By Shayla Schoeneberger
Today we live in a society of mass media consumption in which “nearly all of American homes have at least one television, and the average American home has more televisions than people – 3.3 televisions and fewer than 3 people per household, and at least one of those televisions is on eight hours and 21 minutes a day” (Wood, 2013, p. 261). As more members of society get their news, information, and perspectives from corporate media, fair and accurate depictions of gender and race are needed. Unfortunately, the “media advance representations of gendered and racial identities” in a way that is not characteristic of reality (Wood, 2013, p. 261). This article critically examines the use of racist and sexist “jokes” that are prevalent in nearly every episode of the hit television show The Office. I argue that the hegemonic powers that produce corporate media narratives use stereotypical humor for viewers to laugh at characters rather than laugh with them. Such humor is demeaning and inaccurate, as stereotypes are false and inaccurate indicators of human identity and experience. While The Office is considered a comedic show, the humor it relies on is often at the expense of the female and non-white characters. The show tries to exemplify a humorous perspective of the workplace, but relies on tropes and stereotypes that emanate from and perpetuate racism and sexism.
The Office ran from 2005-2013 on the NBC television station. During the start of the show, NBC was its own entity, but the Comcast Corporation gained ownership of NBC in 2011. Comcast is one of the few corporations that now dominate the media in the United States. When analyzing diversity on The Office, the producers are all wealthy white men and include the following members: Ben Silverman, Greg Daniels, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Howard Klein, Paul Lieberstein, Brent Forrester, and Dan Sterling (The Office, n.d.). With a lack of diversity in the show’s production, it is no wonder that racist and sexist comments abound in each episode. Fair and equitable representation should be a basic human right, but we live in a world of mass media, which is, “…perhaps the most powerful tool in the world for creating, changing or perpetuating society’s ideas about an issue or group of people. It works both overtly and subconsciously: deciding which issues are important, how to frame those issues, who to show as affected by them, and, increasingly, providing personal commentaries on the matters at hand. Because the majority of media outlets are owned by corporations dominated by white heterosexual men, many minorities are portrayed in ways that perpetuate negative stereotypes – if they are portrayed at all” (Glavinic, 2010). In society, “…our culture’s main storytellers occupy a privilege space through their social, political, and economic power, [so] it’s not surprising that narratives about gender, race, class, and sexuality often mirror the values of the socially dominant groups in a given society” (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos, Frechette, 2014, p.223). Outsiders, or those different than the hegemonic elite, are not usually fairly represented in the media because the producers (insiders) who create these characters have little knowledge of the designated group as a whole or as individuals. As a result, stereotypes proliferate as a means of reducing complexity, and may also be used to appeal to the program’s target audience.
While not all of the humor in The Office is degrading towards women or minorities, most episodes conveniently fall back on formulaic sexist and racist jokes to produce the requisite laughs needed to entertain its mainstream audience. Stereotypes “are so common in mainstream media [because] they provide a familiar or common set of stories for the largest set of the audience, who are comforted by reduced complexity and nuance” (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos, Frechette, 2014, p. 228). In television production, stereotypes are overused, characters become caricatures, and the power dynamics shift from laughing with the characters to laughing at them. Since The Office is produced by a group of wealthy white men who work for a media corporation operated by those wielding the same class and race, women and minorities continue to become easy targets of ill-informed stereotypes and inappropriate raunchiness. According to Comcast’s website, at the end of 2015, 19% of the workforce were people of color and 37% of the workforce were female (Diversity in Our Workforce, 2016). Despite some measure of diversity in its organization as a whole, those in charge of production continue to be wealthy white males. In the case of NBC’s The Office, the prevailing storylines and narratives about this workplace mirror the power dynamics of the larger corporate media organization from which it emanates.
In its attempt to project a typical working class environment, The Office sets out to exemplify the 9-5 life of those employed by Dunder Mifflin, a paper sales company located in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The show is set in an office space with a receptionist, a sales department, accountants, human relations, and the boss’ office. It is filmed in a ‘mockumentary’ style whereby the characters are depicted in various work scenarios with their fellow colleagues, with juxtaposed footage of their monologues in a documentary interview style designed to offer personal testimony about what has happened in the office throughout the day. The show’s humor is predicated on frequent one-lined jokes, the exposure of each character’s personality traits and flaws, and the awkwardness of their interactions. Unfortunately, to generate laughs among its target audience, the humor often comes at the expense of the minorities or the female cast. As the primary protagonist, Michael Scott plays the quintessential boss whose beliefs and practices are racist and sexist. Although the other office workers are quick to identify Michael as rude and ignorant, Michael’s eye rolls stand in as the visual reminder that their concerns are insignificant and irrelevant, for he’s in charge as the organization’s white male patriarch.
In its depiction of Michael Scott, The Office follows the pattern of other television programming that “disproportionately depicts men, particularly white, heterosexual men, as serious, confident, competent, and powerful” (Woods, 2013, p. 267). Michael plays the role of the crude male boss who has little respect for his workers, but remains in power. In nearly every episode, there is a moment where crass humor is targeted at the non-dominant group. Michael Scott’s famous line throughout every season is, “that’s what she said.” Although it appears that Michael’s goal is to make people laugh, the jokes are purposely discomforting. His targets seem to be the less-dominant group, which is aligned with how the, “mass media consistently underrepresent women and minorities relative to their presence in the population” (Wood, 2013, p. 267).
In the case of both The Office and the media world, “minorities are underrepresented and represented negatively in many cases. Members of minority groups appear in supporting roles, and they are likely to be shown in predominantly white cultures with their own racial culture and values obscured or devalued” (Wood, 2013, p. 267). In one episode, Michael’s racist humor invokes the practices of slavery when he cajoles: “Let’s have an auction. Let’s do this. We’ll auction off people, like in the olden days” (The Office, n.d.). Upon uttering these words, the camera zooms in on Stanley (one of the few black characters) as the means of building character conflict that is bifurcated along the lines of the white patriarch and his slave. On a day referred to as the office’s “Diversity Day,” an event purportedly designed to increase awareness and understanding of the diverse racial and ethnic identities of those who work in the office, Michael encourages his employees to guess one another’s race or ethnicity from an index card that has been affixed to their foreheads. In the training exercise, employees are paired and encouraged to help their colleagues guess their own randomized identity by providing clues or asking questions. After multiple scenes show the social awkwardness and ineffectiveness of this exercise, Michael approaches the only female Indian character in the office to show the other employees how far they should go in conjuring up stereotypes as clues to help each person guess their own identity. In a fake Indian accent, he intones, “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 cookie cookie! Try my cookie cookie! Try my-” (The Office, n.d.).
On one level, the humor from this episode is designed to expose Michael’s ignorance and racism, allowing viewers to laugh at the awkwardness of the situation. Like so many other televised comedic tropes, this scene exemplifies how, “racist humor and ridicule has long been used as a mechanism for fostering cohesion among whites at the expense of the nonwhites and that it continues to be used today as a discourse that unites interlocutors around racial feelings and racist ideologies. In this way, racist humor works to reinforce everyday and systemic forms of white supremacy, via a ‘white racial frame’” (Perez, 2017). Targeting race is an easy way to develop a joke, but its impact on those who experience racism and those who do not condone it is significant. Moreover, while television tries to portray a white central focus for its humor, in so doing, it exploits the dignity and worth of non-dominant groups. The Office projects “those sharing a laugh at the expense of the “out-group” [which fosters] greater social affiliation and decreased social distance with their ‘in group,’ while simultaneously creating and/or increasing social distance against their targets of ridicule and insult” (Perez, 2017). Rather than display the consequences that such racist exercises would have in today’s work world, The Office maintains the narrative that whites are powerful and that they can do anything they want and get away with it. Michael’s behavior is laughed at despite its detrimental impact. Every episode seems to imply that Michael’s attitude and behavior are, “just the way things are,” but that does not mean that they are above scrutiny and criticism. Interestingly, while other office characters on the program are not off the hook for their actions, it is mostly the white, powerful boss that holds the reigns.
In terms of sexist acts, The Office tends to capitalize on normative gender roles so that “both sexes are portrayed in stereotypical ways that reflects and reproduce conventional views of gender” (Wood, 2013, p. 266). While there are recurring female characters on the program, the most domineering characters tend to be male, with women used as sidekicks or punch lines. In addition to Michael serving as the patriarchal boss, his colleagues are also primarily other men with whom the “insider laughs” are meant to be shared. A review of the program’s list of characters reveals that there are more men than women on the show, even though, “in reality women outnumber men, [yet] media (mis)representations would lead us to believe the opposite (Wood, 2013, p. 267). In the first few seasons, the cast includes Michael Scott (male), Dwight Schrute (male), Jim Halpert (male), Pam Beesly (female), Stanley Hudson (male), Kevin Malone (male), Angela Martin (female), Phyllis Vance (female), Meredith Palmer (female), Creed Bratton (male), Oscar Martinez (male), Ryan Howard (male), and Kelly Kapoor (female).
In addition to The Office’s male-majority casting, its plot lines fail to pass the Bechdel test in which at least two women need to be talking to each other about something other than a man. Rather than offer complicated or powerful female characters, The Office relies on women whose primary raison d’être is to fall in love with the men. Pam is attracted to Jim, Angela swoons for Dwight, Phyllis always speaks of her boyfriend Bob, and Kelly is in love with Ryan. The only female character who has no apparent love interest is Meredith, but she often talks about loving alcohol and sex, and is often referred to as a slut. What’s more, women in the show are used as targets because they are established as subordinate characters to be mocked. This sexist humor, “demeans, insults, stereotypes, victimizes, and/or objectifies a person on the basis of his or her gender” (Woodzicka & Ford, 2010). There is evidence that, “we can still find very direct forms of sexist humor, for example, in male jokes, in male teasing as a form of sexual harassment or in sexually derogatory cartoon humor” (Kotthoff, 2006).
Sexist lines in The Office include:
Michael: “Hate to see you leave, but love to watch you go. ‘Cause of your butt” (The Office, n.d.).
Phyllis- “When I got my hair cut short, you asked me if I was a lesbian”
Michael- “Because… that was one possible explanation as to why you got a haircut”
Angela- “And when we get mad, you always ask us if we’re on our periods”
Michael- “I have to know whether you’re serious or not” (The Office, n.d.).
Pam- (during a Diversity Day exercise, Dwight has been appointed Chinese without knowing what race he has been assigned) “If I have to do this, based on stereotypes that are totally untrue, that I do not agree with, you would, maybe, not be a good driver.”
Dwight- “Oh, man, am I a woman?” (The Office, n.d.).
Michael- “There’s no such thing as an appropriate joke, that’s why it is called a joke” (The Office, n.d.).
While the aforementioned lines offer crude evidence of the show’s sexism, sometimes the comments are subtle and not easily apparent. For instance, Michael’s assertive girlfriend Jan Levinson, who is Michael’s boss, falls into a stereotypical gender trap that ultimately leads to her castigation. Consistent with women’s marginalization on the show, Jan’s character is not featured in every episode, but recurs as a clichéd plot device in which Michael and her begin to have a romantic relationship. In the beginning, Jan is dominant and does not put up with Michael’s tactics. However, once she falls in love with him and they break up, she is caricatured as the ‘psycho girlfriend.’ Further underscoring the show’s sexism and misogyny, Jan’s undergoes a breast enhancement to win Michael back. In fact, an entire episode was devoted to exposing Jan in a low cut shirt to dramatize her sex appeal. Throughout the episode, the jokes revolved around Jan’s new titillating figure.
With its racist, sexist, and crude humor, The Office is designed to woo adult male audiences as its main target. In its prime, The Office aired weeknights on NBC as an adult comedy. Since it is now available on Netflix and other streaming sites, the show’s popularity has increased, and frequent one-liners are still uttered and memed by viewers of all ages. In its pursuit of male audiences, The Office uses, “stereotypes as shorthand, as means to address wide audiences,” and attract viewers to laugh at rather than laugh with (Hermes, 2010). Women in the show “are depicted in a quite different way from men- not because the feminine is different from the masculine, but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him” (Campbell, et al., 2014, p. 225). As such, The Office flatters its white male base by “offering humor that combines racism with sexism, using stereotypes, narratives, and imagery [that reinforce] the notions of racial or ethnic inferiority and superiority” (Perez, 2017).
As an avid viewer of The Office, I admit that I have laughed at much of the humor within the show. Yet a critical textual analysis of the program reveals narratives structures predicated on sexism and racism. While humor is complicated and various audiences have different lenses for analyzing television shows, a critical analysis of The Office’s narrative form, character development, and institutional structure reveals how the program maintains its hegemonic power. Laughing at people and using voyeurism as a means for comedy has been the trend for far too long, and audience demands for better representations have only strengthened throughout the past decades. Women and minorities deserve more powerful roles within all tiers of the corporate media system in order for the biases and stereotypes to diminish. Although The Office is just one show that projects white patriarchal order, other mediated content needs to be scrutinized. At a time when there are endless articles about sexual harassment in the workplace and racist acts all over the news, today’s audiences should expect a media system that respects all identities and provides fair representations.
Student Author: Shayla Schoeneberger, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University
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