Saturday, May 5, 2007

Powerful Images in "The Office" and the Messages They Send

Many images from “The Office” send messages that are very powerful. These messages are sent through images regarding topics such as gender, race, and sexuality. Two very different kinds of messages can be sent by these images, depending on the audience. An audience that views “The Office” as just a show and takes its contents at face value will receive messages that reinforce social norms and stereotypes. However, if the show is viewed as a satirical comedy a very different message is portrayed, one that counters social norms and stereotypes. For my final post, I will discuss these messages and how they depend on the audience that receives them.

“The Office” sends very powerful messages that reinforce social norms and stereotypes if the show is taken as it is. If the show is not viewed satirically, but rather as just a show, then the messages that the show sends reinforce social norms regarding gender, race, and sexuality. Most of these messages are portrayed through Michael Scott, the boss of the office. He readily sends messages, especially those regarding gender, race, and sexuality, that reinforce social norms and the hegemonic hierarchy. I have discussed several examples of these messages in previous posts. In “Hegemonic Messages in ‘The Office’” I discuss an episode entitled “Diversity Day.” In this episode, Michael creates a very blatant image that sends a very powerful message. After having everyone play a different race and interact with each other based on stereotypes that go along with those races, he sends the message that racial stereotypes should be used to label people. In an attempt to educate the office on the subject of diversity, he instead shows how prevalent racial stereotypes are in today’s society, and that people should be judged by these stereotypes.

Another very powerful image that reinforces social norms is related to sexuality. In the same post as the one mentioned above I discuss an episode entitled “Gay Witch Hunt.” In this episode Michael finds out that one of his employees, Oscar, is gay. The image that results is one in which Oscar is treated very differently by all of his coworkers because of his sexuality. This image sends a very powerful message, one much like the message sent in “Diversity Day.” This message reinforces the social norm that homosexuals are significantly different than heterosexuals, and therefore need to be identified. This episode very clearly placed homosexuality below heterosexuality on the hegemonic hierarchy.

Another very powerful image is one that I tried to recreate in my collage, “Patriarchy in ‘The Office’.” This image involves a hegemonic hierarchy in which women are below men. As can be seen in the collage, all of the men are placed above the women, as they would be in a hegemonic hierarchy. This image also sends messages about gender roles. As I discussed in “Patriarchy in ‘The Office’,” men and women portrayed on the show have very different roles. The men are seen as aggressive salesmen who have control over the office. The women, on the other hand, are seen as passive and are not portrayed as very valuable employees. Even Michael’s boss, Jan, is below him on the hegemonic hierarchy because of her gender. Although she is in charge of Michael, he rarely listens to her and never gets in trouble when he makes mistakes, which is quite frequently. She is reduced from his boss to someone who has little control over him because she is a woman. The message sent by this image is that women should be passive, powerless, and should have little control over anything. As Douglas Kellner has stated, “Media Spectacles demonstrate who has power and who is powerless, who is allowed to exercise force and violence, and who is not” (Kellner, 9). All of the power in the office, besides party planning, is reserved for the men. And in being in control they are all placed above women in the hegemonic hierarchy.

While in “The Office” there are many images that reinforce social norms and stereotypes, there are also images that counter them. The most powerful of these images deals with the way that Michael Scott is viewed by his employees and the people he interacts with on the show. Michael is viewed by others as someone who is very ignorant and inappropriate, with very little self awareness. Almost everyone on the show, with the exception of his assistant, Dwight, would agree with this description. It is in the way that Michael is view by others that sends a very powerful message. However, this message can only be seen if the show is taken as satirical comedy and not just a show. If it is taken as satirical comedy, one can see that the butt of the joke is in fact Michael’s ignorance and misunderstanding, and not the stereotypes and social norms that his actions reinforce. The message that is sent in this image is that social norms and stereotypes, such as those reinforced by Michael, are products of ignorance and misunderstanding. This is a very powerful message that counters norms related to gender, race, class, sexuality, and the hegemonic hierarchy. This message is exceptionally powerful, as it places a single factor as the cause of so many social norms and stereotypes.

Although “The Office” constantly portrays images that reinforce social norms and stereotypes, it also portrays a very powerful image that counters these norms and stereotypes. Numerous examples of images that reinforce norms can be seen in almost any episode of “The Office,” and I have discussed several of these in previous posts. However, if the show is viewed as satirical comedy, the most important message that is sent by any image portrayed in “The Office” is that ignorance is the main fuel behind the social norms and stereotypes that are so prevalent in today’s society.


Kellner, Douglas. Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text Reader. Chapter 1.