Sometimes being a feminist who spends a good deal of time thinking about storytelling in media can really suck. It’s a rare show in which I can truly lose myself these days, because too often some line is spoken or action occurs, and all I see is a trope. I had to take a week off Agents of Shield after Coulson encouraged Mallack to tap into his Manpain over his Fridged daughter as Revenge Fuel. Even shows I love and will heartily defend aren’t free of issues, such as the Madonna-Whore Complex implications found within Avatar the Last Airbender.
The Office is a show near and dear to my heart. I am a huge sucker for mockumentaries, to the point where I’m actively sad the genre fell out of popularity despite it being a thoroughly beaten a dead horse at this point. (Though weirdly I’ve never liked Modern Family). It’s something about the combination of the mundane and the broken fourth walls that I can’t get enough of. More so, The Office at its best (I’d argue it peaked with “The Dinner Party”) is almost unparalleled. I find there to be high rewatchability, partly because doing so actually relaxes me somehow, and partly because this is one of the easiest shows to reference in existence. In fact, I still can’t receive a performance review at work without cracking a smile thinking of Angela’s.
However, each rewatch, I’m finding myself liking Jim Halpert less and less.
This is rather alarming. After all, he’s arguably the “main character,” or certainly the one we’re meant to sympathize with the most. It’s his pranks we laugh at and his glances into the camera lens we relate to. And my first time watching this show, I viewed Jim as something of an unproblematic fave.
I also certainly shipped him with Pam Beesly, which I’m pretty sure was the show’s intent. The lead up to their relationship served, in many ways, as the driving force of the first three seasons. Heck, their first kiss was the Season 2 cliffhanger. And, with the exception of the last season, their relationship was presented to us as idyllic.
Now, I’m extremely happy that was picked apart a bit, which led to what I would consider one of the most emotionally affecting moments in modern television.
Even there though, tensions quickly resolved themselves. “Jam” was still that paragonal relationship to strive for, with Jim himself being framed as the “ideal” boyfriend/husband. The first time around, I think it’d be very difficult for anyone to not want a Jim Halpert in their life.
But now… Dudes, I don’t know. I mean, I still find him to be funny. He’d be great friend material, though he does spend an inordinate amount of time pulling pranks for someone in his thirties. Heck, even his bedroom screams “man-child.” Or “trying to re-live college glory days.”
Sure he may be a bit too complacent in his career choice for 90% of the show, but that’s relatable enough too.
No, it’s his relationship with Pam that makes me want to throw things.
I believe we’ve talked before about “Good Guys™” (sometimes called “Nice Guys™” for those who don’t care quite so much about alliteration). But simply put, this storytelling conversion assumes that good guys, who we know are Good™ because like…they wouldn’t treat a woman like that jerk does, are entitled to the affections of women. That they deserve them, in fact, by virtue of being…Nice™. “Dogged Nice Guy” is perhaps the most common way this plays out, and certainly how Jim was presented on The Office. Here, the premise is that the good guy will always, patiently be there for the woman until she sees his worth.
In fact, the “low-key yearning” scenario that the TVTropes page lists is basically a plot summary of Seasons 1-3:
Bob will likely begin by saying that he has his hopes for a more serious relationship, and he hopes Alice will eventually feel the same. He’s content to be Platonic Life Partners until that time comes. From here, he may remind her of his unrequited love every time he sees her, or he may never mention it again. Alice might refuse the Relationship Upgrade because she doesn’t want to ruin this friendship, or else believe that Bob just has a schoolboy crush he’ll get over. If Alice is in a relationship, Bob might try to accept it for Alice’s sake. If Bob dates someone else in the interim, this may make Alice have a Green-Eyed Epiphany and create a Unrequited Love Switcheroo.
In traditional straight examples, as long as Bob is honestly a Nice Guy, or at least a decent guy, both of these two attitudes are usually expected to result in success. Due to the Rule of Romantic, Alice will always realize over time, that she really happens to love him back.
Now, for clarification, I’m not in any way trying to say that nice guys don’t deserve happiness. But the damage of this school of thought is that it completely undermines a woman’s agency and feelings. What she wants becomes secondary, because she “should” see the value in Good Guys™, unlike those bad boys she always goes for. It’s a trope that plays right into and endorses male entitlement, something which—and I hate to alarm anyone—is rather pervasive in our society. This is what gives rise to the dreaded “Friend Zone,” which in its most common usage, is a concept that serves to shame women for saying “no.” If they say “yes,” however, we have slutshaming!
With Jam, I do feel like I’m doing Pam a disservice by implying her feelings are undermined here. It is pretty clear to the viewer that she holds a degree of romantic interest in Jim. We see it when she gets a little bit jealous of the attention he gives Amy Adam’s character in Season 1, and how she’s relieved when said character seems too vapid to be a “real threat” in Season 2. By Season 3, she’s clearly in awareness of her feelings for him, giving him every signal that she is interested, and once more, shown as upset by his relationship with Karen.
So…what’s the problem with telling the story of a slow-burn between two friends? One is a “nice” guy so therefore it’s a sexist trope?
The thing is, men can have unrequited crushes for women without a Friend Zone element creeping in. But where it crosses the line, at least for me, is in Jim’s treatment of other women as well as his bizarre sense of entitlement regarding Pam’s feelings.
To be perfectly fair, neither one was a huge issue in the first season. Jim does get touchy with Pam in one episode, but it wasn’t an issue until her fiancé came in and threw a shit-fit. It’s important to keep in mind that Roy is presented to us as a toxically male jerk. He makes homophobic jokes, takes little to no interest in Pam’s ambitions, and though he tries to clean himself up for a few episodes later on, that abruptly ends when he snaps, screams at Pam, trashes a bar, and then goes to beat up Jim for a kiss Pam told him was mutual that happened nearly a year prior. So we’re meant to view his reaction in “The Alliance” as a douchey overreaction.
Continuing with Jam, in the second season, we do see Jim sometimes crossing the line when it comes to Pam’s physical boundaries, but the show also gives us the impression that’s more due to her discomfort with the social feedback than with him:
And really, it’s that last gif that shows what starts to be my main issue here. It’s about his hurt, and we’re later shown Jim scrapping a half-written sopping email along the lines of “sorry if that was weird”, because he’s the focal point. Not how she felt with her shirt lifted half up in front of her coworkers.
In fact, any time she gets visibly uncomfortable by him being too close, the narrative wants us to be frustrated with her, like on the “Booze Cruise” when she walks away because he’s creepily staring at her.
Not that Pam had a much better showing in that episode when she made fun of Jim’s girlfriend with him in front of her.
And I guess, like, if that’s Jim’s flirting style, then okay, whatever. Can’t blame him for trying, right? But where the main issue comes in is with his bizarre sense of entitlement surrounding her feelings for him and how he’ll punish her for behaving in a perfectly acceptable way that a friend would.
For instance, in “Halloween”. there’s a job opening for a paper salesman in Maryland with double the salary than what Jim makes at Dunder Mifflin, and probably a better location than Scranton Pennsylvania. Pam suggests that Jim applies to it because like, that’d be a good thing for him. He gets immediately pissed off, and even though she basically falls over herself to demonstrate that she cares about him (literally clinging onto his arm when she’s worried he might have been canned), he doesn’t forgive her until she says (hyperbolically) that she would “blow her brains out” if he left.
In “The Client,” Jim makes possibly the creepiest joke anyone could make to an engaged friend ever, and then takes a pissy shot at her relationship when she just tries to diffuse it:
Jim: Some might even say we had our first date last night.
Pam: Oh really? Why might some say that?
Jim: Cause there was dinner, by candlelight, dinner. and a show, if you include Michael’s movie. And there was dancing and fireworks. Pretty good date.
Pam: We didn’t dance.
Jim: You’re right, we didn’t dance. It was more like swaying. But, still romantic.
Pam: Swaying isn’t dancing.
Jim: At least I didn’t leave you at a high school hockey game [like Roy had done on his first date with Pam].
Thankfully she snaps at him for this, but the episode ends with his baleful look into the camera saying, “Okay, we didn’t dance. And I was totally joking, anyway. it’s not really a date if the girl goes home to her fiance. Right?” Awwwww you hang in there, buddy.
I’ll skip Jim reporting Pam to HR for planning a few details of her wedding in the office because I guess that could have reasonably slipped out, but then let’s talk about Jim’s love confession to her. Now, it should be noted that he decided to transfer branches because it was so hard for him to be around Pam.
Which…okay, I guess? But he needs to tell her how he feels “just once.” That’s fine. So when they’re alone together during the events of “Casino Night” he tells her that he’s in love with her. She basically answers, point-blank (no hesitation): “I can’t. Your friendship means so much to me though.” He cries and walks away and she runs upstairs to tell her mom, because she clearly has feelings for him. Then he finds her, she says “listen, Jim,” and he kisses her. Cliffhanger!
We find out later in a flashback that the rest of that interaction went like this:
Jim: You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.
Pam: Me too. I think we’re just drunk.
Jim: No, I’m not drunk. Are you drunk?
Pam: No. [Jim goes to kiss her again] Jim.
Jim: You’re really gonna marry him? Okay.
Then he walks away and goes to his new job at his new branch. Pam, meanwhile, calls off her wedding, clearly a direct result of this. However, when Michael meets up with Jim in “The Convention” and tells him that, Jim says, “It’s just, I kind of put it all on the line. Twice, actually. And she said no. Twice.” I’m sorry, did she not blow up her eight-year relationship/upcoming wedding and turn her entire life upside-down for you fast enough?
This attitude is only made worse when the two begin reconnecting on the phone, showing Jim on very friendly terms with her. Yet he can’t bear to work in Scranton again (the branches merge), unless he gets himself a security blanket girlfriend that he doesn’t really care about, who he convinces to move there despite, by his own admission, New York City being nearby and full of better opportunities for her.
Aaaaand that’s when Jim really falls off the table for me: his treatment of other women.
First there was his relationship with Amy Adams. It’s clear she’s not going to be his future wife (she’s presented to us as dumb, and I guess we’re supposed to find it funny?), and he ends up rather cruelly dumping her on the booze cruise (after making fun of her with Pam) because he’s so upset Pam and Roy finally set a date for their wedding. That wasn’t exactly framed as a positive, and I guess it’s fine…these things kind of happen.
But then there’s Karen Filippelli, Jim’s coworker in the Stamford branch. They begin dating just as the branch closes, supposedly when he tells her “Scranton isn’t that bad, you should come too.” Then once in Scranton, Pam makes it super, duper clear that she’d be open to being with him, but Jim kind of clings to Karen, presumably out of fear of being hurt by her again. However, his entire relationship with Karen is characterized by him treating her with indifference, outright flirting with Pam at Phyllis’s wedding and saying she’s “cute” when she dances, and then telling the camera crew that “hypothetically, if Pam was interested…” HEY JIM. YOUR DATE IS RIGHT THERE.
But don’t worry, when Pam has the nerve to go have comfort sex with Roy, he’s REALLY glad he’s with Karen now. Because it’s not like Pam might just be having a tough time, especially given that Phyllis basically made a carbon-copy of her planned wedding that never happened, and especially when she has no reason to assume Jim would ever be considering a hypothetical relationship with her.
Jim’s less glad when Karen has the audacity to suggest that she actually finds a house in Scranton and moves out of her shitty motel, because the house that was available is only a couple of streets away from him and it’d be like “moving in together.” Pam of all people had to be the one to tell him he was being unfair.
When Karen finally learns of Jim’s
former feelings for Pam and asks him about it, he tries to ignore her legitimate concerns:
Karen: Did you ever have a thing for Pam?
Jim: Pam? Did I ever have a thing for her? No Why, did she say something?
Karen: …I moved here from Connecticut.
Later, when Jim outright admits that he still has feelings for Pam, Karen insists on talking through it, the jerk. So we’re treated to lots of sympathetic shots of sleepy Jim, because his girlfriend who moved for him was a wee bit upset.
All this comes to a head when both Karen and Jim apply for a job with corporate in New York, and Karen broaches the subject of their future (after what could be read as a public confession of feelings from Pam the episode prior):
Karen: Well, if you get the job then I’d move here with you. Would you move with me? I’m not stupid, okay? I was at the beach. We won’t have a future in Scranton. There’s one too many people there.
Jim: You mean Kevin?
Karen: Exactly. But you get it, right? Can’t stay there.
Jim: Yeah, I do.
That’s nice, Jim. Make a joke about it. It’s almost as nice as the fact that you abandon her in New York City because you want to go grab dinner with Pam.
No literally; he was Karen’s ride. And I’m also pretty sure she was passed up for the job in favor of Ryan because of Dunder Mifflin’s sexist culture, though that’s an issue for another day.
But that’s the saga of Karen! A girlfriend Jim used to hide behind and drag along because he was still determined to punish another woman for not immediately jumping at the chance to be with him after one kiss. Honestly, the only good of it that came was Karen telling Jim off in Season 4:
Yes, Jim and Pam loved each other. But all of this was portrayed as not only acceptable behavior (which it’s not), but the behavior we were supposed to root for! Jim turning up in Scranton at the end of “The Job” was presented to us as a great, romantic moment.
There’s also the fact that Jim gets rewarded by the narrative over and over. Pam’s incredibly truncated art program is hard for him? Oh well, she’s going to just drop out of it because she heard the strain in his voice on the phone after she made friends. That’s healthy! And truthfully the timing of his proposal was just shy of pissing on her to mark her.
Then, while I do praise the final season for “going there” and giving them actual friction with their relationship, it was Pam who had been working overtime to allow Jim to go skipping off to Philly half the time to follow his dreams, something he initially hid from her. For a second I think the show wanted us on her side? But then in the finale she agreed to uproot their family to support him, saying “I just needed time.” As if she had been unreasonable through all of this.
Really, what it comes down to is that The Office gave us the utter prioritization of Jim’s feelings at about every turn, and given that this was the foundation on which “Jam” was built, it leaves an incredibly bad taste in my mouth.
There is officially one plotline where this doesn’t happen: the Michael Scott Paper Company. And it’s everything. Mostly because Jim’s not involved at all, and his own subplot is him finally getting negative feedback from someone, even if it’s presented to us as totally unreasonable.
Though like…shouldn’t someone who’s been at this job for years know what a “rundown of clients” means?
Look, I like slowburns. And “not actually unrequited” love. But what I don’t like is when one side has a sense of entitlement that not only goes unchallenged, but is endorsed. Especially given the genders at play, because women’s desires are totally never ignored, right?