Friday, October 19, 2007

NBC's The Office: Satire, Feminism, and ...Sexist Stereotypes?

I fell hard for NBC's The Office when I saw it for the first time, in the middle of its second season. I had seen the BBC version of the show and enjoyed it, but it's humor stemmed mainly from Ricky Gervais's parody of his former employer's misbehavior. The American version, however, was more than a clever lampooning of one man's quirks. It was pure, brilliant satire aimed at exposing and ridiculing the bigoted attitudes on which corporate America has long been based. I ran out and rented the first season and I have been a ardent fan ever since.

During its first three seasons, NBC's The Office satirized corporate America's bumbling attempts to change its own entrenched sexist, racist, and homophobic attitudes. Michael Scott is a comic representation of the hypocrisy of the American business environment; personifying both its urge to be seen as likable and tolerant and its longing to return to a time when it could freely run on a system of white male privilege.
A manager who became successful during a time when business shamelessly ran on the good ol' boy system, Michael cannot change his sexist and racist outlook to keep up with the corporate world's new need to seem inclusive. Yet, it is he who has to lead the diversity day training (where he requires all staff to say racially insulting things about whatever ethnic group is named on a card taped to the person's head) and oversee the sexual harassment awareness training (in which he constantly sexually harasses the office women). However, no matter how diverse his staff or how many diversity training sessions he attends (or leads), Michael continuously fails to rewrite his sexist and prejudiced views of people. Michael treats every woman as either a sex interest, a matron, or an emotional fluff brain and insults every minority by mimicking stereotypical representations of their ethnic group. He is constantly surrounded by women and minorities who are far more competent than he is, but he unfailingly adjusts his view of them to match his preconceived notions of a group to which they pertain. Part of the humor of the show once came from watching people decide how to react in the face of his egregiously incorrect views of who they are. We watch people react to Michael's misbehavior and recognize the decisions we make on a daily basis about when to let an offense go unmentioned and when we should protest.

In fact, until recently I would have said that The Office's satire of workplace sexism made it a great feminist show. One of the best feminist characters was Jan, Michael's competent and level-headed boss who must constantly try to correct his misbehavior with equilibrium while simultaneously being harassed or condescended to by him. Jan's pauses and sighs could sometimes have me in stitches. When Jan becomes romantically involved with Michael, it seems a bit out of character, but a lot of us will recognize the struggles to correct sexist thinking in our love interests as well as our bosses, so the situation still provided a lot of humor.

Yet, at the end of season three, Jan has a break-down and her character turns into a sexist caricature - practically during the course of one scene. And this season's Jan seems to be as much of an embodiment of sexist stereotypes as any misogynist could write - she is a catty insecure jealous shop-aholic with a penchant for irrational emotional outbursts. She accuses Pam of wanting to steal Michael. She goes on spending sprees with Michael's card. She throws a tantrum when Michael gives her the bad news about his financial troubles. Mindy Kaling, genius author of "The Dundies" episode - how have you let this happen?

As Courtney of A Feminist Response to Pop Culture notes, "
Melora Hardin is the first one to say how much she loves the way that Jan’s character is ‘developing.’" Of course, what Hardin seems to ignore with such statements is that a character's being more challenging to portray does not necessarily mean that the character is more complex or interesting. A stereotypically histrionic Jan is much less interesting than a controlled Jan to whom viewers can relate. Caricatures are seldom interesting characters.

So, while I await next week's installment, I make this appeal to the writers of The Office - please, review the rest of the episodes in Season 4. If they promote sexist stereotypes instead of subverting them, then go back to the drawing board. Call the actors back in and re-shoot. Bring back that lovin' feelin.'

Oh, and as for the Hathor Legacy's Mo' Movie Measure: this past episode failed.


Laura said...

We're waiting for the Office in our NetFlix queue, at your suggestion. It is however behind every single zombie and apocolypse movie ever made, so it'll be a while.

Another Anonymous Poster said...

Oh, and not to totally hijack this thread, but you guys should start checking out "Freaks and Geeks". We like it. To an "Arrested Development" level

Casmall said...

I don't like the more cartoony, character based shows these days and I miss the shows that made fun office life. A lot of the humor was more subtle and based of the fact that these poor people are trapped by Michael because he's their boss.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Hey - office workers are un-dead too. I haven't seen Freaks and Geeks yet; we'll have to check it out. As for The Office, it is what filled the void that was left when Arrested Development got axed. It has the same sort of balance between cartoony characters and fairly believable ones. This season, though, seems to be getting away from a lot of what used to make the show great. I actually think that the second season of any show is the best - I felt the same about A.D. - by the third season some of the scenarios had gotten really over the top.

antelope72 said...

...nevermind the fact that the once intelligent, strong, motivated woman that Jan used to be turned into a pathetic, vain and dependant shell of the character she was. She even gets a boob job which i found to be incredibly offensive as it diminished the only respectable female character and insinuated that she had to change herself physically to be a "secure" woman. i love this show but i am extremely offended by Jan's character development.

Lauren said...

I also have to say that I am extremely offended by the development of Jan's character!

RMJ said...

Hey there! This is RMJ. Thought I'd let you know I linked this in Bitch's Blog! :)