What ‘The Office’ Taught Us About Women in the Workplace- by Adrienne Vogt
Everybody is probably more than ready to say goodbye to The Office. Even before the departure of Steve Carrell as Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company’s hapless regional manager, Michael Scott, the show had dissolved into a shell of its former self. Still, parting is such sweet sorrow for those of us fans who faithfully tuned in each Thursday night to watch the antics of Jim, Dwight, Pam and the rest of the gang. It was the most down-to-earth portrayal of a “typical” American office in the past decade.
After nine seasons of Dunder-Mifflin, I can’t help but feel like I’m losing a group of old friends—particularly the women on the show. Like most of us, they probably never would’ve met each other if they hadn’t been thrown into the same office space each day. After all, when you leave a job, it’s typically not the work you remember fondly—it’s the characters that made that work bearable.
When you go through the list of females on The Office through the years, it reads like a veritable Breakfast Club of characters: Pam as The Sweet Pretty One, Angela as the Shrewd Control Freak, Meredith as The Drunken Floozy, Kelly as The Bimbo, Jan as The Dragon Lady, Erin as The Wildcard and Karen as The Other Woman.
Some people didn’t like the contours of the women on the show, labeling them as one-note and stagnant. This is not exactly a “Lean In” workplace—the ladies never really moved up in the workforce. Rather, they seemed relatively content with their respective positions for nine years. And much of their success is viewed through the lens of the success of their male partners.
The criticism has been most relevant during the last season, which descended into outlandishness and which saw the women become caricatures of themselves—particularly Angela, who is seen as a disheveled, homeless cat lady who was publicly cuckolded by her gay senator ex-husband. The blog The Froehliche Haus Frau wrote a great post about how it’s completely unrealistic that Angela, an accountant, would be unable to financially support herself all of a sudden: “For better or worse, Angela has always been a fiercely independent person. To suggest that she wouldn’t be able to handle herself now is not a realistic portrayal of a woman dealing with a broken marriage, and blatantly disregards everything the writers have made her up until this point.” As Angela’s steely exterior slowly peeled away, she has become a weaker character.
Pam Halpert, receptionist-turned-office administrator, is the “Cinderella” of the story. She got the guy (cute salesman Jim), moved up slightly in the company and wields her own power over her husband. But she’s happy on the sidelines. She tried her hand at art school, but failed; she tried to be a salesperson, but also failed. She’s simply content with staying in Scranton to raise her family. As Jim helped found a sports marketing company in Philadelphia and spent less and less time at home, Pam tried to support him, but it strained their seemingly perfect marriage. That was a hard plotline, since we all wanted to see Jim travel across the country to find the success he’s always yearned for. Back over at Froehliche Haus Frau, Pam doesn’t get off easy: “Pam is demonstrating all the maturity of an 18-year-old trying to decide if she should follow her high school boyfriend to college. But she’s not a teenager, and Jim’s not her boyfriend. They are married with two children, and Jim, at least, is following his ambition. Wouldn’t a storyline where Pam acknowledges her insecurity and uncertainty—traits which have been mainstays of her personality since the first season—have seemed a lot more realistic and true to her character?”
That brings us to Jan Levenson. Remember the former corporate manager who first disdained Michael, then loved him, then moved in with him and became a candle-maker, only to break up with him and have her own baby via sperm donation? Well, we last saw Jan as CEO of White Pages, possibly having a fling with much-younger Office worker Clark. She is a far cry from the career woman she was before (once referred to as “Godzillary”), and I’m guessing she would’ve been the only one of the office to have embraced Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” mentality. But then she unraveled throughout the series into a damsel in distress. Cortney Alexander blogs: “I am not sure that any of this exemplifies self-destruction as much as the logical conclusion of male domination. Jan was destined to fail from the very beginning because she was a woman in ‘a man’s world.’”
The Office has addressed gender differences in the workplace with the episodes “Boys & Girls” and “Women’s Appreciation.” In typical misguided Michael Scott fashion, he makes each of these all about himself. In “Boys & Girls,” Michael is angry that he can’t listen in on a “women in the workplace” seminar, so he gathers the men together for their own meeting (click here to watch).
In “Women’s Appreciation,” Phyllis gets flashed in the parking lot, so Michael takes the women of the office to the one place he thinks they’d love best—the mall, obviously—for some “girl talk.” (Video here.)
Despite all this, the strength of The Office’s female characters lies in their differences. Each of their shticks are found in each of us at various points during our career. We are each a little bit insecure like Pam, girly-girl like Kelly, controlling like Angela—heck, even tipsy like Meredith at our not-quite-best.
When The Office is gone, what working women will we be left with to relate with? The sultry Joans of Mad Men or the overly hyperactive Leslies (sorry, Amy Poehler—still love you) of Parks and Recreation? Where will we find the next average working gals? Office alum Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project is a potential contender, but only time will tell if she has staying power.
So for now, call in the party-planning committee and tune in to the last episode of the series with your favorite pals. Much like Michael Scott’s go-to “That’s what she said” joke, all we can do is roll our eyes and move on.