I swear, someone out there must have been conspiring to turn me into a weeping mess this past week. Between two broken down cars, Leonard Nimoy’s passing and the never-ending debate over the color of that god damn dress, my emotions are pretty exhausted.
On top of it all, Parks and Recreation came to an end this past Tuesday. I said goodbye to a show that has shaped my life more than any other, made me laugh harder than any other and played the role of therapist during some of my most difficult times. If I’m being totally honest, the end of Parks and Recreation had me in a huddled mass of tears, trembling as I sang “5,000 Candles in the Wind.”
I have learned as much from Parks and Recreation as I have from my family and closest friends. I’ve even been known to ask myself “What would Leslie Knope do?” when caught in a difficult situation. The show’s greatest strength was not in its humor, but in the honesty of the characters and the stories. In turn, that commitment to sincerity brought about some of the most brilliant modern comedy on television.
The inhabitants of Pawnee have taught me so much about life: Libraries are not to be trusted. Fishing is acceptable as a sport, but not as a means of acquiring food. 512 ounces is roughly the size of a small child, if the child were to be liquified. The three things that matter most in life are waffles, friends and work.
More than anything, Parks and Recreation taught me how to be a feminist. Well into my early twenties, I was twisted in my view of what it meant to be a feminist. I prided myself on being a “cool girl.” I never wear makeup, and I usually opt for my plain brown Doc Martens and a utilitarian hoodie. When I was younger, I was very guilty of thinking my style (or lack thereof) made me better than the women who chose to spend time styling themselves. I always preferred to have male friends. Not because I enjoyed their company much more than women, but because I wanted the world to know that I wasn’t like those other girls. I couldn’t have been less enlightened, though I was completely convinced that I had figured out some secret knowledge that those other girls just didn’t get.
I was far from original in adopting this persona. The perceived need to tear other women down in order to lift yourself up is as common in our society as Starbucks. Internalized misogyny is real, and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, simply ask them what they think a “strong woman” is. Their answer is typically proof that we all have some sort of disdain for the female experience. It’s taught to us from birth.
So many shows love to claim that they are proudly feminist, and yet they unapologetically play into tired tropes: One token powerful woman who is struggling to have it all, frenemies, a startlingly white cast despite living in a major metropolis, etc. They portray surface feminism. Sure, you have a prominent female character, but she’s completely one-dimensional because you can’t be bothered to write for her. Sure, you have a gaggle of lady friends, but they are catty because that’s the only way you understand women to interact. Sure, you have some different career goals and the lady friends aren’t constantly bitchy, but you can’t be bothered to write diverse characters because, well, we’re just asking for too much.
Parks and Recreation showed me one of the most important, and often ignored, aspects of feminism: Ladies celebrating ladies. Not just on Galentine’s day – everyday. Every female character and friendship on the show is well developed, three-dimensional and handled honestly. Leslie Knope, Ann Perkins, April Ludgate and Donna Meagle are all prioritized as individuals with reasonable strengths and weaknesses. You know, like actual people.
For the past year I’ve been on an aggressive campaign to get my best friend on the Parks and Recreation bandwagon, and thanks to my insane text message assaults and some persuasion from her boyfriend, she finally came to the right side of history. For so long I had been telling her that she needed to understand that she was the Ann Perkins to my Leslie Knope (made all the more perfect by the fact that her name is, in fact, Ann).
Of course, this has led to numerous back and forth text debates about how I’m much more of the Ann Perkins when it comes to being a bit more lofty in my life direction, and she is much better with goal setting, a la Miss Knope. We have both rattled on and on about horriffic dating experiences to make the other feel better. When push comes to shove, I’ve got the April Ludgate death glare down to an art. And she’s as fearless and self reliant as Donna Meagle.
We both see each other as the beautiful tropical fish that Ann is to Leslie. Because that is how friends should see each other. Friends shouldn’t be charicatures that fulfill a role in the narrative of your life. Friends should be fantastic individuals with whom you celebrate having the privilege of getting to play. Leslie’s success is not defined by how it compares to Ann’s. Ann’s happiness is not contingent on Leslie being a little worse off. Donna and April don’t need to measure their femininity against any other women. They are fully-realized individuals who can fully enjoy the ups and downs of their friendships because they are whole people.
For so long I thought I was winning because I had so few female friends. I thought I had somehow beaten the system, when in reality I had fallen victim to it. The beauty of the female friendships on Parks and Recreation helped me to realize that feminism isn’t about being the coolest girl in a group of guys. It’s about being the most supportive friend you can be, to men and women alike. But there’s something particularly special about those female friendships.
After all, you should never send a boyfriend to do a best friend’s job. We’ve all seen what can happen.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.