Pop Culture’s Take on Optimism

Considering a good portion of the human population will identify as either pessimists or optimists, it’s inevitable that characters in pop culture media will follow the same pattern. But take a second to think of optimistic characters in popular TV shows and movies; after researching the optimistic trait, it tends to be blown out of proportion. So many optimistic characters just seem to be a little too optimistic, doing and saying things no real person would ever do or say in a similar situation. Psychologists have found that many people must work toward an optimistic nature, and even those who are extremely optimistic will not always be happy (McGowan, 2008).

Parks and Recreation is a light-hearted, comedy series whose leading character is the happiest, most optimistic woman you’ll see on television. Leslie Knope works for her small town’s Parks and Recreational department in order to make the town a better place to live. As Mark Dawidziak, a critic of the show, described Leslie, “She’s a wide-eyed mid-level Parks and Rec official who, despite her years in local government, has not let politics dampen her sense of optimism,” (Dawidziak, 2009). Leslie is a hard working professional, but she blindly follows her optimistic outlook on the world more often than not. Bad situations and outcomes still get her down, but she’s fast to recover and look forward to what may happen next. In an episode where Leslie is taken to Washington, D.C., her husband, Ben Wyatt, takes her to see the White House. He pulls her away, saying he has a surprise for her. Leslie’s first reaction was excitedly asking him, “Is it a waffle tower?” She’s a character who is always overflowing with emotions, mostly joyful ones. Later in the same episode, April (Leslie’s pessimistic assistant) comes to Leslie with an idea to open a dog park. She’s so excited, she says, “I’m so proud of her I could cry,” and then starts crying. This type of behavior is a bit extreme, and obviously meant to be humorous. Leslie Knope is the kind of character who is so optimistic, she doesn’t worry as severely as others which makes it easier for her to be happier than others.

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation

What does this mean for real life optimists and the rest of society? Shows and movies like Parks and Recreation often create comedic characters like Leslie Knope, that are stereo-typically over-optimistic about everything to be humorous. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the perspective from which it is viewed. It’s bad for society, as it makes the viewers believe that only white women can be happy and optimistic. The over-excited characters may be a good thing though, because it may push some viewers to become more optimistic themselves.

Not only are the optimists in pop culture media being portrayed by a majority of white people, they are also often played by women. Because optimism is a personality trait that is arguably a natural characteristic that many people are born with, it’s ridiculous to assume most optimistic people are Caucasian women. This may be a setback for our society as a whole, because it may push some people to think optimism is only for happy, white women; or even that all white women are happy. Parks and Recreation also stars a black woman, Donna Meagle (played by Retta Sirleaf), whose character wasn’t fully developed until later in the second and third seasons. The writers of the series probably realized they needed a shift in attitudes in the show and decided to make Donna the type of woman who is proud of herself and also certain that her future will be a good one. This is a nice change of pace compared to the constant stereotype of the white woman optimist, but she is still a side character (and a woman) that did not contribute enough to the show to prove to be a tide changer.

Cast of Parks and Recreation

Cast of Parks and Recreation

Optimists are also misrepresented in the fact that they are not actually happy every minute of the day, like they are portrayed in many TV series and movies. Several of those who consider themselves to be optimists make a genuine effort to think positively, so it’s absurd to assume people actually feel and act the way stereotypical optimists do. However, it’s possible that this type of character’s tendencies will rub off on the audience and make them try to become more optimistic. Kate McGowan discusses in her article, “Second Nature”, how many people wish to be happier, and how it is very possible to become more optimistic with enough time and effort (McGowan, 2008). This is important to consider, because it means that even pessimists may learn to be happy and optimistic if they try. So if an audience is shown enough optimism in the media, they may pursue those same traits.

Another character that supports this theory of the over-used stereotypical optimist is Honey Lemon from the movie Big Hero 6. She is one of the main character’s friends, who tries very hard to make everyone else happy. Like Leslie Knope, she is a white woman with blonde hair, and is always looking for the best in every situation. There is one scene in the movie when a masked man is chasing the group of friends with a hoard of little robots called microbots, and Honey Lemon’s first reaction to her friends is, “Let’s not jump to conclusions. We don’t know that he’s trying to kill us.” This is an incredible response, as most people would immediately assume the man was out to kill them. Then after they get trapped in a tunnel of microbots, one of the other characters is shouting, “We’re not going to make it!” and Honey Lemon responds, “We’re going to make it!” every time. Honey Lemon is an exceptionally happy and optimistic character; a little too much so to reflect real optimists.

Hiro Hamada and Honey Lemon from Disney’s Big Hero 6

Hiro Hamada and Honey Lemon from Disney’s Big Hero 6

Now consider a few male optimists from pop culture media, there may not be as many, but they too usually follow the pattern of being overly happy. Peter Quill, from Guardians of the Galaxy, follows this pattern with a few extra complex character traits. Peter Quill is an orphan from Earth who was abducted by an alien pirate crew just minutes after his mother died in front of him. He grew up in a space ship full of aliens who stole items across the galaxy for a living. Despite these horrible early memories and scary living conditions, Peter is confident he can do anything he puts his mind to. He runs away from the alien pirates who raised him, and ends up getting into a scuffle with three other characters. They are all caught and thrown in prison after, where they come together and scheme a way to break out. This part is interesting, because despite Peter’s constant optimism about getting what’s rightfully his and living day by day without worry, his initial thoughts on the plan are, “There’s no way this can work.” However, as soon as he says that, he changes his mind and says, “Okay let’s do it.” This shows Peter’s complexities as an optimist, and how he is more realistic than either Leslie Knope or Honey Lemon. He does do crazy things that only a blindly optimistic person would do, though. At the very end of the movie, Ronan (the main antagonist) is seconds away from taking over the entire universe, but Peter starts dancing and challenges him to a dance off simply to stall him.

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy

All of these characters are incredibly optimistic, the cream of the crop. It’s interesting to note that Honey Lemon and Peter Quill both become heroes, while Leslie Knope is trying to work herself up through the ranks of government. They all have big dreams, and work hard every day to become better people. Not all optimists get the chance to become what they wish to be, but it’s still good to dream and work toward those goals. These characters show how important it is to be optimistic, if you plan on accomplishing your dreams. It may be problematic that they are all white characters, and two out of three are women, but in the end it doesn’t seem to be adversely affecting society. It’s unusual to hear anybody complaining that the media is racist or sexist when it comes to the representation of optimists; in fact, it’s rare to hear anything about optimistic characters in the media at all. With this in mind, it doesn’t seem to be an issue presently. Hopefully the stereo-typically happy optimists will push viewers to start thinking in a similar way: work hard and try to be happy.


Works Cited

Big Hero 6. Dir. Don Hall. Perf. Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, and Jamie Chung. Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2014. Film.

Daniels, Greg, and Michael Schur. Parks and Recreation. CNN. 9 Apr. 2009. Television.

Dawidziak, Mark. “’Parks and Recreation’: New NBC Comedy is Uneven but Promising.” WebCite. Cleveland Live, 7 Apr. 2009. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Guardians of the Galaxy. Dir. James Gunn. Perf. Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, and Bradley Cooper. Marvel Studios, 2014. Film.

McGowan, Kate. “Second Nature.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 1 Mar. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.


Learning Moments:

When I entered this class, I was very skeptical and scared of how it was going to work. I’d taken one online class before, but it was focused around using an online book and homework system so it was very simple and easy to use. However, this class was much more daunting because it involved a great deal of writing and peer work. But after Week 2, I realized how much I actually enjoyed participating in this class. The course blog was essential to my learning, because Daneen’s posts were very informative and everybody’s comments were interesting to read and reply to. The online blog discussions were much easier to work with than a traditional lecture/discussion.

One of the most important learning moments for me was finding primary sources and learning how to analyze them, with the help of the Research Analysis document. I put it off at first, because it seemed like so much work. But when I got into it, I actually really enjoyed it! Analyzing and interpreting some of my favorite TV shows and movies was so interesting to me! The whole process of writing and creating our own blog post was inspirational for me, and it was one of the first times I really enjoyed writing.

The second of my learning moments was when we read about media literacy from the article, “Media Literacy: An Alternative to Censorship”. I had never had any formal education on this topic, so researching it a bit and discussing it with the class was really interesting and helpful to me. I learned the difference between media literacy and censorship, and how censorship is helpful and also harmful to our youth. The article we read also taught me a great deal about the different ways we can solve the issues of media literacy not being taught well enough to the youth. I felt like those kind of lessons are necessary in our current society, with all of the different types of media that’s out there. I’ve been talking about these problems with my friends, and I hope we can make a change to censorship (among other things) soon.


2 thoughts on “Pop Culture’s Take on Optimism

  1. Throughout your example, I do agree that optimism will lead to success or at least not turn out to be worst. But in some cases, feeling will lead the way and drive people into different destination. Human is complicate and delicate. Movies and media just contribute partial of one aspect of life. I knew I have been influenced from media sometime in the past and act base on it. Optimism can also be the movie “Yes Man” of Jim Carrey or “Dumb and Dumber”. but as I said, human is sophisticate and optimism is not the only thing we need. I just simply share my personal opinion. Your paper give me lots of thought and it is hard for me to express all of it in here. Good jobs Jean!!

    • Thanks, Nguyen! You’re totally right that humans are really complicated and hard to fully understand. It’s interesting to hear that you too have been influenced by media, I hope it wasn’t a bad influence! I also didn’t think of Yes Man! But that’s a great example, I may have to go rewatch the movie now. I loved it, and it actually may have impacted me to be a bit more optimistic about life. Interesting opinions, thanks for the reply!

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