This was originally posted on my old blog on December 18, 2013
So I’ve had something on my mind lately. I think that the Jim Halpert character on The Office is the most accurate and honest portrayal of a bully I’ve ever seen on TV.
It’s weird, because it’s almost as though the writers understand that he is a bully, and kind of an asshole, and there are a few scenes where they touch on this, but not many. For the most part, we’re meant to view Jim as the hero of the story. One of the few sane voices in an office full of supposedly annoying and unbearably quirky characters. Yet, if he were a real person in the real world, he’d be fired for the way he treats Dwight. Or, one would hope.
The show is a perfect example of how bullies are able to continue bullying. The relationship between Jim and Dwight is established immediately. Dwight is annoying and strange and socially awkward and Jim finds it amusing to “prank” him and laugh at how he reacts, mostly to impress the secretary he has crush on. We’re meant to go along with Jim and laugh at Dwight. It’s meant be amusing that Jim antagonizes him, winding him up for the entertainment of the rest of the office. It doesn’t matter that Dwight is clearly suffering from some sort of emotional and/or personality disorder, in addition to an unconventional and culturally secluded upbringing. They make it clear that Dwight is a “nerd” by establishing his love for science fiction (especially Battlestar Galactica,) heavy metal, a myriad of computer games, and an obsession with history and natural science. These qualities are all used against him to portray Dwight (both by Jim and by the show itself) as strange and therefor annoying and deserving of belittling harassment.
(I should probably point out that I quite enjoyed The Office. Both the UK original and the US version. They both had moments of brilliance and while I think the US show fell apart a bit after Steve Carrell left, up to that point it was pretty consistently hilarious.)
Something that’s interesting about this particular perspective on Jim as a bully, is they make a point to portray Roy (fiance of Pam, the secretary and focus of Jim’s pining) as a bully in the traditional sense. Physically imposing, aggressive and dominating. Yet, Jim was the one perusing his fiance. When Roy came into the office to confront Jim after finding out that he’d kissed Pam, he’s portrayed as borderline psychotic. Certainly it’s wrong to assault someone (which Roy was threatening to do to Jim) but in that particular scenario, Roy was justified in being upset to the point of an altercation. Perhaps not a physical one, but few would argue that he was wrong for being angry and confronting Jim. That was a direct reaction to Jim’s active pursuit of his romantic partner. Yet the show portrayed Roy as this awful brute and Jim as the poor victim. It’s worth pointing out that in that particular incident, it was Dwight who actually stepped up and defended Jim (literally, physically) and stopped Roy from attacking.
This dynamic between Jim and Dwight went on for most of the show. It seemed like they would occasionally throw in a friendly moment here and there to act like “Aww, we’re just having fun here. These guys really love each other” which, to me, is an even more disturbing example of how the show justified and normalized its portrayal of bullying. That’s the exact attitude that allows people to be harassed endlessly. The idea that the person being harassed is playing along with the fun, even though they clearly aren’t. Or that they’re overreacting to harmless teasing.
Was Dwight Schrute an annoying character? Certainly. He was designed specifically to be. He had a painful lack of self-awareness (as most victims of bullies do) and was socially awkward to the point that he was difficult to be around. He had a peculiar sense of entitlement and arrogance (though I wonder how much of this would be called confidence and initiative in a less annoying character) and often an disturbing lack of common sense, and he was dismissive of the feelings of others in his pursuit of approval from his boss. He was ruthless in his attempts at upward mobility within Dunder Mifflin.
Yes, as a real human being, Dwight Schrute would be difficult to deal with on a regular basis. That doesn’t justify years of harassment. It would be one thing if Jim was responding to specific incidents or slights made against him, but that’s not the way the relationship plays out. It’s made clear over and over again that Dwight is trying to do his job and Jim is systematically and repeatedly harassing him. To the point that, by all appearances, he invests more energy and time into bullying Dwight than doing his actual job. As much is said directly, on multiple occasions on the show. Throughout the show, they make it clear that Dwight makes countless complaints to human resources and his manager about Jim’s harassment, but is never taken seriously. It’s another source of humor, how hard he tries to get his employers to protect him from Jim’s “pranks.” Again, another example of the kind of environment that facilitates bullying.
Then there was the time Jim pushed another character, Andy Bernard, into a full mental and emotional collapse, using the same tactics he used on Dwight. Andy ended up freaking out, punching a hole in the wall and having to take time off work go to anger management courses. The implication being that he was the problem. Ha ha.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this bully dynamic was carried over directly from the UK show, and it made even more sense. I’d argue that the relationship between Tim and Gareth on the UK Office (the characters Jim and Dwight were based on) was an even crueler example of bullying. In the US they went to great lengths to establish how obnoxious and insufferable Dwight was. His social awkwardness was, at times, nearly sociopathic (though it seemed to stem from a deeply emotional and passionate love for his job and family) and so it was easy to laugh along with the crowd as Jim taunted him. Gareth, on the other hand, while socially awkward, came across more as just an incredibly simple man. A kind of Forest Gump-esque man-child. Tim’s bullying of Gareth was far crueler just because Gareth appeared to genuinely not understand why he was being tortured. At least Dwight had a kind of battle minded approach to his job. Gareth was just pathetic and sad.
It made me realize that this is likely the influence of Ricky Gervais, the co-creator of The Office. Gervais himself is something of a bully. It comes through constantly in his comedy. Whether it’s shaming overweight people (or, specifically, those more overweight than he himself) or his incessant need to ridicule and badger anyone who isn’t an atheist. While I understand that it’s the job of a comedian to poke at the sensitive and silly aspects of culture and society, and I would never suggest that they shouldn’t do that… there’s also a point where the comedian stops being funny and is just being a dick for the sake of it. Winding people up for the entertainment of the masses is a pretty lowbrow, brutish style of comedy. On the internet these people are called “trolls” and I’d say that’s accurate description.
Then there’s Ricky’s relationship with Karl Pilkington, which seems to be a real life example of the Tim/Gareth relationship. Karl Pilkington has served as a kind of springboard for the comedy of Ricky and Stephen Merchant (Ricky’s writing/producing partner) for the last ten years or so, and they’re both consistently unbelievably cruel to him. It’s hilarious, because all three of those people are naturally very funny, and the only reason it works is because Karl seems to be immune to it. I don’t understand why. I don’t know if Karl is some kind of elaborate Andy Kaufman type character played by a comedic genius but somehow he’s able to spin the way Rick and Stephen treat him into something funny rather than simply cruel.
Either way, my point is that the foundation of most of Ricky Gervais’ humor seems to be bullying. That came across clearly on the UK Office and it carried over directly into the US version. It’s something to think about next time you catch an episode. It’s certainly made me rethink the show itself and the environment it facilitates, seemingly with a sympathetic eye to the bully rather than the victim.