still manages to be this passionate after six years?

Michael (Nikita, all versions)
The important thing to remember about Michael is that, lovers or enemies, he's always, always, respected Nikita. He's pretty much the only one who does. Currently played with firey intensity by Shane West (yup, that one), his relationship with her is rocky at the best of times, and never really characterized by mutual trust, but they have an undeniable chemistry built on the character's mutual respect. Michael's a lot of things. A widower, a spy, a killer, but he's also a man who's very much in love with a dangerous woman. He knows exactly how much that should worry him, and for that, we salute him.

Xander (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
For a guy who always hung out with girls, was a self-proclaimed loser, and spent all of high school getting beat up by vampires then his early twenties working at places like "Hot Dog on a Stick", Xander did pretty well for himself with the ladies. First Cordelia, then Anya, Xander was good at getting women who didn't need him to fawn all over them to make them feel better. No, his girlfriends were the women who knew exactly who they were and how much they were worth. They loved him because so did he. It's a different kind of masculinity and strength, to be able to abide in yourself and be strong enough to admit to some androgynous qualities. Xander was a nurturer, and he always brought out the best in those he loved. For this, he was my first television crush, and he's definitely one of the good 'uns.

Rory (Doctor Who)
It's been said a few times that if Rory and Amy were reversed, if Amy's character were a man, and Rory's character were a woman, people would decry their relationship as unhealthy and unreasonable. Well, I don't actually think that, but I do think that I'd like it way, way less. I also think that this kind of gender-reversal argument doesn't actually help anything. Yes, Rory and Amy have a slightly disproportionate relationship. She is the adventurous one, the exciting one, the one always dashing off with the Doctor to have glorious amazing adventures. She flirts. She's not sure of their relationship and sometimes she strays perilously close to cheating on him. But Rory loves her. He follows her, goes where the action is because that's where Amy is. And for a character that some have called out as weak, he does an awful lot of rescuing, not just of Amy, but of the world. Rory makes the biggest sacrifice he can, when he chooses to stay and protect Amy, knowing she won't remember it, knowing that he will be alone for literally thousands of years, and knowing that it may all be in vain. If Rory were a woman, I'd still be damn impressed. Because that is not passive longing or being a doormat. That's pure, unconditional love. Rock the fuck on Rory. Congratulations on your marriage, because you deserve a hell of a party.

Marcus (Inglourious Basterds)
You probably don't know who I'm referring to, so I'll be a little less specific. Remember Shosanna? Remember her boyfriend, the projectionist? That guy. So, fair, his entry is a little less detailed than the others, but I still give him props. One, he's living in a horrible place, and has chosen to stay and stick it out with his lady love, even though both of them are in danger from the occupying Nazis. He's supportive too, enough so that he's willing to go with Shosanna in her quest to burn down the theater with them inside, and in so doing destroy the Third Reich. He respects her, and he follows her lead. She's strong, and she knows what she has to do. Go them.

Shang (Mulan)
Admit it, you now have "Make a Man Out of You" stuck in your head, don't you? You're welcome.

Sure, when Shang first finds out that Mulan has girly bits, he's less than thrilled (though he also seems a little relieved), and he's horrified to find that he's been training a woman all this time. But when the Huns return, and Mulan is the only one who can save them, not to mention the only one still capable of acting rationally, Shang sees sense. He realizes that the qualities that made him like Mulan before haven't disappeared, and that he was being a poop for judging her based on her gender. At the end of the film, he finds her and proposes. And she accepts, because he respects her, and understands that he needs to come to her on her ground.

There are others, of course. Admiral Adama on Battlestar Galactica. Clive Owen's character in Duplicity. Peeta in Hunger Games. But the point is made here. No matter what the media, we need more of these guys. Just like we need more women who're well-rounded and capable of taking care of themselves and others, we need more men who respect that and are capable of picking up the other side of the banner and carrying it with us. Equality is a two way street and masculinity is an ever shifting goal. Let's shift it in this direction.

Ideally without a Cylon takeover, but whatever.