Mary Wollstonecraft: Guest of Honor at Galentine’s Day Dinner
Mary Wollstonecraft should be Leslie Knope’s guest of honor at next year’s Galentine’s Day dinner. Leslie Knope needs a framed portrait of Wollstonecraft on her wall of inspirational women. If they were to meet, I am certain Leslie Knope would refer to Mary Wollstonecraft as a beautiful tropical sunfish and take her out for waffles. All this honor and camaraderie would stem from the fact that Knope and Wollstonecraft are strategically disarming revolutionaries for women’s rights. Both women encase their potentially hard-to-swallow causes in a socially comfortable gelcap. After convincing society to lower their weapons, Wollstonecraft and Knope are then free to advance their common messages: that a woman’s potential and value extend well beyond ornamental purposes and that young girls should be provided with opportunities for physical development and education.
Wollstonecraft and the fictional Leslie Knope find ways to avoid appearing combative or threatening as they campaign for social change. For Wollstonecraft, the challenge was to convince a society of traditionally patriarchal men to further the cause of subservient women. She did this by “using a masculine stance to explore how best to change people’s habits of mind within an unaltered social structure. By adopting and, at times, agreeing with a traditionally masculine posture and position in the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft works to undermine it” (Garner, 82). Wollstonecraft sprinkles her radical assertions about the furthering of women with soothing reassurances to her male audience: “There is little reason to fear that women will acquire too much courage or fortitude; for their apparent inferiority with respect to bodily strength, must render them, in some degree, dependent on men in the various relations of life” (Wollstonecraft, 293). To address today’s gender inequities, Parks and Recreation writers utilize satire as well as the positive, quirky personality and extreme antics of Leslie Knope. Precedence is set wherein Knope can present exaggerated depictions of real world social issues. For example, Knope turns an underrepresentation of female sanitation employees into a crusade for gender equality, collecting garbage all day to prove women can handle the job. Knope’s sincere, zealous conviction is set against the foil of the male workers’ antagonism. Speaking about a heavy fridge which the men have challenged her to move, Knope says to a female co-worker: “We are not leaving until this symbolic feminine obstacle is loaded onto that truck of women’s advancement” (Women In Garbage). Viewers find themselves rooting for the idealistic, determined Knope and –by extension –the cause she is so passionate about.
Once they have their audience’s attention, Wollstonecraft and Knope work to remove negative mindsets which society perpetuates about women. One important social issue which both address is the fact that women are being valued as ornamental rather than as intelligent, capable humans. Wollstonecraft explains in A Vindication of the Rights of Women that women who have been cultivated to produce only a pretty appearance are like “flowers planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty” (Wollstonecraft, 290). She explains that these flowers fade before their intended maturity and instead advocates for the education of women and the cultivation of a strong mind and body. As evidence she points to history, observing that “the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex” (Wollstonecraft, 300). In Season 2 Episode 3 of Parks and Recreation, Knope takes on the appearance-versus-substance battle when she is asked to judge a beauty pageant. The other judges are eager to give the crown to the contestant they refer to as “The Hot One.” Only Leslie weighs the intellectual merits and talents of each contestant as she looks for the winner. She passionately tries to convince the other judges to see the bigger picture: “Whoever we choose is going to represent the ideal woman for a year. She’ll be someone who little girls in South Central Indiana look up to” (Beauty Pageant). As with the garbage collecting situation, Knope’s unyielding convictions are juxtaposed with the unfeeling, callous judges and their shallow views. The result is that viewers find themselves not only rooting Knope herself, but also for valuing substance over beauty.
In an effort to advance women’s rights and opportunities, both Wollstonecraft and Knope take an interest in the education and care of girls while they are young. Wollstonecraft repeatedly argues that women cannot hope to become virtuous or intelligent unless they are given the same opportunities for education as men. Wollstonecraft also stresses the importance of exploratory and physical play for both boys and girls in creating healthy, rational adults. “Most of the women, in the circle of my observation, who have acted like rational creatures, or shewn any vigor of intellect, have accidentally been allowed to run wild” (Wollstonecraft, 304). She points out that gender differences in play are social, not natural. In our time girls have many more opportunities for education and exercise. However, many stereotypes still exist about what activities should be assigned to each gender. In Season 4, Episode 4 of Parks and Recreation, Leslie is dismayed to learn that girls are not allowed to join the Pawnee Rangers. In response she creates the Pawnee Goddesses for girls. After satirical, ongoing battle-of-the-sexes competition between Leslie and Ron, leader of the Rangers, the clubs merge and we see that both boys and girls enjoy similar things: fun, puppy parties, and candy (Pawnee Rangers).
The battle for gender equality stretches into the past and will continue into the future as a world of imperfect people with differing viewpoints attempt to create harmony and justice. Mary Wollstonecraft and Leslie Knope each work with their own generation and culture’s tools to further women’s rights. Wollstonecraft hangs her revolutionary ideas on the existing patriarchal social framework. By identifying and addressing the potential fears and concerns of her opposition, she finds ways to introduce new ideas in a non-threatening manner. Leslie Knope possesses an extreme but sincere desire to advance the cause of women. Through satirical situations and dialogue, the writers of Parks and Recreation use Knope’s character to both identify with viewers and to raise awareness of current gender inequities. Both women should be celebrated for the skillful way in which they disarm potential opponents and work to make their worlds a more equitable place for women.
“Beauty Pageant.” Parks and Recreation, created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, performance by Amy Poehler, season 2, episode 3, Deedle-Dee Productions and Universal Media Studios, 2009.
Garner, Naomi Jayne. “‘Seeing through a Glass Darkly’: Wollstonecraft and the Confinements of Eighteenth-Century Femininity.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 11.3 (2009): 81-95. ProQuest. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.
“Pawnee Rangers.” Parks and Recreation, created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, performance by Amy Poehler, season 4, episode 4, Deedle-Dee Productions and Universal Media Studios, 2011.
Poehler, Amy, performer. Parks and Recreation. Deedle-Dee Productions and Universal Media Studios, 2009-2015.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A vindication of the Rights of Woman.” The Longman Anthology British Literature: Volume 2A, 4th Edition, edited by David Damrosch et.al., Pearson Education, Inc., 2010, 288-310.
“Women In Garbage.” Parks and Recreation, created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, performance by Amy Poehler, season 5, episode 11, Deedle-Dee Productions and Universal Media Studios, 2013.