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.