It’s hard to describe the physical reaction that look place in my body when I saw Amy Poehler live and in the flesh. I was sitting in the poorly ventilated subterranean theatre of the Upright Citizens Brigade one sweaty June night, watching an all-star improv show — the final night of the 2013 Del Close Marathon. There were rumors that Poehler might show up, though there had been similar rumors about a show earlier in the week, and she never arrived. Most of the people around me got pretty excited when Horatio Sanz walked on stage, and almost everyone screamed with glee when Louie CK showed up. I wasn’t displeased to see those guys, but when Amy Poehler walked onto the stage and smiled and waved at the crowd, it was like I temporarily lost control of my own vocal chords. High pitched screams were being pulled out of my throat — now I know how Beliebers and One Direction fans must feel. I lost my shit. I didn’t take my eyes off her the whole night, even when she was sitting down watching her teammates perform. All of which is to say: I think Amy Poehler is fantastic. I think she’s one of the smartest, most generous, and most consistently funny comedians working today, and I love that she’s found a way to make the kind of media she wants to make, whether it’s her award-winning sitcom, her advice videos for young girls (which also work just fine for 26-year-old women), or her social justice efforts.
You know what’s not fantastic? Her new ad for Old Navy.
I wanted to like them, and I really do not. I wanted them to be smart and funny and feminist, like she is, and like a lot of her work is, but they really are not.
The basic premise of the ad is that Amy Poehler is a tough lady lawyer who’s interviewing an applicant for an assistant position. But loopy tough lady lawyer is too distracted by the applicant’s amazing Old Navy “pixie pants” that she can’t concentrate and can only ask questions about the pants. Then she runs out the door to go buy herself a pair. What? Old Navy, you paid an advertising firm millions of dollars to come up with a concept for an ad campaign starring Emmy-winning improv-extraordinaire feminist comedienne Amy Poehler and all you got was “ladies love shopping, amirite?”
What’s frustrating about this ad — beyond the fact that it contradicts pretty much everything Amy Poehler appears to stand for — is that there are tantalizing glimpses of how good it could have been. In the extended version, in which we see Poehler doing a lot of improv, we get a sense of the myriad other directions in which this ad could have gone. Instead, it went to a boring, sexist direction: this apparently hard-driving, suit-wearing woman lawyer doesn’t really take her work that seriously, especially when there are bargain-priced capri-cut pants on the line!
I appreciate the obvious nods to The Devil Wears Prada here (do you want to see Amy Poehler and Meryl Streep do comedy together? Because I sure as hell do), and I understand that for a lot of people, what’s endearing and entertaining about Leslie Knope is not her feminism, but her daffiness. But did this ad have to have so little feminism, and so much daffiness?
Fans of Parks and Recreation will remember the episode in Season 2 in which Leslie and her officemates go hunting, and Leslie takes the fall when one of her male colleagues shoots another colleague by accident. Faced with a Park Ranger who tells her that she probably didn’t check the whole field because she’s a woman, and women often have trouble with tunnel vision, Leslie fires off a slew of stereotypically feminine responses — “I let my emotions get in the way,” “I thought there would be chocolate,” “I’m good at tolerating pain, I’m bad at math, and I’m stupid” — that were clearly improvised by Poehler. The supercut is hilarious, and serves as a miserable reminder of what that Old Navy ad could have done. It could have poked fun at sexist stereotypes instead of indulging in them.
And, to add insult to sexist injury, the ad is just not that funny. It’s hard not to watch that scene, or this hilarious one, in which Leslie Knope is delirious with flu, and feel that Old Navy wasted an opportunity.
There are very few things that could diminish or erase my regard for Amy Poehler, and this ad isn’t one of them. At the end of the day, I doubt she had a lot of say in how the ad shaped up. But literally dozens of other people — people who make a tidy living making commercials — had that say, and this is what they went with. Ladies hate working and love shopping. If that’s the best they can do, they don’t deserve Amy Poehler.