For me, Leslie defines what it is to be a real-life feminist. One of my most startling college memories is sitting in a large lecture hall, hearing the professor ask anyone who considered themselves a feminist to raise their hand, and being one of only about 3 or 4 people (in a room of over 100) to actually do so. This was a class about the 1960s, where we were discussing the way that people thought, way back when, that if you were a feminist obviously you were a lesbian, or there was something wrong with you. But this was 2002, I thought at the time - certainly people understand now that being a feminist just means women should be considered equal to men. Shouldn't that be a pretty standard way of thinking in the 21st century?
It wasn't, and it's not. "Feminism" is still a dirty word to many people, who seem to envision feminists as angry women who want to destroy all males and take over the world. As a feminist, I do not believe that women are better than men. I just believe that we should be equals. And the optimist in me would like to believe that most people, whether they consider themselves feminists or not, generally feel the same way.
But back to Leslie Knope. "Parks and Recreation" started out as a companion sitcom to "The Office," with Amy Poehler as lovable but goofy Leslie, who cared deeply about her job but seemed just a bit ditzy. As the show progressed, Leslie began to really shine, becoming the still occasionally goofy but overall lovable and competent character she is now, in the show's third season.
Leslie has always been shown to be be a feminist. Her office is plastered with pictures of notable women. She celebrates "Galentine's Day," where she spreads love to all her female friends. She was deeply offended when a feminist award was given to her undeserving male boss as an attention-grabbing gimmick.
But what really makes Leslie the image of a modern feminist is her confidence and attitude. She is upbeat and strong, believably great at her job, and always self-assured. Unlike Liz Lemon, whose feminism often verges on parody on "30 Rock", and so many lesser female TV characters, Leslie Knope is not constantly obsessed with her appearance or love life. Yes, she dates, but she has a life outside of it. She doesn't drop everything for a boy. Even more importantly, she has female friends that she cares about and supports. She is never catty or backstabbing. Her friendship with Ann is ridiculously healthy for a TV show.
These are simple things, but they matter. So often female friendships on TV are more like competitions. To many TV women, being single is like a death sentence. Their lives revolve around their romantic relationships, instead of their careers or friends. And while there is nothing wrong with caring about finding love, I certainly prefer Leslie's way of looking at the world, which is more concerned with making other people happy and doing her job well than with finding the perfect mate. She finds satisfaction in living life in a positive and productive way.
So, no, Leslie is not an ass-kicking spy, or a quippy and clever teen detective, or a superhero. But in many ways she has the power to do more for feminism than any of them. Her life is attainable. Young girls could potentially look at Leslie, at her successes and her optimism, and strive to be like her, and the world would be a better place for it. A character like Buffy may be a little flashier, but, no matter how hard we wish it, most of us don't get to be awesome vampire slayers (I should know). Deputy director of a Parks department, with aspirations to keep moving up the political ladder? Much more doable.
One of my favorite moments of the entire series is in the episode "Hunting Trip," when Leslie tries to cover for a coworker by saying she was the one who accidently shot their boss, and encounters a sexist park ranger in the process:
Basically, Amy Poehler and the writers of "Parks and Rec" have created a character who is really just a regular woman in a lot of ways, but in her lack of drama and upbeat confidence she is unique. I find it refreshing to not hear a woman on TV constantly criticizing herself or others. To me, Leslie's awesome attitude, strong work ethic, and empathy for others are markers of a true and relatable feminist. It doesn't hurt that she's smart and hilarious.
Screw Buffy, I want to be Leslie Knope when I grow up.