The undisputed star of the hit US sitcom, The Office, is Michael Scott. His clueless and affable behaviour provides hilarity and provokes sympathy in equal measure.
BE WARNED, THERE ARE SPOILERS APLENTY – WE RECOMMEND READING THIS ONLY IF YOU’VE FINISHED THE OFFICE US (and if you haven’t seen it at all… watch it, srsly)
The show has been heralded as a heart-warming, accurate and sensitive exploration of the intricacies of the modern American workplace. Its ability to take everyday concerns and magnify them so that we, the audience, can clearly interpret them is a large reason for the show’s continued success. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of the office manager, Michael Scott: an egotistical, insensitive, power-starved, sex-pest. Through him, we see aspects of the white, straight male most likely in charge of our own offices.
If you are a fan of The Office, although you are probably aware of Michael’s flaws, you might think I’m being a little harsh here. Michael has an impressive ability to evoke sympathy from his viewers and employees alike. His colleagues often treat him like a well-meaning dinosaur, whose foibles are daft and should be easily forgiven. Online, Office aficionados are quick to focus on Michael’s good-natured side and point to the fact that he cares deeply for his co-workers. As is sensitively explored in this blog post, Michael is worthy of our respect and even our love – because he is capable of being supportive and naively sweet.
I think, however, it is worth exploring how Michael conducts himself the majority of the time. Particularly when he represents Dunder Mifflin professionally or tries to prove himself in some way.
In the Season 4 episode “Job Fair”, Michael and his colleagues, head to the local High School to entice students to join their intern programme. Michael decides to use this opportunity to – essentially – barter Pam as a sex-object:
Pam is clearly offended by this. Yet Michael, oblivious and uncaring, continues:
At this point, Pam chooses to remove herself from the situation. She walks away without saying anything: quietly bearing her public shaming.
This exchange lasts under 30 seconds on-screen, as the show quickly moves onto its next plot-point. If we are the sort of people who claim to ‘love’ characters on a show however, shouldn’t we take a moment to fully empathise with their situation – to feel the same quiet fury which Pam must carry away with her? She has been simultaneously slut-shamed and objectified; all for the sake of High Schoolers who are too disinterested to look up from their phones. Michael degrades and devalues Pam in front of strangers and co-workers, simply because he is desperate to come off as amusing and cool to a random teenager.
Michael’s attitude to his co-workers consistently goes beyond a simple lack of respect, to degrading them so that he can impose his “humour”, his emotional and social “intelligence”. While Pam did not stand up for herself in the episode I just explored, we can see two clear examples of the office employees trying to curb Michael’s abhorrent behaviour in the infamous episode “Diversity Day”. Firstly, after Michael performs a choice Chris Rock routine verbatim, they report his behaviour to management, who call in a speciality diversity consultant to try to teach him the error of his ways.
Secondly, Kelly Kapur confronts Michael by slapping him, after she bears Michael’s shrill and stereotypical impersonation of an Indian accent for the longest 10 seconds of all of our lives.
Despite both these efforts, Michael’s behaviour goes unpunished. He rips up the contract he was required to sign, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of bureaucratic procedure. And, moments after being slapped in the face, he continues his racist behaviour.
When Stanley attempts to correct Michael’s mispronunciation of collard greens, Michael responds:
Michael not only disregards his employee’s attempts to educate him, but proceeds to rub the fact that he is a white male – and this world will let him say and do whatever he wants, with no consequence – in their faces.
Michael Scott, as a tyrannical white male in a position of power, gaslighting and abusing his employees might seem like a ridiculous premise. He is, after all, just a branch manager of an unknown paper company in a town we’ve never heard of. How much power can he truly wield? The answer is, for his employees, a lot.
As the seasons wear on, it seems that the employees give up trying to educate Michael in the error of his ways. Personally, watching the show I also stopped being shocked by the outrageous things that he does. I ended up focusing on the parts of his personality that I liked, because for the time that I was watching the show he was a big part of my existence. I think it’s natural for people to want to like people, to see the good in them. The question is, however, in the case of straight white males who hold positions of power and influence over us – is our goodwill deserved?
Written by Alex E.