Thursday, September 25, 2008

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.


At September 27, 2008 at 7:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree with this perspective: I think the greatest strength of the show lies in its (often) untapped postmodern potential...the relationships germinate and grow in a realistic sense—the interactions themselves address the world through an exaggerated mimesis. Perhaps some viewers can see subtle reflections of their own relationships here: I think it is realistic to depict Jan as the once-powerful, now-prone-to-emotional-breakdowns character for the very reason that this is, more or less, a realistic depiction. This was a woman who once was an executive—now, displaced from the workforce, she turns to plastic surgery to try and “redeem” herself…her constant drinking and compulsive spending only support her newfound identity that is based on a series of stereotypes. Is this not commentary on women in the workforce? Is this not a commentary on body image, shopping habits, substance abuse—can we not extrapolate a version of reality, or perhaps a feminist perspective, from Jan’s exaggerated persona? Jan clearly harbors a tremendous insecurity—what does this tell us about the contemporary female?
Obviously, there is very little reality to be found in Michael Scott: but his presence acts as a calculated signifier, an augmentation of racism and sexism that, by virtue of excessiveness, points to a rare truth inherent in the contemporary ethos. He is ridiculous, we say—no one is actually that bad. And yet, in more subtle, measured ways, they are. Scott represents a direct depiction of contemporary sexism—though the modern workplace may not seep with the same excessiveness, it is folly to suppose that it does not exist.
Thus, far from being anti-feminist, or starting out feminist and growing more sexist, the show is ripe with theoretical potential. Even the relationship between Jim and Pam is constructed as a representation of the “real”; I think it is wrong to attack Angela’s character is anti-feminist—hypocritical sure, but plenty of men in the show are just as fickle. Additionally, love triangles ¬can emerge—comical, sure, but nevertheless a distinct possibility. All in all, The Office is, I think, one of the more progressive depictions of the relationship between sexism, the patriarchal order, and the contemporary, white-collar work environment.


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