thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Message: Pam, The Office, and Dreams Deferred

In gender on August 12, 2011 at 7:36 am

Sarah Todd

“It’s impractical. I’m not going to try to get a house like that. Um, they don’t even make houses like that in Scranton. So I’m never gonna…” – Pam, “Boys and Girls”

Whatever happened to Pam? I ask this question with all the love and loss it’s possible to feel for a fictional person, because there is maybe no other television character I have ever cared about so much.

Pam, portrayed on The Office with warmth and humor by Jenna Fischer, got to me because she was a woman struggling to stop holding herself back. She had dreams, but for a long time she didn’t believe in herself enough to even admit them. Her tamped-down aspirations manifested themselves physically in the curly locks she kept half-clipped back, a hairstyle that communicated a mild sense of resignation. The one time she let her hair loose, her boss got gross; she reached for her barrette.

Her life didn’t match what she wanted, and her character arc in the early seasons was about learning to take responsibility for changing it. The first, most obvious thing that was wrong was her love life. She was engaged to the lug-headed Roy, her high-school sweetheart, when she was clearly in love with wry and playful Jim. The second thing that was wrong was that Pam wanted a creative career, and the only creative part about her job as a receptionist at a struggling paper company was inventing ways not to die of boredom.

As with most love triangles, the choice between Roy and Jim was also the choice between two different ways of living. It’s worth mentioning that there is a significant class dynamic in the choice between Roy and Jim. Roy, as a warehouse worker, is squarely positioned as blue-collar, whereas Jim, an office worker, is white-collar. The difference may not manifest itself in income level as far as the viewer can see, but the characterization of Roy as crude and Jim as gentlemanly certainly plays into some ugly class sterotypes.

Beyond that, Roy was the safe bet, the routine. Pam knew who he was and what to expect. He was working at the office and coming home to dinner and changing into your sweats and watching TV and going to bed. That’s not an indictment: although Roy was insensitive and small-minded, he wasn’t a terrible human being. They weren’t a radically unhappy couple; they were even comfortable. But Pam was settling by being with him.

Jim, on the other hand, was the risk she had to take in order to make herself happy, which was scary because Pam was used to security and follow-through no matter the emotional cost. Jim shared Pam’s silly sense of humor and had the ability to bring people together. He engineered the Office Olympics, complete with a closing ceremony, and organized icebreaker games to entertain his co-workers during a fire evacuation. He was also fundamentally a good guy, as his kindness to Michael in his boss’s lowest moments revealed.

But Jim worked at the office too, which meant that he wasn’t really the exciting, rebellious alternative you might expect in a conventional love triangle. (Think Dylan McKay-Brendan Walsh, Eric Northman-Bill Compton, Chuck Bass-Nate Archibald.) He wasn’t an escape from routine—but he was a break from it. He trusted in the importance of small moments of rebellion against the monotony and conformity of work. Every time Jim pulled an elaborate prank on Dwight, he reasserted his individuality and humor. These minor subversions bonded him and Pam together, because Pam needed all the reminders she could get that the status quo could be upset.

Pam wasn’t just unhappy with her love life, she was unhappy as the receptionist at a paper company. She loved to draw; she wanted an artistic outlet and a challenge. But the same inertia that made her stay with Roy led her to stay, deeply frustrated, behind the front desk.

“You gotta take a chance on something sometime, Pam. I mean, do you want to be a receptionist here, always?” – Jim, “Boys and Girls”

In season 2’s “Boys and Girls,” Pam learns about an office scholarship for her to study art in New York. Although she’s tentative at first, hardly daring to consider any alternative from her current life, she grows excited as Jan leans on her to want to try for something. The show highlights the difference between Jim and Roy in their reactions to Pam’s news—Jim is supportive and encouraging; Roy, dismissive and negative. When Roy doesn’t want her to go, Pam retreats.

It’s heartbreaking to hear Pam say that she’ll never have the house she wanted in that episode, because of course the house isn’t the house, it’s everything. “They don’t even make houses like that in Scranton” is maybe the saddest and truest thing Pam ever said. There are towns that aren’t Scranton, and jobs that aren’t the receptionist of Dunder Mifflin, and men who aren’t Roy, but Pam’s never lived or worked in or dated one. It’s a sentence that perfectly summarizes just how trapped Pam is by circumstances she’s too afraid to change.

Throughout the early seasons of The Office, though, there were flashes of the Pam that could be. In Season 2’s “The Dundies,” still my all-time favorite Office episode, we see Pam let go for the first time. And let-go Pam (though drunk) is a sight to behold: applauding wildly to lift Michael’s downcast spirits, falling off her stool laughing at nothing, explaining the wonders of ice-melting “second drinks,” coming closer than we’ve ever seen to breaking down the wall that prevented her and Jim from saying how they felt about each other. “I feel God in this Chili’s tonight” is a funny line, but what makes it great is that Pam is being sincere. In Chili’s that night, her world was getting bigger.

Or there’s the Pam of season 3, wounded after breaking up with Roy and losing Jim, but reaching. She takes an art class and invites her co-workers to her show. “I’m still waiting for my breakthrough, or whatever,” she says, and looking at her placid watercolors it’s clear that’s true. But the important thing is that she’s ready to say she wants one. In the penultimate episode of that season, “Beach Day,” she walks across hot coals just to prove to herself that she can be brave. All season there’s been a fire building inside her, and in a quiet moment, it flares and lets her dash across those coals and—moments later—finally speak to Jim, for the first time, from the heart.

But fixing Pam’s love life didn’t mean that the rest of her life got fixed too. After Pam got together with Jim, The Office continued to show her trying to achieve her goals–for a while. In “Local Ad” in Season 4, she works so hard designing an animated logo for a Dunder Mifflin ad that will never air that she stays in the office overnight. When we see the graphic, later in the episode, it’s perfect: amusing, effective, clean. Everyone claps; Pam’s pleased, Jim’s proud. But here’s the thing: when Pam tells Jim she’s staying late to work on something she’s passionate about, Jim doesn’t argue or nag—but he’s not exactly supportive, either. He’s baffled and maybe a touch put out; he just wants her to come home with him.

On its own, that’s not a big deal, but what happened to the Jim who asked Pam if she wanted to be a receptionist, always? In season 5, Pam finally goes to art school in New York. Jim’s at sea without her, but Pam—though she misses him—seems to be having fun. Suddenly, the show shuts her artistic growth down: she hurries back to Scranton, having flunked a course, claiming she hated art school. But to me, it seemed likely that she wouldn’t have hated art school nearly so much if she hadn’t felt the pull of a long-distance relationship too.

Meghan Keane wrote a great piece in The Awl on why Jim’s ultimate career complacency is so depressing: “Each subsequent episode now brings with it a reminder of Jim’s failure, the harsh reality that having dreams is no indication that you’ll ever achieve them.” I agree with this sentiment whole-heartedly, but I’d swap in Pam’s name for Jim’s. Jim never had specific goals; he was too slacker-ishly ironic to have any real passion beyond his love for Pam. When he builds a Second Life avatar in “Local Ad” he’s a sportswriter who plays the guitar, but we never really see Jim watching a game or talking sports or writing an article or playing a song. He’s interested in getting promoted at Dunder Mifflin (mostly for the money?), but he’s not that good at management.

None of this is meant to criticize Jim; I just don’t think his life is very sad. He only ever really wanted Pam, and he gets to marry her and be a dad. He didn’t give anything up to do it.

Pam loves Jim and their daughter, too. But she’s someone who’s not completely happy if she’s not striving. It’s depressing to see her stop reaching, and Pam seems somewhat depressed by it as well. In season 7’s “China,” Pam has a minor breakdown telling Jim that she’s scared she’ll fail at being an office administrator, after failing at being an artist and a salesperson. Jim gently tells her she didn’t fail at any of those things. Pam’s reply is telling: “Well, I’m not an artist, and I’m not a salesperson. So what would you call it?” Jim doesn’t have an answer.

Most of the time, long-running television shows require that the main characters stick around (at least until the contracts of the actors who play them expire). The logistical reasons for keeping a cast together and in the same place are clear. But what about the messages that get sent every time characters choose to stay in town rather than go abroad for the summer, to attend the local university instead of their top-choice college, to give up the dream job in the big city, to keep playing in bars rather than going on tour? TV shows ask us to become invested in the hopes and dreams of beloved characters, and then to feel satisfied every time they give them up—usually for love, sometimes for family, sometimes for hometown pride. And it’s often, though not always, female characters who turn down terrific opportunities for the sake of their relationships.

Friday Night Lights was invigorating for many reasons, but among them was the fact that the show gave its characters the ability to leave. They went away to college, they pursued their careers, the ones who just wanted to get out of Dodge eventually got out of Dodge. The people who stayed, for the most part, did so because they wanted to.

Just because Pam’s become a wife and mother doesn’t mean her story arc’s been wrapped. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being an office administrator, or with changing your priorities. But making art was something Pam loved, and now she doesn’t do it at all. Couldn’t she still be a graphic designer for Dunder Mifflin? We’ve seen what she’s capable of. Or she could take classes, or design the office t-shirts, or sell her sketches at an art fair. Maybe The Office has shut down so many paths for her at this point that it has trouble envisioning a new one. Maybe they don’t even make houses like that in Scranton. But she could.

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