Last week we said goodbye to the citizens of Pawnee, Indiana as Parks and Recreation took its final bow with promises of an even greater future for Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and company in the fictional reality where we all want to live. Seriously, after seven seasons who wouldn’t want this glorious female warrior in charge of the country? At the same time the first, but hopefully not last, season of Marvel’s Agent Carter ended with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), after saving New York City from another villainous attempt at bombing the Big Apple, reaffirming her stance as a woman who knows her value to the world even if it isn’t reciprocated. Though these two shows are dissimilar in regards to genre, setting, and time period, their commonality lies in the driven, passionate, and independent women at the helm.
When looking at Leslie Knope and Peggy Carter it’s easy to assume that gender is their one uniting factor. How else would a modern-day Mid-Western civil servant share any similarities with a British ex-pat intelligence agent in post-WWII New York? And that’s before you add in the science-fiction, superhero element that practically pushes Agent Carter as far from Parks and Rec, genre wise, as possible. But fear not, you beautiful tropical fish. Yes, gender is a factor in comparing Leslie and Peggy, but it’s really about how their respective worlds perceive women, their response as women, and the impact that has on the viewing audience that matters. Leslie may be navigating the modern world of middle-American politics but Peggy’s struggle for acceptance and acknowledgement is just as relatable. These are women who’ve dedicated their lives to serving their native/adopted country regardless of their rank within the system. Though they may desire more, it’s how they face their obstacles that earns them the respect, loyalty, and friendship of those around them and affects the most change.
Though we’ve only had eight episodes of Agent Carter, Peggy’s importance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been apparent since a skinny kid from the Lower East Side took his first steps towards being Captain America. One of the premiere officers of Army intelligence during WWII, Peggy held her own in the boys club of the military, earning the respect of the men she worked with through her tenacity and resolve on the battlefield. In the trenches, she was more than just Cap’s sort-of girlfriend. The harsh reality of “civilian” life post-war, however, is that in the eyes of her colleagues in the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) she’s only viewed as Cap’s girlfriend with many of her accomplishments in the field overlooked or just plain ignored. The frustration of watching Agent Carter is the accuracy of its blatant and subtle sexism and the knowledge that there really isn’t an end point. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel where we can definitively say women gained all the respect and equality. It’s not just the attitudes of post-war culture, it’s a parallel of the modern day struggles of women in the workforce. Think about it. Women are still fighting for equal wages.
Still. In 2015.
Even the basic assumptions made about women in the show are mirrors of current workplace and online cultures. Consider two of Peggy’s colleagues, Jack Thompson and Daniel Sousa. Like Peggy, they’re war veterans, but the two approach the SSR’s sole female agent in very different ways. Thompson is all bravado, a blatant chauvinist who can’t even bother to get Peggy’s name right so long as he gets his coffee and lunch order placed correctly. Sousa, on the other hand, is more sympathetic to Peggy since he’s also the target of Thompson’s jibes because of his injury during the war. And while Sousa attempts to be the good guy, telling Jack to back off and treat Peggy with more respect, Peggy calls him on his white-knighting. He may think he’s doing the right thing, being a better man than the others, but there’s a more subtle form of sexism occurring. Peggy doesn’t need Sousa to come to her aid, she’s perfectly capable of defending herself. Assuming she needs defending is just another way of reinforcing the gender stereotype that women are incapable of taking care of themselves. In fact, the underestimation of women plays throughout the entire series as virtually every female character uses their perceived weakness to their advantage against men. Dottie hides the cold, Russian assassin behind a helpless doe-eyed mid-Western persona, Angie starts spilling fake tears to distract Thompson and Sousa, and Peggy frequently makes use of her invisibility within the agency as she conducts her side investigation into clearing Howard Stark. Though she’s loathe to use her second-tier status, it’s a tool nonetheless. It’s actually an interesting look into the character’s psyche and makes for an interesting thought exercise as to the state of mind of other women at the time. Peggy clearly has some control over how she’s viewed at the SSR and her side investigation challenges that control. It forces her to examine her place within the agency, concluding that though she’s invisible to her colleagues, for the most part, she’d rather not be seen then looked at as helpless.
At least with Thompson there’s something Peggy can fight against. He wears his prejudices on his sleeve, so changing his mind and proving her worth as an agent would of course mean showing competency during a field mission involving the Howling Commandos. And it really is the most effective turnaround because even though Peggy and Thompson do bond over being soldiers, Peggy ultimately relates to Thompson on a human level by showing sympathy and empathy when he comes clean about his experiences in the Pacific Theater. This isn’t the writers going “if woman, therefore motherly role” as a means of justifying their shared moment. This is about vulnerability. Peggy taking the lead after Thompson freezes in a firefight, and her giving him orders to snap him out of it, gives him, for the briefest of moments, some insight about the real Peggy Carter. The true strength of her character is her ability to have those feelings for someone who, for all intents and purposes, wouldn’t respond in kind. Peggy’s goal isn’t to belittle her colleagues or emasculate them for the sake of her own self-worth. As she says in the season finale, she knows her value, and it’s not about getting her name in the paper or recognition from a state congressman. For Peggy, it’s about getting the respect and trust of her colleagues; not as a woman but as an agent.
What’s important to note about both Agent Carter and Parks and Recreation is that neither show treats its characters, male or female, like idiots. Peggy is exceptionally good at what she does but is still treated as a glorified secretary by her male peers. It’s not out of cruelty just misguided sentiments. Though she’s often frustrated by the men in the SSR or downright disgusted by any of Howard Stark’s shenanigans, Peggy never calls them incompetent. She, too, makes mistakes but we’re still rooting for her because we know what she’s capable of. And though we may desire comeuppance for some members of the SSR, the show is much wiser than that, presenting a snapshot of a bygone era that still holds relevance today.
Leslie Knope, however, could have easily become the female version of The Office‘s Michael Scott. Parks and Rec certainly owes its existence to The Office, but thankfully Leslie, as a character, was given much more substance than being a lovable goof. She is a lovable goof, by the way, but there’s no one on the show who ever questions her competence at her job or her intelligence because she’s a woman. If anything, Leslie’s hyper-competence and her extreme passion for governance often puts her at odds with the people of Pawnee and occasionally her friends and co-workers. At the same time, it’s Leslie’s passion for her work that leads her down the path to a ridiculously rewarding and awesome future.
The phrase “Be The Leslie Knope of Whatever You Do” is essential to what makes Parks and Rec and Leslie so special. From the beginning of the series, we know that Leslie is full of vim, vigor, and vitality for her work in the Parks Department. She shows excitement for a job that offers very little in the way of gratitude from the people she serves but Leslie isn’t necessarily looking for accolades. Her reward is helping people because she ultimately believes in the power of people coming together in order to accomplish a common goal. It’s why she loves working for the city. She gets to change people’s lives, whether they notice or not. What’s refreshing about Leslie’s consistent optimism is it’s never portrayed on the show as something we should pity her for. Leslie isn’t a character meant to be seen as pathetic because she doesn’t grasp the reality of her situation. The exact opposite is true. Leslie is very aware of how she’s perceived by people, but it doesn’t deter her. If anything, she sees the complacency and apathy of those around her as a challenge, which she meets head on. She matches Ron Swanson’s anti-government paranoia and April Ludgate’s pessimism with openness and a helping hand and we cheer her on because, like Ron, April, or pretty much every person living in Pawnee, we see the greatness and the passion Leslie puts into everything she does and we want to apply that same passion to what we do in our own lives. We want to “be the Leslie Knope” of our own passions.
To me, Leslie is the embodiment of the modern feminist. Not only does she show an exhausting amount of joy, confidence, and passion for her job, but she also has the ideal balance of career and family. The road towards this ideal, however, was not an easy one. At the beginning of the series, Leslie’s career goals often took precedence over her personal life – except for Ann because nothing comes between Leslie and Ann! – but once she met Ben Wyatt the priorities began to shift. There’s this prevailing myth that women have to choose between having a family or having a career, which is complete bull. Women don’t have to choose one or the other. They can have both if they put in the time. It’s about balance and in Ben Leslie found her balance. Like her philosophy that teamwork and helping people are the ultimate goals of government, so too did Leslie apply the same mindset to her relationship with Ben. Once they decided they were a team, that they were in it for the long haul, every decision was made by the Knope-Wyatt household committee. Thankfully Ben shared Leslie’s passion for government and civil service but he also shared a passion for helping Leslie fulfill her dreams. It’s still a rare thing for a male character to put a female character’s wants and needs over his own in any form of media. If we see Leslie through Ben’s eyes, however, we know that her drive will propel them forward no matter what. Ben is no more sacrificing his goals than Leslie would if the situation were reversed. But it isn’t really a sacrifice for them. Whether it’s a position on the city council, Congress, Governor of Indiana, or President of the United States, Leslie and Ben are a team and they both get to enjoy the ride together.
This, of course, only scratches the surface of Parks and Recreation‘s legacy on television. Hopefully it’s the beginning of greater things for Agent Carter. Either way, we’ve been fortunate enough to let women like Peggy Carter and Leslie Knope into our homes. Their mark on us is what counts and if I were to venture a guess, I’m pretty sure there are going to be more girls and boys striving to be like Leslie and Peggy in the future.