My heart leapt a little bit when I read that Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey (AKA Pam and Angela) are starting a weekly podcast called The Office Ladies.
For a brief, beautiful moment, I thought that they might be starting a podcast dedicated to criticizing the way that The Office treated women, intending to reclaim their own narratives as women on a show that sexualized, insulted, and demeaned them. Maybe they'd even address the show's rampant sexism.
Then I realized that the podcast is purely about nostalgia...which is fine. Straight up, I love The Office. I think it's some of the finest comedy ever made. I'm not really a believer in cancel culture—I believe in a culture of learning and growing together—so I'm not going to say that we all have to stop watching The Office. But collectively, we do need to buck up and admit that the show has serious problems.
Part of learning and growing comes with admitting that a show wasn't actually all that great to its characters other than its straight white male leads. That's not to say that its creators and writers were malicious, evil, sexist people—but that's just how things were and are, until very recently, when women and minorities began to actively shout about how uncomfortable they feel in office environments and in everyday life.
Ok, now we're going to visualize a scenario. Imagine this: It's The Office, but with a woman of color as the boss and a majority of women and people of color on staff. There's a single white male employee in the office who is constantly harassed about his white maleness. Every other joke is about white people, and you know that no white people will ever rise to a position of power on the show. And every person of color you know thinks the show is the best thing since sliced bread.
Kind of disconcerting, right? If you're still not convinced that maybe The Office isn't immune to criticism, this might change your mind: Even Steve Carrell himself thinks the show wouldn't work today. When asked if he thought that The Office should be rebooted, Carrell said no, citing the show's off-color humor. "I mean, the whole idea of that character, Michael Scott, so much of it was predicated on inappropriate behavior," he said. "I mean, he's certainly not a model boss. A lot of what is depicted on that show is completely wrong-minded. That's the point, you know? But I just don't know how that would fly now."
In the era of Time's Up and #MeToo, he's right: The Office couldn't work if it came out today. But what has allowed it to remain so beloved for so long?
The Office's Culture of Casual Racism
As is the case with many pre-2010s TV shows, most of the women and people of color on The Office are defined by their appearance, age, race, and relationship status, and this comprises a lot of the show's jokes. (Sidenote: It's funny that white men—who tend to complain the most about "identity politics"—tend to get annoyed when told they can't use people's identities as the butt of their jokes anymore).
So, where do these identity politics appear in The Office?
Some of the show's most disturbing incidences of casual racism revolve around Stanley, the office's single black employee, and people of color. In one episode, Michael literally jokes about being nostalgic for slavery when he says, "Let's have an auction. Let's do this. We'll auction off people, like in the olden days," and the camera zooms in on Stanley.
Mindy Kaling, the only woman of color employed in the office, is often the butt of racist jokes and tropes that surround women of color. She's brash and loud and desperate, the polar opposite of Pam's delicate white femininity. In the episode "Diversity Day," Michael eventually goes to her and says in a fake Indian accent, "Kelly, how are you? Oh! Welcome to my convenience store. Would you like some cookie cookie? Well I have some very delicious cookie cookie. Only 99 cents, plus tax. Try my cookie cookie! Try my-" You get the picture.
Though a lot of the racist humor is self-aware and designed to call itself out, the problem is that the show rarely gives the subjects of its racist jokes the chance to make their own jabs, or to take part in plotlines about something other than their identities.
The Pam Problem: Sexism on The Office
Then there's the matter of sexism, which can be seen in the way that most of the female characters are written.
Let's start with Pam. Soft-spoken, intelligent but non-threatening, conservative, and compliant, Pam is essentially the ideal woman, a veritable '50s housewife down to her secretary job. Much has been written about the problems with Jim and Pam's relationship, which everyone seems to see differently. Some have called Jim the archetypical "Nice Guy," citing the many incidents where he appears to feel entitled to Pam. There's also the fact that he basically used his girlfriend Karen in order to "get" Pam—and that he's pretty mean to everyone but Pam—and that he persuaded Pam to leave her stint at Pratt in order to spend time with him. The list goes on.
Tellingly, The Office doesn't really address these problems, even in joke form. It usually paints Jim and Pam's perfect, normative, nuclear family-type relationship as the ideal, compared to the crazy irrationality of everyone else.
Of course, the problem is not reserved for Pam. There's also the fact that most of the plot lines surrounding women on the show revolve around their romantic relationships. As Grace Bello writes on B*tch Media, "The main female characters [on The Office], are relegated to the reception desk. First it's Pam (Jenna Fischer), Jim's crush and eventually his wife; later it's Erin (Ellie Kemper), who becomes Andy's girlfriend and Pete's crush... And while the show illustrates this stereotypical gender imbalance satirically by portraying Michael as a dolt undeserving of responsibility and Pam as talented and underappreciated, the show never gestures toward the possibility of change and therefore serves to maintain the status quo." The one woman who is seen in a position of true power—Jan—is eventually painted as crazy and sociopathic.
Then there's Holly. Holly and Michael's relationship is one of the best parts of the show, but Michael effectively falls in love and starts flirting with Holly the very first day she comes into the office. He almost tells her, until Jim advises him to wait it out. Imagine going into work for your very first day and being told your boss is in love with you?
Probably the biggest example of sexism on the show is the way that Michael treats women. Yes, I know it's supposed to be satire and it is quite funny a lot of the time, but the thing is that he never gets called out on it, even though he's allowed to take his staff to Victoria's Secret and mentions getting a b*ner around Phyllis, and this all goes on and on. In the very first episode, talking about Pam, Michael says, "If you think she's cute now, you should have seen her a couple years ago." Really?
Ageism and fatphobia also make appearances, too, usually in conjunction with sexism. Poor Phyllis is constantly criticized and made fun of for her appearance and weight—and admittedly, so is Kevin, but that only reaffirms the show's culture of body-shaming. There's all the queer jokes about Oscar, too.
The Beacon Beat puts it rather succinctly. "Why do we lambast Aziz Ansari for pushing himself on a date who was visibly uncomfortable in real life, but root for Angela to stop squirming away from Dwight when he tries to kiss her although she's married when watching 'The Office'?" that article asks. "Why do we lament statistics like 60% of women who have experienced harassment in the workplace, but chuckle when Michael brings Pam along on a sales call for the sole reason that she's 'the hot one'?"
Critiques of The Office inevitably wind up in the same place: a kind of sad one. They ultimately raise questions about the parameters of satire, and the boundaries between satire and actual racism and sexism.
"How effective is the skewering of bad behavior if the characters perpetuating it are never held accountable for their actions?" asks The AV Club. It's true: The Office's jokesters are never held accountable. Michael Scott treats people terribly and yet always manages to be loveable and sympathetic, because he is good at heart or too naïve to know otherwise, but that's part of the problem. We can't hate Michael, so it's even harder to address and critique how racist and sexist he is. It's hard to admit, but The Office is a toxic work environment, where employees are subject to constant abuse and harassment—about their appearances, their love lives, their worth as human beings—but it's so funny to watch that most of us are simply willing to excuse all the bad.
On the other hand, The Office actually presents a pretty realistic picture of many office environments. It's not likely that most of the women and minorities would really speak out and engage more than they already do on the show, for many reasons. Speaking out takes energy or could cost people their jobs, and toxicity and ridiculousness happen all the time in and out of professional environments. Maybe the marginalized characters on The Office (and we) let it keep happening, and we keep laughing along, because Michael's actions are so absurd and outlandish that they do make the workday somewhat more entertaining. Maybe Dunder Mifflin's employees knew that although the office environment was somewhat toxic, it was better than a sterile, emotionless workplace where people don't talk except about the weather.
The Office had its day in the sun, but we need to be wary of excessive nostalgia for the days when Michael Scott reigned supreme. A caveat: It's definitely not fair to demand that Fischer and Kinsey's podcast addresses sexism and racism, as they aren't responsible for its presence on the show. Still, we can't keep laughing off the truth forever.