The Problem with Jim and Pam

So, I’ve been doing some time on ye olde elliptical machine, having moved said machine from the backyard, where it languished in the weather, to my office, where it is 5 feet to my left. And where I get on it, 2-3 times a day, almost every day. That’s a lot of time to spend going nowhere, and I require entertainment, so I’ve been rewatching the U.S. version of The Office. I’m finally near the end of season 6, which is the last full season I was able to watch; in season 7 the writing fell apart.

(Not that I blame the writers/producers in the slightest! After 140ish episodes of excellent television, with many hilarious and brilliant moments, they are allowed to have run out of ideas! Which they did!)

At any rate. For me the single most appealing thing about the show, which is maybe a bit of a heresy considering just how much intelligence and energy went into finding and honing (and honing and honing) its comedic groove, is the relationship between Jim and Pam. Why? Because it’s a love story that pays attention to how people feel, and act, in real life. It’s a very subtly written (and acted, whoo-boy) story of incrementally growing affection between two sweet people who represent pretty much the only voices of sanity in a crazy place. (Oscar emerges as the other one. ONE.) And Jim and Pam’s relationship has real impediments (Pam’s engagement to Roy), so we keenly feel the ache of the thing very badly wanted that is also the thing that cannot be. That longing is delicious pain.

Jim is also, let’s face it, a kind of early 21st century ideal of guyness. Smart. Funny. Playful, but never an asshole—quite the opposite of an asshole, actually—even as he constantly contends with (and almost inevitably bests) Dwight. Laid back. Tall and boyishly handsome. Emotionally above almost everything. And never, ever vulnerable, except in his attraction to Pam. And, well, that’s what I want to talk about.

I love watching this relationship develop, in no small part because Jim is eminently charming. But I get that I’m hooked by something stereotypical and problematic in the way that men and women are portrayed in most media. And that’s this: Jim is basically the strong, silent type that has forever been the movies’ mark of manliness, only writ goofy. And Pam—well, Pam is just not that interesting. She’s sweet. She gets how awesome Jim is (but then, everyone in the office does). She plays with him, although mostly she plays along with him; she doesn’t invent many diversions of her own. And while the writers throw in a few attempts to make her seem like Jim’s intellectual equal, they don’t stick. Pam seems lovely, and kind, but not able to truly meet Jim where he lives. More and more this time around, I felt that she was merely an object for his adorably constructed affections.

Strong, largely silent man who is never vulnerable. Sweet, passive, fairly blank woman who needs rescuing. It’s kind of classic, right? In not a great way.

Meanwhile, there IS a lively female character who can go toe-to-toe with Jim in wisecracks and practical jokes, and that’s Karen. Of course, by the time the series introduces her, Jim is so in love with Pam, and we are so in love with his love of Pam, that we don’t want it to work between Jim and Karen. But they’re far better matched than he is with Pam, and it’s a more responsible look at what a relationship between a man and a woman can be.

Compare Jim and Pam, for example, to Ben and Leslie on Parks and Rec. Or maybe the better example (in terms of age and personality type) is Andy and April. Either way, we’re dealing with two people who are fully realized in their flaws and their strengths, neither of whom is the hero in the relationship and neither of whom is rescued.

All of which is to say, I can’t quite love the Jim-Pam thing as much as I used to. Sure, I cried at their wedding. I just also felt a little bad about it.


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