Pop Culture

The Problem of Repetition in The Office

NBC’s long-running sitcom The Office (available on Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus) ended earlier this year. Besides adding, “That’s what she said!” to the cultural lexicon, the show provided insight into just what it means to work in an office. . . especially if one is male (and preferably white and heterosexual). Erin Hannon (Ellie Kemper), a character added in Season 5, shows us in ways Pam, Jan, Kelly, Angela, and Phyllis cannot just what it means to be female.

Erin joins the cast as a new receptionist, replacing Pam, who has left to join the Michael Scott Paper Company. She’s young and inexperienced; in one episode she mentions working at a Taco Bell Express and being unable to handle the change to a regular Taco Bell. To Michael’s delight, she comes to view him as a sort of a father-figure. This might stem from her childhood in the foster care system; while usually this past is mined for comedy, the audience does meet her creepy foster brother, and she mentions that as a kid, her hair was her room, implying she had little privacy.

Erin Hannon (Ellie Kemper) in Season 6 of The Office (US).
Erin Hannon (Ellie Kemper) in Season 6 of The Office (US). Photo by Chris Haston. From Wikipedia and NBC

Erin has a light, bubbly personality, and, as often happens in the later seasons of long-running TV shows, she changes as the writers need her to. An interest in accounting is dropped. Her competence and intelligence fluctuate (she does her job of receptionist very well, yet she takes the term “disposable camera” literally, throwing the camera away after using it).

But despite being called The Office, the show is never really interested in her career. We know that Pam disliked being a receptionist and hoped to eventually move on to other career opportunities (which she does). Erin seems to enjoy being a receptionist and other than the aforementioned interest in accounting, the issue of her career goals never really comes up again. She does briefly work as a maid/caretaker, but that is related more to her romantic interests than career interests.

Not surprisingly, then, the show is most focused on Erin’s romantic life (as it is with many of the other characters). And here is where the problem of repetition comes in. I like Erin as a character, and Ellie Kemper is a hilarious and gifted comedian. But the way her storylines tend to repeat (again, generally a problem for any long-running show, not just The Office) is rather terrifying. I don’t think the writers intend for her story to be an overt commentary on women in the workplace, and yet, there it is.

As the young, cute, enthusiastic receptionist, Erin receives a lot of romantic attention: Dwight, Andy, Ryan, Gabe, and Pete all express interest in her. She and Andy have a long courtship, as both are too nervous/shy to ask the other out. Finally, Andy unequivocally asks her out, but asks to keep the relationship quiet. Eventually, Erin learns Andy wants to keep things quiet because of the very public way his relationship with Angela ended. Erin is hurt (because of the previous relationship or because he didn’t tell her; it’s not quite clear) and the two break up off-camera.

That the writers would want to mimic the Pam-Jim relationship with Erin and Andy is not surprising. The way the courtship plays out is.

After breaking up, the two remain friendly. In Season 7, she begins dating Gabe (who joined the cast in Season 6). She mentions it’s a good thing he’s her boss or she wouldn’t have said yes. This comment is off-hand and meant to be just be a joke, but how terrifying is that? This young woman felt she didn’t have the power to say no, nor did no one to tell her she could have said no or reported Gabe to HR. Ideally (and here’s my own naivete!), someone would have stepped in as a mentor. In earlier seasons, we’d seen Jan fulfill that role somewhat, but in later seasons, no one really has that function (partly because the only woman with power is Kathy Bates’s Jo, who shows up for just a few guest spots).

As Erin and Gabe’s relationship continues, it takes a problematic turn. Gabe seems to have all the power; for example, he forces Erin to watch horror movies, which she dislikes.  She avoids him when she stops feeling attracted to him, and is able to get advice from Pam about breaking up. Erin handles it badly, breaking up with Gabe in public.

Unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly, Gabe is despondent about the break up. His attempts to win her back become creepy and stalker-ish.

This same drama plays out again in Season 8. Now Andy is dating someone else, but Erin is interested in him. Eventually he pursues her (all the way to Florida!), even though he has yet to break up with his current girlfriend. Erin and Andy break up again in Season 9 after Andy disappears for several months. At first Erin feels she can’t break up with him (“We’ll learn to love each other!” he says), but is finally able to when the man she is really interested in, Pete, tells her he just wants her to be happy. Just as Gabe had, Andy acts in a frightening manner after the breakup.

Any individual plotline would be understandable and perhaps enjoyable. After the first few seasons, The Office was never really about an office. The original storyline of Andy wooing Erin was cute: he’d been hurt very badly, and she hadn’t had much experience with adult relationships. They were both enthusiastic and a little naive, and so presented a good enough match in a sitcom world where all relationships must include series’ regulars.

But the repetitions of this storyline show a darker side to being female: the lack of choice and the problem of being trapped are among the more obvious issues. Erin feels she can’t say no to Gabe because he is her boss. After she breaks up with Andy, Gabe,  and then Andy again, she is forced not only to see them every day but to endure their attempts to win her back, despite her saying no. Her own feelings are overruled by the men because they know better.

I enjoy watching Kemper’s performance, and overall I enjoy even the later episodes of The Office. Even so, her storylines make me squirm. Knowing what has happened to the character and what will happen make it difficult to want to watch her scenes. They are a reminder of how women’s desires and opinions are often dismissed, especially in the workplace.  Erin is cute and young: she can’t possibly know what she wants. That she feels the need to move to Florida to get away from Andy and Gabe means nothing; it’s just a reason to pursue her harder.

And the repetition of these plots mirror reality: most women put up with this over and over, not once. We deal with multiple men who won’t take no for an answer, multiple people who think they know better than we do, coworkers who ignore us, lack of support.

Erin finally triumphs: she sheds the useless men who won’t leave her alone, she dates a normal guy who seems interested in her, she still has the job she enjoys. We can postulate a nice future for her, perhaps mirroring Pam’s: marriage, children, and a stable work life. But she has to overcome a lot of unnecessary (male) drama to get there.

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