Jan, Kelly, Angela and Pam: Feminist Icons?
by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
The premiere of the 5th (4th? 5th? Can it have been 5 years?) season of "The Office" is tonight, and at 9 pm sharp, I will be sitting in a TV lounge tonight, ready to wince and cringe over Michael Scott's latest antics. I loved the show from the beginning, partially because it was so willing to boldly (and hilariously) address some of the most outrageous and offensive aspects of office racism and sexism. Michael, for all of his good intentions, is incapable of seeing a woman (or a person of any minority, or anyone with a disability) as his equal, even though they are all far more competent. The constant gap between Michael's perceptions and his total incompetence and offensiveness are what makes the show so wonderful.
The tension between Michael and Jan, his boss, was one of the best parts of the first couple of seasons. Michael’s clumsy and constant attempts to hit on her, and then her attempts to hide their relationship in the face of massive obstacles (including a compromising photo which Michael forwards accidentally to most of the office) were a smart, incisive satire on the sexism that women must avoid every day. The other female characters respond with a mixture of shock and disgust to Michael’s antics, and his inability to characterize any woman as anything other than a matron, a sex interest, or an idiot. These woman are, obviously, far from any of these stereotypes and are among the closest to real people that we can see on television. And, more importantly, they are forced to put up with a more exaggerated version of the harassment and misogyny that almost all women must endure.
The show’s wrong turn came in the third and fourth seasons, mostly with the portrayal of Jan, who was fired and suddenly became psychopathic and hysterical. This reached its high point during an episode where she responds to the obvious frustrations of living with Michael (who broke a glass door by walking through it, and insists on hanging a neon beer sign in the living room) by breaking down. But we are now laughing at her, and her absurd reaction, rather than Michael.
The show is now more sitcom than satire, also plain in the growing relationship between Jim and Pam. Marriage? What? Things going well? The show was wonderful when it thrived on the absurdity of office politics, but once we became invested in inter-office romantic relationships, the characters reverted to gender stereotypes. Angela, once just frigid, becomes hypocritical when she is drawn into the office love triangle (such as it is) and Kelly, who was always a little too ridiculous for my comfort, goes over the top in the episode where Michael sees her running, squealing, into a Victoria’s Secret and kindly “wishes her a brain.”
So my hope for tonight: let’s see a little more of the old satire, and a little less of Jan and Michael, Jim and Pam. I can get soap opera on “Grey’s Anatomy”, and “The Office” just isn’t as funny anymore.