When Satire Goes too Far
Almost everyone in our generation knows the physically painful secondhand embarrassment that comes with watching “The Office.” For me, it was almost too much to bear when my friends first introduced me to the show. But once I got used to Michael Scott’s socially oblivious shenanigans, I began to appreciate the humor and I got very invested. I think I finished all nine seasons over the course of the summer before college and the first month of my freshman year. The show aired from 2005 to 2013, but its legacy lives on strong - nearly everyone I know likes “The Office” and I’m constantly running into references to it in my daily life.
I’ve always been passionate about feminism and social change, and I view the world through this lens. I can’t watch a show or read a book without being curious about the way it portrays gender roles, whether it upholds or challenges stereotypes and what kind of message it seeks to send. In order to enjoy “The Office,” I had to put some of this aside. There’s a lot to unpack in the show in terms of misogyny, racism, homophobia and just about every other social issue. I found it hard to analyze at first because there seemed to be so many layers to the comedy and satire. In the early 2000s, workplaces were attempting to eradicate racial prejudices and discrimination, and offices were filled with well meaning but misinformed white liberals with an “I’m not racist, I’m voting for Obama!” mentality. A classic example of this is the episode “Diversity Day.” Michael Scott attempts to educate the office about racism by singling out people of color and making inappropriate comments and jokes about racial identities. I always saw this whole episode as a sympathetic nod to the people of color who have to deal with this bullshit from the Michaels of the world. But on a deeper level, the show mocks the attempts workplaces make to end prejudice, with the “hero” initiative that Michael makes a joke of or the “Print in All Colors” program that gives Kelly the opportunity to buy the whole office Hello Kitty laptop cases.
While the show plays with different elements of our society’s battle with racial issues, it also grapples with gender roles. Everyone loves Pam, a mellow, quiet woman who doesn’t want to upset anyone and has been stuck in a three year engagement with an asshole. Then we are introduced to Kelly and Angela, two polar opposites who both contrast her. Kelly’s character portrays womanhood as silly and shallow, with her obsessions with celebrities and fashion,
whereas Angela is strict and religious (although she proves to be hypocritical in her views when she has multiple affairs). Pam is seen as the ideal woman, more level headed than Kelly but more easy-going than Angela.
I’m just tired of Angela’s bigotry being excused as a character trait and Kelly’s vibrant femininity being portrayed as stupid and inferior. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kelly is the one of the only women of color on the show and is also taken the least seriously. I was happy when Pam left Roy, went to art school and began standing up for herself and putting her needs first. However, all this awakening really amounted to was her getting married and becoming a mother. We’re supposed to see her relationship with Jim as empowering, and while Jim is much more collected and respectful than most of the men in “The Office,” I don’t think that not hating women makes you an admirable man - that’s literally the bare minimum.
Pam’s choice to give up on art school and settle down with Jim doesn’t bother me at all - I admire working mothers and their tireless commitment to providing for their families as well as the 24/7 job of parenting. What I have a problem with is the way this choice makes her the ideal woman. I felt like Pam’s career was anticlimactic. The message this sends to women is that it’s okay to feel empowered and pursue a career, as long as you don’t stray too far from your assigned role in our society. You can be independent from men, but not too much. You can make your voice heard, but you can’t get too loud.
As a woman, one of the aspects of “The Office” that bothers me the most is Michael Scott’s approach to dating. As Michael pursues inappropriate and unprofessional relationships with nearly every woman he meets, we’re expected to believe that he’s a nice guy underneath all of his social blunders. However, I can’t see it this way - all I see is a man who refuses to take a “no” from a woman and believes sexual conquests will fix his insecurity and loneliness. After harassing Jan for months and ignoring all of her refusals, we finally see her give in and reveal that she wanted Michael all along. This teaches men that if they pester women enough, they will eventually give in, which is not how it works at all. Angela finds herself in this same situation with Andy. He pesters her with a song, an ice sculpture, a cat and lots of unwelcome flirting
until she eventually gives in to a relationship that she clearly doesn’t want - she answers his proposal with “I guess.” The men of “The Office” and their attempts to navigate the dating world seem funny on the show, but imagining someone treating women this way in real life is kind of horrifying, and I don’t think this kind of behavior should be normalized.
I think part of the reason “The Office” resonates so strongly with so many generations is its mockery of the awkward scenarios people find themselves in everyday at school or at a job. The show takes the mundane lives of office workers and blows up the everyday interactions into something slapstick, sarcastic and hilarious. As Pam says, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” As movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo gain
popularity, people have started talking about issues like workplace sexual harassment, discrimination, hate speech and what it means for a joke to be taken too far. People are forced to face their privilege to reevaluate the way our society functions and how their own actions play into that, and this awakening can be uncomfortable. In “The Office,” all of these different elements play out in the chaotic world of Dunder Mifflin. I don’t think we should label the show
as problematic and completely boycott it. I just think that when we watch the show, we should think about the way “The Office” plays into our society’s battle for social justice, and how it provides a snapshot of our progress as well as the long way we have to go.