Fast forward to this January, when I went back to watching “The Office” because there was nothing more interesting in my Netflix queue and came to two realizations:
1. It’s not so much Sexism Lite as Sexism Subtle Yet Pervasive And Pretty Damn Disturbing, and
2. I really like this show.
Realization #1 wasn’t much of a surprise to me. Because of the #MeToo movement, I — much like everyone else in this country — have been hyperaware of the misogyny that we’ve accepted for so long. No wonder I’d started picking up on the true depth of workplace discrimination in the show. Realization #2, however, shocked me to the point of nausea. Was I enjoying “The Office” this time in spite of the sexism, which would be bad, or was I enjoying the show because of the sexism, which would be immeasurably worse?
I don’t want to grapple with this alone, especially because I know that it isn’t a ‘me’ problem. It’s an ‘us’ problem. As a culture, we simultaneously decry office mistreatment of women and consume entertainment that derives its humor from that same mistreatment. I like to name phenomena — it makes me feel more in control of them — so I’ll call this one “The ‘The Office’ Sexism Duality.” But I’m not sure why we allow it to exist.
Why do we lambast Aziz Ansari for pushing himself on a date who was visibly uncomfortable, but root for Angela to stop squirming away from Dwight when he tries to kiss her although she’s married? Why do we lament statistics like '60% of women 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”? Why do we shame Reddit users who share celebrity nudes, but cringe only a little when the shipping guys enlarge a photo of their topless boss Jan and hang it on the warehouse wall?
And here’s why: we know that deep down, Angela really does love Dwight. A part of her does want to stop squirming away from him. This is a part that’s missing from the Ansari story. We know that the same part of Pam feels affection for Michael in the sort of ‘dirty uncle’ way, and she doesn’t really mind because Michael is a good guy and his comments come from a place of genuine appreciation rather than harassment or intimidation. But the 60% of women are different; their harassers aren’t fundamentally good guys. The men who work in the warehouse, on the other hand, aren’t bad people. Their crassness is part of their appeal. They’re brash and bold and honest, and come on, we like them a lot more than we like Jan, who’s a nutcase and probably deserves the nudity shaming.
“The Office” depicts a fictional reality in which women really do want it, and the word “harasser” is too ugly to describe a group of truly likable men who sometimes engage in a bit of hyper-masculine egging. “The Office” is the American workplace as seen through a man’s eyes. (I’m assuming, of course. I’m not a man.) There’s nothing really wrong with the reality of “The Office” because its male gaze is truth rather than perception, and if it’s truth, this sort of potentially-misogynistic culture is totally fine because we’ve just established that misogyny isn’t an issue.
What if “The Office” centered around the struggles of young receptionist Erin, who must fight to be taken seriously by demeaning male coworkers, rather than around the struggles of middle-aged male manager Michael Scott, who wishes that the women around him would just lighten up and have sex with him? The show would be more realistic, maybe, and more timely. It would also be a lot less fun.
Let’s admit it — there’s something more alluring about the world seen through a man’s eyes than the world seen through a woman’s. There’s a delightful illusion of no societal problems, and if we can accept that as the truth, everything seems lighter. Without the film of misogyny coating a series of character relationships, the relationships aren’t threatening or dangerous; we’re not forced to deal with the unpleasantness that we’re trying to escape by watching television. The power of escapist entertainment is often derived from its ability to eliminate oppression. And the easiest way to that is by creating a universe in which the oppressor is sympathetic, funny, and in control of the way that the viewer perceives the narrative.
So I think it’s fair to say that “The Office” is enjoyable because of, rather than in spite of, the way that it treats women. The “The Office” Sexism Duality is a feature, not a bug. In order to avoid the complicated feelings we have about sexism as the #MeToo movement becomes an essential element of our culture, we turn to media in which sexism is blissfully easy. You can apply this rule to other types of discrimination as well; “The Office” also works because of its white-man-wink treatment of black and gay characters. This, I think, raises yet another question: how do we make light entertainment without winking away oppression?
I don’t know the answer for sure. But I do think that it’s reasonable to start by identifying the issue and being conscious of it in the work that we create. If you want to include a female character interacting with a male character, try to write the female character from a female perspective and the male character from a male perspective. Male shouldn’t be the default. The viewer should be able to choose the perspective through which they see a situation, and if that makes the show a little less fun, add in some jokes at the expense of something that’s not a human with emotions and experiences (like broccoli). I’m not aiming for perfection here. I’m just looking for an enjoyable new television show to watch that won’t make me feel like I've failed myself.