Parks and Recreation: Women and Fair Representation

For those of you who aren't aware, Parks & Recreation is an American sit-com with terrific representation. Be warned - I'll try and avoid them, but this post will contain spoilers, albeit very general ones.

Think The Thick Of It's quirky characters and bizarre events whilst remaining in the confines of realism. Then add the political, American slant of The West Wing's office community. In fact, this is possibly the best show I've seen since West Wing, and when I considered what an English version of Parks & Rec, would be like, The Thick Of It came to mind - which is as much of a reflection on England as it is of Parks & Rec, I suppose.

The show focuses on, unsurprisingly, an American local government department for Parks & Recreation, with the main character, Leslie Knope, being the show's crowning glory. I've heard many people praise this show for its female role models with special commendation to her, and I support this fully, but there's so much more to the progressive attitudes of this show.

Although having an equal gender balance in the primary cast may seem like a rather straightforward box to check, it's important to remember that the more people in a show, the more realistic the characters can be as it allows for a wider spread of demographics. When you compare Parks & Recreation to The West Wing, the difference in gender balance is glaringly obvious. You've only got C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) in the main cast, with Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing) occasionally jumping in. Look at the top billed cast on IMDb and you'll see it's a male dominated one.

Hone in on Allison Janney for a moment - throughout the seasons she is portrayed as almost unwaveringly headstrong, bar an emotional family plot line in the fourth season. She almost seems so headstrong that it's unrealistic, whilst Donna often serves as an opposite. They're not at both ends of the spectrum, but they are far apart, as though the cast is trying to cover all female roles with two characters.

When you allow more women into the cast, you can get more realistic characters, especially in terms of character development over time. This allows for career focussed women whose career progresses, closed off women who open up, women who go through the I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-my-life stage of adolescence and find themselves - essentially, women get the same level of character development as men do.

And so, the result of having equal representation is that you get a more realistic portrayal of women, moving away from age-old archetypes. That doesn't mean to say that elements of them don't play in - take for example the archetype of the mother. Some of the mothers in Parks & Rec aren't all too motherly, more a stern figure than your stereotypical over-protective, ever-nurturing figure, but that doesn't mean the women who put being a mother over a other aspects of their life don't exist - more females in a cast gives them the opportunity to exist alongside.

The show occasionally takes on a very meta approach to feminism, a prime example being an episode where "women of the year" awards are handed out, but one raises an excellent point. A male asks the press why he is never asked about who's looking after his kids whilst he works, but his wife is constantly asked the same question. Especially in the show's later seasons, these sort of questions are asked more often.

There has always been an argument that in order to for a piece of media to represent feminism, all the women involved must be strong and remain unconnected to any man. This is mirrored in society where cis, straight, women are over-encouraged to reject femininity so as to embrace feminism, which makes no sense if you ask me. In allowing a wide range of personalities to be portrayed through fair representation, the realism of the situation breaks apart ideas of women the media so often shows us.


  1. The portrayal of women in The West Wing is heartbreakingly bad and something that is a common factor in Sorkin's work. CJ is actually not headstrong, in many ways she's portrayed as needing guidance from the others on a regular basis - and her love life is a liability to her job in many ways. (To be fair, Josh also have love life as liability issues as well.) That CJ is such a fabulous character is down to Janney's portrayal and nothing more. There are more supporting characters in the women who would have been really interesting to bump up - I'm thinking Nancy McNally the Head of Security (a role made a women apparently by Madeleine Albright having a word with the producers of the show). As much as I love The West Wing, the way women are viewed throughout makes me want to pull my hair out in frustration - I think you've made some really good points about P&R, a show I've not watched in full, and how we should just be allowing female roles just to be human, to grow and change and to be given scope.


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