The schlumpy dude/hot wife dynamic began in a burst of misplaced feminism. No longer would the wise, protective man take care of his naive and foolish wife; instead (and pay close attention here, because this is where the TV executive brilliance comes in), the wife would be smart and the husband stupid (I know. Contain yourself, Mensa.). Now this, of course, opened itself to a whole array of other issues, but most annoyingly, it all but eliminated the possibility of a woman making a fool of herself for comedy. She had to be the long-suffering adult, taking care of the men-children around her, and we the audience didn’t help, because any suggestion of a slightly less-capable woman was met with screams of sexism.
Which is why Liz Lemon was a revelation. She was smart, she was competent, she was focused on her career, but more than that, she was a complete and total sad-sack. Despite this, it’s impossible to argue that Liz Lemon made women appear weak, because she took those fears and exaggerated them to the extent that the character’s mock-liberal-feminism was part of the joke. Up until arguably the very last scene of the series, Liz was the quintessential Charlie Brown, except that her football was the post-feminist ideal of “having it all.” She interrogated the expectations of modern womanhood in a way few other people have been able to, and made it hysterically funny in the process.
And yet, as much as 30 Rock is totally deserving of all the praise everyone always heaps on it, it sometimes got a little too caught up in this obsession. Which is fine! 30 Rock managed to incorporate Liz Lemon’s attempts to reconcile work and domesticity, Tina Fey’s attempts to do the same, and the way in which the show itself broke down all of these ideologies and archetypes and expectations in a meta-self-aware hodgepodge of innovative television comedy, and it didn’t really have many precursors on which to model itself. But the thing is, somehow, as part of all of this, it ended up making Liz Lemon pretty pathetic within the world of the show.
This isn’t to say that the audience didn’t root for her, or that she wasn’t intelligent and good at what she did and lovable in her weird, quirky way, but Liz Lemon was the character nobody respected. She muddled along, mostly sure in her convictions, but the entire world seemed calibrated to destroy specifically her. And that’s what Leslie Knope does better than Liz Lemon, because where Liz is the character nobody respects, Leslie is the character who is so awesome that the humor is derived from the rest of the world not meeting up to her standards.
Liz and Leslie are, in many ways, very similar. They are hypercompetent, intelligent, independent women with quirky interests and a lot of passion for work no one else cares about quite as much. But, maybe because Parks and Rec is such a nice show – nicer than pretty much anything else on television, let alone the notoriously prickly 30 Rock – everyone else in Parks and Rec cheers Leslie on. Leslie doesn’t have to obsess over “having it all” because there’s never any question that she can, and that comes in equal parts from Leslie’s own aptitude at everything and from the fact that nobody around her denies that possibility. Sure, the show pokes holes in some of Leslie’s more extreme affectations and fancies, but it never once undermines her at her core.
Tina Fey broke barriers by allowing us to laugh at her, but Amy Poehler takes that a step further and invites us to laugh with her character, by making the source of conflict external and thus allowing Leslie to fail while retaining her dignity. Liz Lemon’s neuroticism would have never allowed her to pull down her pants on live television with the panache that Leslie pulls it off (literally) (sorry), and Leslie’s natural optimism would have never gotten her into some of the righteous yet futile scrapes that Liz constantly found herself in. Or, to be more specific, her idealism is never suggested to be a bad quality; Parks and Rec would never have the scene in which Jack brings Liz to a conservative fundraiser so she can make a fool of herself and raise him money. Again, a lot of this comes from the fact that Parks and Rec is so good-hearted, but Leslie Knope proves that you don’t have to make fun of feminists in order to have a funny feminist character.
Parks and Rec also improved on 30 Rock’s example with the relationships the protagonist finds herself in. 30 Rock had one of the absolute best platonic male/female friendships I have ever seen in fiction. I’ve ranted at length about the lack of these relationships in pop culture, so I won’t do that again, but I will say that I adore seeing a show resist romantic do-si-do even after it’s gotten to seven seasons. Yet as great as Jack and Liz are, there’s always a power imbalance in their relationship. It’s because they’re such perfect foils for each other; if Liz is invariably pathetic, Jack must be nearly perfect. And so, despite how much the characters cared for one another, I always felt like Liz at least showed a lot more respect for Jack than he ever showed for her. They never quite felt like equals – though Liz might rant and rave against Jack, the real power was always in the way he expected her to screw up, and the way in which he was the one who fixed her problems.
Ron and Leslie began with a similar dynamic – hypercompetent liberal female employee against conservative (or libertarian or whatever) manly man boss. But Parks and Rec quickly discarded that antagonistic relationship in favor of a much more rewarding one of equals. Ron respects Leslie, supports her unfailingly, admits flat out “I owe Leslie a million favors.” He’s not above taking advantage of Leslie’s initiative to avoid doing his own job, but he at least recognizes how much better she is at what she does, and tells her that when appropriate. Furthermore, although Ron Swanson might be a memetic badass, the show isn’t afraid to make him look ridiculous, like when he runs for food, or does things like this:
In this way, Leslie’s own absurdities don’t unbalance their relationship quite as much. And where Liz and Jack were a comedy of opposites, Ron and Leslie can bond over a shared disbelief that people would eat things other than breakfast food, and it makes their hanging out seem less out of character. Not to say that Liz and Jack were too different to be friends, but when they shot the shit, it felt a lot more like Tina and Alec than Ron and Leslie feels like Nick and Amy. In other words, I can believe that Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin are friends, but their characters have so much less in common that the characters’ friendliness feels, sometimes, more like the actors’ closeness bleeding through. In contrast, Leslie and Ron have enough in common that their friendship makes sense without the metatextual awareness of the actors’ relationship.
Even more than that, Parks and Rec does female friendship so much better. Sure, 30 Rock had Liz and Jenna, and credit where credit is due, because good female friendships are even rarer than good male/female friendships. But Liz and Jenna doesn’t work quite as well for the same reason that everything from 30 Rock doesn’t work quite as well – the relationship was funny, but it never felt like a real friendship, the way Leslie and Ann does. Now, lots of people have complained that it doesn’t make sense anymore for Ann to be on the show, because she doesn’t work for the Parks department, and the pit isn’t really a plot line anymore, etc., etc. But I don’t care about any of those things, because it is so, so awesome to see two women being close, supportive friends with one another. As far as I’m concerned, Ann serves a purpose in that way alone, in rounding out Leslie’s character by giving her a positive female presence to interact with. (Because, hey, television: shockingly, in real life, women don’t just talk to or about dudes they want to bang.) And even look at the way both shows deal with the protagonist mentoring young women – Cerie is kind of a joke, while April genuinely respects and looks up to Leslie, again giving Parks and Rec the edge.
A lot of what 30 Rock did was in uncharted territory, and so they had to be two or three steps ahead of themselves at all times. They couldn’t be sure whether any of these things would work in the show, let alone be funny, and so they had to work those anxieties into the plot and characters themselves. Parks and Rec owes its ability to ignore those considerations to the foundation that 30 Rock laid. 30 Rock had to prove that these things could be funny, so it couldn’t spare energy to be nice – the humor had to be the first and, if necessary, only priority. Parks and Rec already knew these things could be funny, so it didn’t have to prove it, and therefore could have the comedy come from somewhere other than a compulsive self-reflection. They don’t have to be neurotic or self-aware, and the characters can reflect that relative relaxation.
So maybe it isn’t fair to say that Leslie Knope is better than Liz Lemon, because Leslie Knope only exists thanks to the work Liz Lemon did. But I’m going to say it anyway, because when I want to point to an awesome female character, I want the one who all the other characters want to be, not the one all the other characters make fun of. Liz Lemon is a comedic and feminist masterpiece, but Leslie Knope is even better.
None of this, of course, applies to the actresses, who are both amazing, brilliant, perfect specimens of humanity and the pinnacle of everything I aspire to in life. Here they are being wonderful and much, much better than Seth McFarlane (who makes the last 1600 words of ranting about the relative strength of really strong feminism seem sort of spoiled and a bit moot).