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TelevIsm: Pambition! The Office's Abandoned Artist


Image: Pam Halpert from The Office, in front of her watercolors

The Office is a show that focuses on men–four out the five stars are male. Nonetheless, it's one of my very favorite shows, and I think it has strong, likable, interesting female characters. It's launched the career of Mindy Kaling, who writes for the show and plays the totally hilarious Kelly Kapoor. And it's got Pam Halpert (formerly Pam Beesley), whom I like quite a bit. Over the series, she has grown quite assertive, a admirable quality not usually rewarded in women. But her early independent ambition for art has been abandoned so that her professional identity can be attached to her husband Jim Halpert's.*

Pam's art is at first mainly used to define Jim's fitness and former fiancé Roy's poor performance as a partner. In the first three seasons of the series, Pam constantly makes Roy-related excuses to avoid pursuit of her dreams. Roy actively discourages her plans and dismisses her ideas, in contrast to Jim's advice to take a chance on an art program.

To be fair, her struggles with art also help to show that Pam is dissatisfied and timid (usually with Roy). For instance, a scene in the third season where she invites co-workers to an art show is used to show her social isolation from her co-workers–but also Roy's shallow understanding of her ambitions.

After Pam and Jim get together, this trend is continued. Jim is a good boyfriend, it's true, but stories about Pam's art are pretty much all about that well-developed fact. For instance, when Ryan offers her an opportunity to design a company logo, both she and Jim are excited. But when it turns into a pass that she rejects, it's not a disappointment for Pam, but an opportunity for Jim to be smug about how "Ryan can't have her".

Pam's most ambitious pursuit of a graphic design career comes at the beginning of the fifth season, when she goes to study art at the Pratt Institute in New York (with Jim's full support and encouragement). Pam studying and actually making art is not so much the focus in these episodes as is how her relationship with Jim fares. Her stay in New York is less an expression of her talent and capabilities than of Jim's devotion to her and trust in her–his willingness to wait, to live without her, and of course his grand romantic proposal halfway to New York in the rain.

Pam is occasionally a point of focus while not working at Dunder-Mifflin. She's shown in class–giggling with a romantic rival for Jim. She's shown in her room–welcoming Jim. She's shown out on the town–with Jim's brothers. She's seen at work–Dunder-Mifflin corporate HQ. She's heard on the phone–usually discussing other series regulars or …not art.

The most revealing instance of this is when she fails out of art school. She cannot pass a computer course (suggesting incompetence), and Jim encourages her to stay. But she just has to come home because she misses Jim so much!

After this, the art career is pretty much dropped, mentioned only in passing. As she gets pregnant and married, she does seek out a promotion–to be a paper salesperson. Just like Jim, who just happens to be more talented and highly valued by the company.

After the art arc, we've learned a lot more about Pam and Jim (and Roy) from Pam's art than we have about…Pam's art. And Jim is adorable, and a great partner–much better than neglectful Roy. But what kind of art does she want to do? We don't know. Watercolors and ceramics are mentioned. She does competent animation in one episode, but fails computer courses. What kind of career does she want out of this? Even when asked directly by Jim's brothers, she doesn't have an answer. In comparison, her Office UK counterpart, Dawn Tinsley, has a specific, well-defined career in mind–children's illustration.

Pam's artistic ambitions are there not to reveal something about her, but about her partners and her relationship to these men–how they are suited and loving to her, or how they are neglectful and reductive to her. Her growth with her art is very much in the terms of her relationships to her partners.

Pam's abandonment of her art career is indicative of The Office's checkered history regarding women, ambition, and positions of power. The character of Jan Levinson, originally Michael's boss and later his partner, started out strong and then devolved into an incompetent stereotype whose non-Dunder-Mifflin ambitions are cast as suspect. In a recent episode, Kelly Kapoor's application to a minority executive training program is roundly mocked by the rest of the staff, and was framed as a racially exploitative way for her (terrible) boyfriend Ryan to get back in power.

The Office is a mainstream show, not oriented around social justice. But its writing staff does think critically about the political implications of office politics, and I think that they can do better. Karen Filipelli (Rashida Jones) in the third season was a competent character who proved to be a successful leader in guest spots. Kathy Bates has had a hilarious guest-spot this year as the unapologetically successful, ambitious, and hard-working CEO of Sabre.

The Office is a comedy about the workplace, and through this focus, they are making a comment about and contributing to the place of women in the workplace. I understand that they have narrative demands to service–Pam is a main character and they can't keep taking her out of the action (even though most creative professionals–yours truly included–toil for years practicing their craft professionally on the side). Jim is a great husband, I think, and Pam's relationship with him is also important to her character. But The Office is still reinforcing a message that society already delivers to women: that their career is subservient to their male partner's, that family should erase ambition.

Partnership and marriage and motherhood are not mutually exclusive with independent careers. But this reality is not reflected in the central relationship of The Office, and the central working woman of its cast, Pam Halpert.

*This statement has been edited. For more on this, see the comments.

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Comments

30 comments have been made. Post a comment.

The Future For Kelly Kapoor

With any luck, Pam Halpert's character, Kelly Kapoor, will continue to develop her assertiveness, wind up in charge of Human Resources and hire more women for "The Office".

There is most definitely

There is most definitely hope for Kelly Kapoor as she enters Sabre's minority executive training points, though as I mentioned above, I'm a little troubled by how they positioned her entry into said program.

Pam & co.

Do you mean Pam Halpert's character *and* Kelly Kapoor? They're two different characters, played by Jenna Fischer and Mindy Kaling respectively.

I'm also disappointed at how Pam was painted as incompetent when she pursued graphic design, and how the interest was painted as over once she failed her class. I'm not sure that the show was written this way so that "her identity can be focused on motherhood and merged with her husband," though. The two are connected in that Pam's character has literally always been written in relationship to Jim, but I read her abrupt abandonment of the field as the message of, "If you don't have a knack for something and/or people don't appreciate you for it, don't waste your time." It certainly bothers me, but not in a way related to sexual politics. (Her changing her last name, however...) While the later seasons have been problematic, and sometimes weak, in other ways, I actually think Pam's personality has been demonstrated more strongly since she and Jim got together, because her portrayal was no longer based around being the shy, sweet dream girl Jim moons over but can't have.

As for the other female characters, Karen was wonderful; I miss her and am still annoyed that she was apparently assumed to have no purpose on the show once she stopped dating Jim. Phyllis is generally a strong character, though perhaps construed as unthreatening since her job has gone unchanged without comment in six years. I like Kelly quite a bit, too, but find her terrible relationship with Ryan just upsetting at this point rather than funny. That topic could be its own forum, I'm sure...

Thanks for your (as always) articulate, helpful comments!

Really good argument for Pam's independent identity. My thesis statement may be a bit of an overstatement, particularly since I don't really focus on motherhood in the piece. I may re-word so it's more about her professional identity which I do think is pretty attached to Jim. I'm going to reproduce both versions here:

Original: But her independent ambition for art, an attractive trait early on in the series, has been abandoned so that her identity can be focused on motherhood and merged with her husband Jim Halpert’s.

Edited: But her early independent ambition for art has been abandoned so that her professional identity can be attached to her husband Jim Halpert’s.

The best female character on

The best female character on the show now is Kathy Bates' CEO. Pam has no personality now, since she basically is Jim's partner in nearly every storyline. We know nothing of her interests or ambitions, and the art storyline failed terribly, since the writers decided to abandon it.

The problem with Kelly in regards to the minority executive training program is that her character isn't cut out for such a program. Kelly is an airhead, and her entire life revolves around celebrities, trends, and Ryan. She has no interests in terms of a career or a future that does not involve marrying some ridiculous jerk. It makes more sense that the opportunity goes to Darryl.

The show most definitely can do better, as was witnessed in the earlier seasons with Jan, and to a certain extent the other characters. But Pam, as she's positioned now, is merely one-half of Jam, and that's how she'll stay.

Jo Bennett is awesome, but I

Jo Bennett is awesome, but I strongly disagree that Pam has no personality. She's assertive, and has in recent years shown an unwillingness with people's bullshit (see the beginning of the wedding episode, when she barfs in defiance of Dwight's egg). She can also be helpful and competent, though she is not always. She is often considerate to others, even when she doesn't particularly like them (Angela and the new receptionist).

As for Kelly, it's an odd tack to take with the character, but I certainly think it could work. Michael's not much deeper or more ambitious, but he seems to be doing fine. Jim was promoted despite not really caring at all about DM. Kelly is a competent customer service rep (see The Recall) and has an outgoing personality and people skills that could serve her well as an executive. She might blossom if challenged.

Pam

I just wanted to comment on the episode where Pam goes into labor. It was so hard for me to watch, I kept getting so annoyed by Pam's behavior. She was acting absolutely ridiculous, and had to be practically forced to go to her hospital. She didn't even want to go after her water broke. But of course there was Jim, the perfect boyfriend who was the sensible one in the situation.

Labor

Rose,

I actually thought the episode where Pam went into labor provided an interesting commentary on our nation's health care system. Yes, at a certain point the baby comes first, but I identified with Pam's wanting to wait until midnight to go to the hospital so that she and Jim wouldn't have to pay for an extra day of care. I was hoping at the time it aired that it might open a few conservative eyes to the dilemmas uninsured or under-insured people face (might be too much to hope for).

However, I see what you mean with your frustrations, because it bothered me also that Pam had to be basically picked up and carried to the hospital by the men in her life (women can't make these decisions for themselves!).

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Healthcare system aside, I

Healthcare system aside, I thought Pam's behavior was interesting for a pregnant woman on TV. I watched the episode a while ago so I might be mistaken, but at the end didn't she "confess" that the real reason she didn't want to go to the hospital because she wasn't sure of her skills as a mother, she didn't want to progress to that quite yet? I thought it was semi-refreshing from the whole "let's get this baby out now, yay!" jubilee that generally happens during labor in media.

Yes to this and to Kelsey's

Yes to this and to Kelsey's comment. I also thought that neither Pam nor Jim's behavior was characterized as irrational. They both had valid points, I thought - Jim was "flustered" and Pam was ignoring the problem, but they both had good enough reasons, and Pam's reluctance was respected.

I don't disagree that the

I don't disagree that the portrayal of female characters on the show needs work, but it actually felt entirely realistic to me that Pam stopped talking about art altogether after quitting school. Maybe that's because I'm living that reality in a lot of ways. I've been interested in a number of varied artsy pursuits in my life and have gone to school for some of them until I decided they weren't for me. I always thought I'd end up doing something creative with my life but instead I've been in the IT field for over a dozen years now. Sometimes people choose security and boredom over creativity and risk.

I don't necessarily believe the writers were looking at it that way, but it still came across as pretty authentic to me.

A valid critique! I think

A valid critique! I think it's more problematic considering she is the main female character, and quantifiably less successful than the other stars. Thanks for sharing!

Pam's forgotten ambitions

I've always thought of Pam's forgotten ambitions as more reflective of society than her partnership with Jim. Both she and Jim (as well as many other Dunder-Mifflin employees) are settling for the jobs that they are in. This point was brought up by both Jim and Pam in the earlier seasons. Jim didn't want to be a salesman, and Pam didn't want to be a receptionist. However, Jim didn't have any other career aspirations, and Pam gave up on hers the moment she seemingly failed at school. This resigned attitude toward the corporate workplace is commonplace in American society. Many workers settle for a steady paycheck with a mindless or comfortable job, rather take the risk of fulfilling their dreams. In Pam's case, those dreams weren't fully realized (in your post, you commented on that she didn't specify what type of art she wanted to do, and I don't think she was supposed to really know). That makes it easier for her to settle into her current existence, much like many Americans.

Excellent point! The show is

Excellent point! The show is to a certain extent primarily about crushed dreams, and Pam is a part of that.

However!

Jim's apathy is rewarded continually throughout the series. He is promoted several times, and was framed as likely to get the job Ryan had as an executive had he not taken himself out of contention for Pam (a reversal - it's usually the woman who is shown passing up opportunities for a man/family).

The Office is a popular portrayal of the workplace, so its portrayal of women in the workplace is relevant to how non-fictional women are viewed in the workplace. So it strikes me as significant that the best Pam can get through her apathy (at this point) is Jim's original job (except she doesn't do it at well).

"So it strikes me as

"So it strikes me as significant that the best Pam can get through her apathy (at this point) is Jim's original job (except she doesn't do it at well)."

I don't necessarily agree that Pam is worse at her job than Jim was. I think the show makes it very clear that Jim is constantly rewarded by Michael based on sympathy instead of merit. I remember in the first seasons it was often emphasized that Jim wasn't doing his job particularly well (Remember how much time he wasted with all the pranks? That was practically all he did at one point.). It seems to me that Pam was always painted as the more considerate/more serious one of the two. She was very determined and ambitious when she was trying to set up a new company with Michael.

I don't agree that Michael

I don't agree that Michael was sympathetic to Jim - it's more that he admired him, as did much of the executive branch of DM.

Jim's gotten numerous promotions, commendations, sales awards, and references to good sales numbers. It has been implied on multiple occasions that Pam's sales numbers, in the position that she was promoted to and Jim started in, are not quite good enough.

Jim is Michael

A couple of comments about Jim and Michael: Jim is a younger version of Michael. The show has hinted at it numerous times, and even Michael has brought up that he sees a lot of himself in Jim (to which a vexed Jim looked forlornly at the camera). Also, Dunder-Mifflin's visiting manager hated Jim and thought he was not a good employee. I think all the accolades are Michael's bias. Apparently, Dwight is a much better salesman and that is not saying anything favorable about paper salespeople's careers. Quite the opposite, actually.

In relation to Pam: She has shown the most fulfilled ambition out of anyone on the show. She is the only character that rose from their current positions (although Darrel, another minority, was moved out of the warehouse). Even if her numbers aren't as good, she is a beginning salesperson and has potential to do better in the future. When he was beginning, Ryan's numbers were also low (and still are).

Many of The Office's employees have ambitions that haven't been fulfilled, most notably Ryan from his own doing. Oscar also had ideas for the bankrupt Dunder-Mifflin that he failed to voice, and Michael couldn't budget for his new paper company.

Jim is Michael, part two

I forgot to mention that Jim being a younger version of Michael helps explain Michael's rise to manager within Dunder-Mifflin. It is baffling how such a buffoon can be a manager, but Jim's subsequent rise to manager (before he went back to being a salesman) explains it. He may not be good at what he does, but he is very likable and able to pull out a good work ethic when it suits him. It also showed how ineffective Jim was as a manager, just like Michael.

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Can you please send this to

Can you please send this to The Office writers? Seriously, it's everything I've been thinking lately, particularly as an artist myself. I feel like Pam exists now for her relationship and her baby and I so badly want to see that creative side of her that used to be so much more prevalent in the show.

I think everyone has brought

I think everyone has brought some very good points up about Pam's character, which I agree with. While reading the main article though, I thought back to my undergrad creative writing courses and workshop discussions on character. When writing a fictional story (or in this case, teleplay...is that what it's called?) a writer tries to further the plot and develop characters in a way that is consistent. A character's motivations and personality must be understood. The question "Would character X really do this?" must be asked throughout the writing process. For example, you would not have a character that is consistently cruel and narcisstic suddenly become a good listener in act 4, without some hint or change previous to that. Character is revealed through their actions right? So to me the failings of Pam-the-character are the failings of the character, not of the writers. It would have been weird (to me) if Pam had suddenly not taken Jim's name or became a highly disciplined artist because that doesn't seem to align with how her character behaves and thinks previous to those things happening. It would have rung false. The failing (if we can call it that) of the writers then becomes their failure to provide the office with a well-rounded female character that isn't defined by the men in her life.

And on being defined by the men in their life...I think The Office's women are no more defined their relationships than any of the male characters. Each person seems to have a distinct personality whose story is enhanced by their relationships (romantic or otherwise) rather than pigeon-holed. If any character has suffered from the Pam-Jim consummation, I think it has been Jim. Pam still seems to have some pep...Jim, however becomes almost a non-entity now that his character defining wish has been fufilled.

also...

While watching Pam's story development I get the feeling that it was constructed with an awareness of her inability to make the choices watchers like us want her to make. That lends interest and pathos to the character. Frankly, I like her that way!

Not true to the character, lazy writing.

It would have been weird (to me) if Pam had suddenly not taken Jim's name or became a highly disciplined artist because that doesn't seem to align with how her character behaves and thinks previous to those things happening.

That is definitely something I did NOT mention. I don't think it's right to police women's name choices. Just want to be totally clear, I made no mention of that whatsoever and in fact specifically left it out.

I did not, at any point, expect Pam to "become a highly disciplined artist". As I said, folks work on the side for years and go up and down in commitment and activity. My mom did it. I do it. A commenter above does it. Pam could have done it.

Over the course of 30 episodes, many of which focused on her and Jim, they could have worked it into a storyline believably and realistically. And if it were some kind of commentary on her character? They could have had something canonical about that. Something about how she realizes that she is no longer fulfilled by it/doesn't have time/whatever.

It's not true to the character or whatever. Writers make choices, and they made the choice to drop it completely. It's lazy writing to drop a characteristic that she had for many years, after she'd seen more encouragement and success than she ever had before. Even if she failed out, she seemed to have an enriching experience and get a lot of practical encouragement.

There's no reason she would completely drop it, which is what she's done for the last season and a half. She may not have a lot of tenacity, but by all accounts this was something that she was passionate about, something she had talent at and cared a great deal about. She even has a studio in her garage, so it's not like it would be that fucking hard. It's against her character.

It's poor writing that's reflective of and reinforces staid, patriarchal ideas.

I have no idea what you are talking about regarding heterosexual pairings to be frank. I see no evidence of that whatsoever.

You seem really angered by

You seem really angered by my comments and I'm a little mystified as to why. I agree with your critique of Pam's character and of the Office's writers in general and I thought what you wrote was provoking, interesting and insightful. I was just trying to offer some further thoughts on the issue of choice in writing. I think the writers made good choices in keeping with how Pam behaved previous to the decisions alluded to in your article and in the comments. You disagree. Ok. The examples I used (i.e. Pam's name change) were gleaned mostly from the comments and were cited in the hopes of a dialogue with other readers as well as with the writer. Just because I think Pam behaved in keeping with her character doesn't mean I don't think that her story arc didn't reflect patriarchal values, hetero-normative relationships, and what-have-you. I just think that it was never in the map of the character to fight that battle. Additionally, I think that good dramatic and comedic characters are flawed and don't act in the ways we wish them to. That's part of what keeps us watching. But that's just my opinion.

I think your final comment is in response to my thought that the female characters on the Office are not defined by their relationships to men to a larger degree than the male characters....right? What I meant by that is that most of the characters seem to possess markers of fully-fledged human beings. Yes, Angela is defined in part by her bizarre relationship to Dwight but she also likes cats, rules and Little Drummer Boy. The relationship to Dwight then becomes not her defining characteristic but a part of her life and personality. There is more to her than who she is sleeping with. And taking the male characters in to consideration... Ryan seems just a defined by his relationship with Kelly as Kelly is by it. They both are semi-pathetic and needy and that's why it's funny.

Again, I apologize if I expressed myself inadequately and you took my comments to mean total disagreement. I in no way think that the writers of the Office are perfect, I was just trying to explore possible motivations for the decisions they made.

:)

Oops.

Sorry, I guess I took some of your tone to be more confrontational than it was. I've been a little more defensive on Bitch for whatever reason. The internet: occasionally confusing!

I mainly just wanted to clarify that I don't judge Pam re: name change, because were someone to be reading the comments more carefully than my 1000 word post, they might get the wrong idea.

Your clarification re: het relationships - I thought you were saying something completely different, but I agree with what you're saying above. Thanks for clarifying!

Thanks for your measured reply and intelligent contributions, and again, sorry for getting my back up. :)

It's cool! Thanks for your

It's cool! Thanks for your article! And again, sorry if I came off like a pompous windbag (that is often my interweb default).

i think everything you said is pretty on point

but as a graduate school dropout who thought i was going to school for what I Really Wanted To Do, i didn't see her return to scranton as for jim. just a realization that school isn't for everyone.

why she wouldn't keep doing art on the side should have been addressed in the show. there are actually a lot of real life reasons you might not get to it, and it would have been easy to bring them up. (i dropped out of a media studies program, but i still critique media all the time, informally.) but their just letting it go shows they never put much stock in it to begin with (they meaning the writers)

Thanks!

I actually don't have a huge problem with her wanting to return to Jim after failing the class...it's just problematic in the context of EVERYTHING, you know? As I said above, I actually see Pratt as a reason for her to CONTINUE her art, degree or no. She was validated as a real artist and got some encouragement.

And exactly... she could have continued doing art on the side, or they could have resolved it with her explaining at some point why she's not doing art. Say, after the late s5 or early s6 episode, where Dwight pays Erin $20 to pretend to have won an art contest....a quick camera interview could have explained "here's why I'm not doing art right now."

Thanks for the link and

Thanks for the link and thanks for writing about this show.

I used to love The Office so much but the last season (or two) has been so unbearable for so many reasons. I haven't enjoyed watching it as much since Jan left the show really. And I've always been uncomfortable with the Pam/Jim romance because people want it to be so much sweeter and more adorable than it actually is.

People, male or female,

People, male or female, whose focus is a healthy, enjoyable relationship and family life are not nonentities.