Through the Straight Looking-Glass (And What The Office Found There) | Kevin Pabst

Denis Provencher’s chapter and interview this week touched upon a very salient issue: homosexual narratives on television being framed through heteronormative lenses. The central relationship on Will and Grace is between a man and a woman and is positioned in such a way that, despite the fact that Will is gay, they still feel like a couple. In Modern Family, Mitch and Cam are characterized such that one feels like “the male” and the other like “the female” so that their gay relationship still feels familiar and straight. These are just a couple of many examples of gay stories being packaged in a way that is easier for straight audiences to consume.

The Office may not be a huge milestone in the telling of gay stories on television, but it does often highlight and satirize the need of straight white men to be accommodated when interacting with people who are different. Michael Scott is the surrogate character for this type of person. Through his interactions with Oscar, Stanley, Darryl, and nearly every woman on the show, it is clear that he is completely oblivious to what the gay, black, and female experiences in America are truly like. And when he is called out on his missteps, he gets defensive and demands that the way sexuality, race, and gender are discussed in the office conforms to his comforts. And though occasionally problematic in the way that it deals with some of these issues, on the whole, The Office succeeds because Michael Scott and his obliviousness are usually the butt of the joke.

This is plainly evident in the season three premiere of the series, “Gay Witch Hunt,” in which Michael inadvertently outs Oscar to the rest of the office, can’t see what the big deal is, and gets defensive when he is held accountable for his errors. Michael’s obliviousness to his insensitivity is highlighted early in the episode, as he considers Toby’s claim that “Oscar is attracted to other men” “crosses the line,” yet he has been calling workers in the office homophobic slurs. It is made apparent that he doesn’t even know what “coming out” means. And when his boss demands that he cools the situation over before it leads to a law suit, he states plainly to the camera, “The company has made it my responsibility today to put an end to a hundred-thousand years of being weirded out by gays.”

And yet, despite his obliviousness and ignorance, Michael considers himself an ally. He wants his employees to see him as a non-discriminatory, forward-thinking guy. So he holds a meeting to showcase to his workers how progressive and supportive he is, only to have it backfire when he gets offended and defensive at the suggestion that others thought he was gay back in high school. In a last-ditch attempt to prove he’s no bigot, he forces a kiss on a resistant Oscar. As he pulls away, he releases a proud “I did it.”

Screen Shot 2016-11-20 at 7.08.29 PM.pngStill from The Office, “Gay Witch Hunt” (Season 3, Episode 1, 2006).

The episode as a whole and this moment in particular highlight what Provencher was getting at: the tendency of straight people to hijack gay stories and make them about themselves. As Erik Adams writes for The A.V. Club, “Gay Witch Hunt” “isn’t really Oscar’s episode. It’s a story that happens to him and around him, but he’s hardly an active participant in it.” This fact can be seen as both a shortcoming of the episode and a bolstering of the satire of how straight people need to be comforted and made the focus in the telling of stories that aren’t their own.

Or at least, that’s what I’d like to think the episode is doing. It’s very possible that instead of (or in addition to) making fun of this problem, it’s reinforcing it. This has been discussed in class and on the blog before: even if a show is attempting to satirize an issue or a trope, is it still doing that issue or trope regardless?

So what do y’all think? Does “Gay Witch Hunt” highlight and critique the tendency of straight people to make gay stories about themselves? Or does it reinforce the problem of homosexual narratives being told through heternormative lenses?

–Kevin Pabst

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One Response to Through the Straight Looking-Glass (And What The Office Found There) | Kevin Pabst

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I think what The Office does is extraordinary. Michael Scott exemplifies white fragility and also the need for men to prove themselves in a hyper-masculine society. As a gay individual, I like the episode and almost view it as the office staff acting as family and Michael is the ignorant uncle that struggles with diversity. In the episode’s defense, the whole show largely centers around Michael’s reactions. When Michael runs over Meredith, Michael throws a charity to make himself feel better, not to help Meredith. – Andrew Guido

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