There’s a moment at the end of “One In 8,000,” the penultimate episode of Parks And Recreation’s sixth season, in which Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) attempts to assuage the fears of her husband Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) as he melts down, overwhelmed at the inevitable challenge and expense that will accompany their (as yet unborn) triplets. She says to him:
Because I realized something. Everything that we have been through—the Harvest Festival, the election, the recall, the merger, Ann leaving, Larry changing his name for some stupid reason, all of it has just been preparation for this.
And in that instant, there was a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of “Knope 2012” bumper stickers cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced… by “Baby On Board” signs.
Leslie Knope arrived on the television scene in 2009 as the new face of sitcom feminism. She was poorly calibrated in season one, often causing her to seem shrill, or worse, stupid. But the show quickly realized that the key to falling in love with Leslie Knope was to ground everything she did in her driving force: hope. Positive and driven, she was a different breed of feminist from those TV had seen before. She had always known the world as something she could conquer through inspiration, cooperation, and waffles. Leslie was indomitable and loyal. Nothing mattered more to her than her friends, her hometown, and her beloved parks department. She had strong feminist heroes (Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, to name two) and bold plans for the future. We loved Leslie Knope because although she wasn’t real, she reminded us that it was okay to dream big while we worked small and hoped that big things would come someday, both for ourselves and for her.
There is nothing wrong with Leslie Knope settling down and having (several) children. In fact, for a character her age, existing as she does within the confines of a small, hyper-conventional Midwestern small town, it would be odder if she wasn’t at least considering it. What is troubling, however, is how pervasive this trend has become with modern sitcom heroines. How far have we really come (or not come) since the dawn of TV feminism?
Much of the feminist lineage of the modern sitcom can be traced back to the 1970s and two distinct representatives of the form: Mary Richards and Maude Findlay. The two characters represented the cause in vastly different ways, and those differences gave rise to the two most dominant feminist characterizations to date. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was feminism by showing, not telling. It was revolutionary because it wasn’t Mary Richards’ priority to marry and procreate. What mattered was career fulfillment, yes, but also the meaningful relationships she formed with her friends and coworkers. Maude, meanwhile, was the opposite: The eponymous heroine was steadfast in her beliefs, espousing confrontational views on equality not just for women, but on the racial front as well. As much as Archie Bunker (from whose series she spun off) brayed at television audiences from the quickly receding past, so did Maude Findlay bleat from the rapidly approaching future: Equality was coming, and it was coming for you.
Maude’s and Mary’s descendants are easily traceable through the last 40 years. The spiritual daughters of Maude are outspoken, the Clair Huxtables and Julia Sugarbakers. They are often older, established women with grown (or growing) children, or aging women for whom pregnancy was unexpected and forced them to re-evaluate their life’s trajectory, as with both Murphy Brown and Sex And The City’s Miranda Hobbes. Pregnancy became a question of what happens when you get something you didn’t want, only to find that you don’t not want it either. While viewers tired of the “Can women really have it all?” question, the exploration in these previous cases was well worth the journey. Maude’s line also includes Elaine Benes, Seinfeld’s lone female regular, who spoke her mind and had no trouble besting her male counterparts in a battle of the wits. Sex positive and openly pro-choice, Elaine dated around freely, engaging in only one long-term romantic relationship (outside of a historical relationship with Jerry). She ends the show unattached and childless, one of the few feminist sitcom icons since Mary Richards whose arc ends in such a state.
Characters sprouting from the Mary Richards family tree tend to thrive in more traditional workplace comedies. Here can be found the Ally McBeals, the Liz Lemons, and, yes, the Leslie Knopes. While generally liberal or progressive, these characters represent feminism more than they preach it. They’re running writers’ rooms and government offices. They’re successful single lawyers aware of their biological clocks but not slaves to it. Yet the feminist struggle often gets murkier with these characters. Unlike their ’70s foremother, each of these characters ends up with (at least one) child by the end of their show’s run, be it in classic, inexplicable David E. Kelley style (Ally’s child, who is the product of an egg donation, suddenly orphaned and played by a young Hayden Panettiere), in service of a greater joke (Liz Lemon’s mismatched twins), or as, well, whatever Parks And Rec is going for with Leslie’s pregnancy. On the eve of the sixth-season finale, much of that remains to be seen.
For a long time, Parks And Recreation seemed like the closest modern television would come to capturing the purity of the subtly feminist workplace sitcom, still best modeled by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The series’ cast was deep and diverse, and the characters continued evolving in new and surprising ways. For the longest time, the purest story engine for the show was Leslie’s seemingly unsinkable drive to do nothing less than make the entire world a better place. What’s more, she made an entire viewing audience believe she was capable of achieving those goals. Leslie Knope found a way to make the most mundane of government tasks not just interesting but something worth caring about—no small task when it comes to politics, big or small. She was constantly challenging her constituents and her viewers to think differently: What if instead of a pit full of garbage, a park? What if instead of a widespread government shutdown, an elaborate festival?
The show itself reflected her. It was a ratings underdog, a solid enough performer whose continued existence seemed fueled solely by a fictional character’s force of will. What happens then, when those exploits and adventures, the struggles and successes of that character, are retconned into being merely preparation for having children?
It would be one thing if Leslie Knope represented an isolated example in the current television landscape. But, TV’s modern sitcom feminists are wealthier and whiter than ever before. (As an unfortunate byproduct, this increasingly precludes a third model of sitcom feminist: Blue-collar characters who took up the cause by necessity, originated by One Day At A Time’s Ann Romano and Good Times’ Florida Evans.) They are blessed with choice and agency, the ability to blaze their own trails, and the courage to set their own course. It is brilliant that 40-plus years has allowed growth and change enough that the question of having it all has been eliminated. Of course women can have it all. Nor is the question should women have it all. The question is, must women have it all.
There are exceptions. Indeed, you only have to look as far as the supporting cast of Knope’s own show to see examples of childless women living fulfilled and fascinating lives. Donna Meagle and April Ludgate both travel paths with little to no interest in procreation, but still find satisfaction and hilarity in equal measure. They are proof that TV has fewer qualms with relegating this particular choice to ancillary characters. The problem is how often the medium hedges its bets when it comes to its main characters, whose series-long journeys almost always culminate in the birth of a child—and, oddly enough, increasingly do so. The more that TV comedy is defined by funny women, the more that their journeys seem to culminate in childbirth. The handful of exceptions are either so young they wouldn’t realistically be considering having children or on shows new enough to not have turned to this particular plot development just yet. Comedy Central’s Broad City, for instance, or HBO’s Girls.
At what point will it be more acceptable for our feminist heroines to not choose children? And if they do choose to have children, it should be reasonable to expect a show not to reframe all of their accomplishments to that point through the lens of pregnancy. Occasionally, it seems as though we’ve regressed from the days of a content and fulfilled Mary Richards, with happy, childless sitcom heroines fewer and farther between. When the female lead of How I Met Your Mother, Robin Scherbatsky, made the conscious decision not to have children, she was also rendered barren. All choices about procreation being equal, why does it occasionally feel as though television requires mitigating circumstances to choose abstention?
Beyond that, as motherhood continues to serve as a late-breaking character journey for many a sitcom heroine, why is that so rarely the case for our sitcom heroes? While the Jack Donaghys and Ron Swansons of the sitcom universe have children they care for, these are generally just another pit stop along their path. It is rarely ever their destination, the culmination of their series-long development. And if it is, it’s happening offscreen, as in the case of Michael Scott and the family he started between Steve Carell’s departure from The Office and his return in the finale.
There should be nothing political about procreation. There are plenty of television characters for whom raising a child will be the most important thing they ever do. But that shouldn’t be true for all characters. If we agree that any and all options are valid, why in 2014 are babies still the default mode—and especially for our female leads? If pregnancy plots are the last best hope of an aging sitcom—that’s three pregnancies on Parks in the last calendar year, for those keeping track—it shouldn’t be so much to ask that they not be treated as the apex of an empowered woman’s development. Everything in Leslie Knope’s life to this point proved that she was more than capable of handling anything that crossed her path, up to and including triplets. But it didn’t all happen merely to prove her mettle in the face of pregnancy.
Babies are not the enemy. They’re also not the endgame to every woman’s story, regardless of what sitcoms may tell us. Leslie Knope did a lot of good in her little world. She’ll likely do a lot more. But should the whole of her journey be reduced to whatever’s tied up in a little placenta package?