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The Leslie Knope Effect: A Look Into the Most Authentic Representations of Women on TV

The Leslie Knope Effect

My name is Sarah, and I am a television addict.

I routinely nerd out over reviews of my favorite shows, get overly attached to fictional characters and frequently spend my lunch hour analyzing my latest obsessions with my fellow fangirls. Call it what you want, but I love my shows.

One thing I love about television is its ability to tell stories over an extended period of time, making most great television shows complicated and emotional character studies. With a show that lasts four seasons, you have a chance to thoroughly examine characters and their motivations over dozens of hours, rather than say a film that lasts only 90 minutes. Great television characters are complicated, relatable and sympathetic, even when they are technically horrible people or anti-heroes.

Something I have noticed as I have gotten older is that television shows that feature complex, strong and three-dimensional female characters are hard to find. Don’t get me wrong, I love season one of True Detective as much as the next person, but a young adult woman can only handle so much male-only conversations, violence against women and female characters using their sexuality solely to move the plot forward. You feeling me, Smalls?

Since great female characters are hard to come by, I always get thoroughly excited when I start watching a new show that features women being confident and completely themselves. This list contains shows that tell stories from the female perspective, feature women being boss-ass bitches and/or women holding powerful positions in their prospective worlds. All of these shows pass the Bechdel test, meaning that they feature at least two female characters who talk about something more than men, which you would be surprised (or not surprised depending on your perspective) to know that many films and programs have difficulty passing.

 


 

Inside Amy Schumer

amy-schumer

After the release of Trainwreck and the growing popularity of her show on Comedy Central, Amy Schumer has quickly become the most talked about feminist icon in pop culture this year. While the first two seasons of Inside Amy Schumer were sneaky with their feminist viewpoints, season three of the hit show was much more subversive, featuring sketches like the Friday Night Lights parody about football and rape culture. Even though the media coverage of Schumer in the last few months has gotten out of control, I still greatly admire her as a creator, showrunner and role model. Through her show, her writing and her public persona, Amy Schumer has become a voice for women everywhere through her infectious confidence and ability to make us laugh and think critically about gender inequality in this country.

 


 

Broad City

Broad City

I’ve probably said this about every show on this list, but I freaking adore Broad City. It’s hilarious, it’s eerily relatable and it has taken my expectations for friendship to a whole new level. While best friends Abbi and Ilana can be completely ridiculous, they are always fully and completely themselves which is so unbelievably refreshing for female characters on television. They make each other laugh, they believe in each other and they care about each other because that is simply what friends do. I couldn’t pick two human beings to more accurately depict the utter weirdness that is life for a twenty-something woman in 2015.

 


 

Bob’s Burgers

Bob's Burgers

Seeing as I am not usually the biggest fan of animated shows, I was hesitant to start watching Bob’s Burgers, but man was I in for a pleasant surprise. So tenderhearted and hilarious without being mean or putting other characters down for laughs, Bob’s Burgers manages to portray a family of lovable weirdos who truly don’t care what other people think about them. The three ladies of the show, awkward thirteen-year-old Tina, rambunctious elementary schooler Louise and doting mother Linda, have become feminist icons for girls of my generation because they exemplify the reality that the only way to be happy with yourself and your life is to embrace your weirdness and the things that make you unique, which for Tina means writing friendship fan fiction and fantasizing about horses and zombies.

 


 

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black

By featuring a diverse cast of female characters who represent a variety of perspectives rarely seen in the mainstream media, Orange is the New Black has been a groundbreaking television show for Netflix and the entire medium of television. Not only does the show do an excellent job exploring racial and ethnic tensions present in Litchfield Penitentiary, but the show also shines a light on issues surrounding sexuality and different socio-economic backgrounds. Each episode gives audiences a first-hand account of how these women ended up in prison, oftentimes under circumstances that we would not expect. The show does a great job of humanizing the women and making us care about their fate, even if the characters are deeply flawed. If Orange is the New Black has taught audiences anything, it is that issues surrounding race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender inequality deserve to be talked about, analyzed and discussed, even when things get uncomfortable.

 


 

Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation

Amy Poehler’s portrayal of the waffle-loving, constantly positive, obsessive career woman, and caring mother, Leslie Knope, is a goddamn national treasure. Her optimism and aspirational career goals are contagious and constantly leave me feeling simultaneously inspired and lacking in my own ambition. An amazing friend who is full of love and admiration for all the ladies in her life, Leslie even created Galentine’s Day (February 13) for celebrating female friendship. If any woman can “have it all,” it’s Leslie Knope.

 


 

Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights

Far too often in my life, I have a conscious thought about how much I miss the show Friday Night Lights. Even though I am the furthest thing from a football fan, that show struck a chord in me. While Tim Riggins will always be my favorite character from Friday Night Lights, Connie Britton’s portrayal of Tami Taylor comes in a very close second. In a sense, Tami was at the heart of that show through her multiple roles as supportive wife, loving mother, guidance counselor, confidant, educator and all around bad-ass. Always knowing just what to say, Tami expertly balanced the many complicated aspects of her life the way any woman would hope to be able to with even half the grace. In the final season, we see Tami stand up for herself by expressing her desire to move to a new state, not for her husband’s new football coaching offer, but because she was offered her dream job. I would also like to say that she is able to do all the feats mentioned above with her hair and cleavage game ON POINT!

 


 

UnREAL

UnREAL

This past summer, Lifetime stepped up their game by airing the first of hopefully several seasons of the addictive, captivating and highly cynical show UnREAL about the behind-the-scenes world of reality dating shows like The Bachelor. A show created by women, written by women and starring women, UnREAL shines a light on the damaging effects of reality TV culture, women on women violence, our culture of slut-shaming and the princess fantasy myth. The show has highly cynical views on the possibility of finding true love and in a sense empowers the leads on the show to get their revenge against the “man-whores” who have done them wrong. Do yourself a favor and watch this show; it will challenge you to think critically, I promise.

 


 

The Fall

The Fall

While shows about serial killers are starting to become overdone, I would argue that The Fall is in a league of its own. For a show about a serial killer that targets women, The Fall attempts to portray them as people rather than merely victims or simply plot devices. Stella, played by the incredible ice queen Gillian Anderson, is at the heart of the show as the female detective on the hunt for the killer (Jamie Dornan). By focusing on issues of misogyny, workplace power dynamics, gender roles and feminine sexuality, The Fall will leave you asking questions and examining your own beliefs about the world. The chemistry between Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan is reason enough to watch.

 


 

Playing House

Playing House

An incredibly sweet show about the importance of female friendship, Playing House is about best friends Maggie and Emma as they learn to raise a baby together after Maggie’s husband gets caught cheating on her. The characters on this show are so lovable, none more so than Mark, played by Keegan Michael Key; they are constantly making each other laugh and the tone is so inclusive and fun. While the show is most definitely a sitcom, don’t be fooled, there are some really heartfelt moments that are sure to bring tears to your eyes. Playing House is the best romantic comedy to hit TV in years.

 


 

Honorable Mentions

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt, Hannibal, Please Like Me, United States of Tara

 

  • Elizabeth Lannan
    Elizabeth
    December 16, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    I love this! Aside from the fact that I have an annual Galentine’s Day party, I identify most with Liz Lemon. She makes me feel okay about trying to overachieve at work and be okay with being my quirky self.