Knoptimism vs. Liz Lemonism: How ‘Parks and Recreation’ Took a Different Feminist Route

Parks and Recreation ends its seven-season run Tuesday night on NBC. To celebrate the show’s unforgettable characters, Flavorwire is publishing a series of tributes to our favorite Pawnee residents. Click here to follow our coverage.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are colleagues, co-hosts, and friends — and Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock, their respective sitcom vehicles, both find the comedians playing successful professional women. Each lovingly spoofs a neurotic, limited-worldview mold of feminism. But as other writers have already noted, the two show’s approaches to their protagonists’ feminism are a study in feminist contrasts.

You might describe Parks and Recreation as a fantasy world where a little bit of feminist fairy dust has been sprinkled on the characters, whereas 30 Rock is a sharp caricature of the world we actually live in, devoid of such dust sprinklings. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to call these two approaches Knoptimism vs. Liz Lemonism.

Liz Lemonism, for those new to the term, was coined by Sady Doyle to stand in for a certain kind of narrow, self-serving ideology that Liz Lemon embodies. It was such a perfect description that it has stuck around for years, certainly explaining my own ambivalence towards the character.

I have, for some time, been referring to a particularly irritating brand of privileged semi-feminism as “Liz Lemonism.” I associate this brand of feminism with a certain variety of white, coastal-city dwelling, fairly well-to-do heterosexual cisgendered woman, a woman with a comfortable white-collar job that is so very comfortable and so very white-collar that she is free to spend her spare time yearning for, and semi-believing that she could attain, something with more “meaning.”…she doesn’t do posts about sex workers’ rights, but she does do complaining about “raunch culture”; she doesn’t do anti-racism, disability activism, or trans ally work to any huge extent, but she does do “body image” (and oh, does she ever do body image, without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled, cis person she conforms to the “beauty standard,” and benefits from conforming to it, in more ways than she will ever let on)

Liz Lemonism is feminism as a delightful pity party, one which accompanies nighttime cheese binges (who hasn’t been there?) and snarky comments about other women (who hasn’t been there, either?). For fans, this aesthetic means taking comfort in relating to our most vulnerable, least pleasant selves onscreen, the part of us that uses feminism to enable our (often justified!) bitterness, and vice versa.

But Parks and Recreation transforms feminism into more of a motivational worldview. Leslie Knope’s feminism has always been somewhat muddled, in that she reveres Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and (creepy) Joe Biden with equal fervor. But this failure to make a distinction, this all-encompassing love of public service, ends up symbolizing the core philosophy of Knoptimism.

Two principles define Knoptimism. One is that, within Parks and Recreation‘s parameters, intentions matter. Having a good heart and a willingness to learn from mistakes becomes a pathway to absolution for all the small crimes the core characters commit against each other, and in their work lives. Like Liz Lemon, Leslie Knope often sees feminism through a screen of self  — making the wrong assumption that everyone values do-gooderism as much as she does. Witness her recent Sheryl Sandberg-esque exhortation of April Ludgate to stay in government without acknowledging what April actually wants, which is to pursue her own path. In reality, when older women hector younger women about their careers, even if it’s meant to be encouraging, it can evince furious responses.

But on Parks and Recreation there’s already a system of good faith in operation. Even though April is angry at Leslie, she decides to talk it out with her boss and friend, making sure to give Leslie credit for all the encouragement she’s offered along the way. Stubborn Leslie also willingly admits she was wrong once she’s taken time to pout, and the two women renegotiate their mentor-mentee relationship on more equitable terms. This classic sappy sitcom resolution also has implications about sisterhood: each woman has to make her own choice, and be willing to grow.

Which brings us to principle number two of Knoptimism, which holds that, for women, the work of self-advancement and the work of caring for others can and should coexist — not only in the same ideology, but in the same human being. This caring work isn’t just defined by the rote obligations of motherhood, which is largely passed over by the show. Instead, caring is an expression of female strength and ambition. Leslie Knope’s indefatigable energy make her uniquely capable of “having it all,” sure, but what she has isn’t mere “work-life balance.” Work is her life and life is her work. Which means she has something that eludes most women in patriarchy: a full and complete identity.

Instead of “balance,” the show grants her the freedom to devote every moment of her existence to her many friendships, to rituals (she loves those squash tosses and state fairs and her own made-up holidays), to aggressively pursuing her career dreams and goals, to bettering her community, and even to finding romantic love. In fact, the show sees these values as complimentary rather than competing. The same qualities that make Leslie great at celebrating her best friend Ann all the time, in hilarious ways, make her great at cleaning up urban messes in Pawnee.

Sometimes Leslie reminds me of a magical grown-up version of a young girl who blithely assumes she can cuddle with her dolls and hit a home run, race her best friend and braid her sister’s hair, all at the same time — before at least some of these ideas are beaten out of her by growing up in the patriarchy. Maybe Liz Lemon is the actual result of what happens when that girl grows up, and Leslie is the magical version of the girl who never has to give up a single one of those inclinations. It’s not a coincidence that Leslie is often portrayed as childish in addition to being brilliant and competent. Unlike her viewers, she still believes all things are possible. Maybe it’s because of the leeway allowed by first principle of Knoptimism: in pursuit of a fully complete life, mistakes are inevitably made. The comfort of expecting forgiveness from one’s inner circle nurtures personal growth.

Knoptimism isn’t limited to Leslie, because Leslie isn’t the only Pawnee woman who has serious ambitions while also practicing self-care and devotion to others. April Ludgate, the cynical nihilist, and Donna Meagle, the sophisticated hedonist, are each operating by the same Pawnee principles as Leslie. They both pretend to only care about themselves, but simultaneously perform acts of nurturing and sacrifice, even if they are less overtly political than Leslie’s, acts that don’t detract from their strong and self-protective personalities. Meanwhile, there’s a hidden “softness” to the men of Pawnee, even Ron Swanson, that suggests a bigger, post-gender story. Women can be both striving and kind because everyone should be free to be both striving and kind.

None of this is to say that Leslie always gets away with being overzealous, or for assuming everyone operates like she does. In fact, she’s beloved by her friends but repeatedly rejected by Pawnee’s citizenry and media. Her failed attempt to be a good campaign spouse to Ben, when he runs for Congress, is a perfect encapsulation of this disconnect. As Hanna Brooks Olsen wrote in her comparison, Liz Lemon’s self-loathing flaws are not particularly threatening to the patriarchy. Leslie Knope’s are:

Leslie’s flaws — like that she’s a borderline hoarder and that she sometimes is so passionate about issues that it’s “like arguing with the sun,” as her husband tells her at one point—are less cute. They are real and they are difficult and they are the kind of flaws that women rarely play up. They are the flaws that get women pegged as “bossy” or “bitchy” in the workplace.

Leslie’s outlook is light-years ahead of the people of her town, and of our time. Her career gets redeemed because DC bureaucrats recognize her skill set, not because she’s popular.

It’s hard to squeeze idealism for humor in the same way it is to squeeze realism. Plenty of people I know think that Park and Recreation’s affection for its characters made the show dull, more so than 30 Rock. But for women who dream of being free to pursue our intellectual potential to the highest level — while holding on to the softer qualities that we’re told we have to ditch to take that path — it also offered a little bit of hope. Or should I say, a little bit of Knope.