Exploring Female Friendships in “The Office”

By Sydney Borchert

Pages from The Office Paper

The term friendship surfaces images of a kindergarten classroom. This picture, in my mind, involves youngsters crafting paper people and chains singing “kumbaya” in a close-knit circle. Friendship is trust. Friendship is intimacy. Friendship is equality. Although an image of cheek-squeezable, singing children brings smiles and good cheer, friendship possesses deeper layers. You see, the term dates back to the 1670s (bear with me, I promise this isn’t a history lesson). The Quakers, also known as Friends, were members of a large Christian movement. Known as the Society of Friends, the people established their own way of life. The women were held to a certain standard: running the household and caring for the children.

Is modern day female friendship epitomized from these Quaker ideals? How much has changed? The satirical, 9-season, genius-deemed The Office paints an answer quite clearly. In the show, “Boys and Girls” is one of the few episodes that includes solely female conversation.

The Office

Season 2 – Episode 15

“Boys and Girls”

Written by B.J. Novak

Directed by Dennie Gordon

Pam: Today’s a ‘women in the workplace’ thing. Jan’s coming in from Corporate to talk to all the women about… um… I don’t really know what. But Michael’s not allowed in. She said that about five times.

Jan: Women today, though we have the same options as men, we often face a very different set of obstacles in getting there. So…

Michael: [knocks] Hey, what’s going on?

Jan: Michael… I thought we agreed you wouldn’t be here.

Michael: Yeah… I… You know what… I… I… I just thought about it. I just have a few things I want to say.

Jan: What are you doing?

Michael: Hold… Just hear me out. What is more important than Quality? E-Quality. Now studies show that today’s woman, the Ally McBeal woman, as I call her, is at a crossroads…

Jan: Michael.

Michael: No, just uh… you have come a long way, baby. But I just… just want to keep it within reason.

Jan: Michael.

Michael: They did this up in Albany…

Jan: You are not allowed in this session.

Michael: And they ended up turning the break room into a lactation room which is disgusting so…

Jan: Now you’re really not allowed in this session.

Michael: Well, I’m their boss, so I feel like…

Jan: I’m your boss.

Michael: [stands up] Anybody want any coffee or…

Jan: We’re fine, Michael. We just need you to leave, please.

Michael: Women in the workplace… yeah, translation “I have been banned from my own conference room so that Jan can talk in secret to all the girls.” Oh! Sorry. ‘Women of the workplace.’ About what? I don’t know. Clothes. Me. Eeegkh!

Virginia Woolf’s concept of “A Room of One’s Own,” although written in 1929, has slithered its way through time into today’s pop-culture. Heaven forbid any woman should step outside the gravel path into the unplowed field—such an audacious move could turn the world on its head. Only men are allowed in these uncharted territories. Woolf’s stride across the field was intercepted by a man whose “face expressed horror and indignation.” Her frolic, to the man, was nothing more than defiance, rather than an honorable ambition. In a similar fashion, Michael Scott experienced utmost terror and alarm by the women “trespassing […] [his] own conference room.” Dwight Schrute, another fictional The Office character, also jumps on this satirical bandwagon by declaring the all-women gathering “dangerous.” He believes the women’s cycles will align, creating a disastrous plumbing nightmare. The horror!

Similar to Woolf’s time, it is believed that women who traipse into a conference room—or an unplowed field—will tarnish the work of men. For when women do, miraculously, enter into a conference room, the all-women setting is stamped with an image of giggles and gossip. The women’s topic of conversation obviously will circle around clothes and Michael Scott. I mean, what else would they talk about?

My journey to conclusion, although rocky, allowed me to determine that Michael Scott’s character possesses more than what appears on the surface as dumb humor. Michael’s underlying intentions from the writers of The Office align with Woolf’s genius statement, “The splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple.”

Jan: Why don’t we go around the table and all say something that we know we’re good at. I will start. I am good at public speaking.

Meredith: Hi. I’m Meredith and I’m an alch… good at supplier relations.

Jan: Great. Phyllis?

Phyllis: I’m good at computer stuff, emails, spreadsheets, all that.

Angela: [disbelieving] Really?

Phyllis: I don’t know. I thought that I wasn’t going to be asked that…

Jan: No. Okay. Stop. Go on…

Angela: I’ve seen some of your spreadsheets.

Phyllis: Really? I thought they were pretty…

Urban Dictionary supplies a reliable definition of the term friend. Results include bros, hoes, bitches, and many more terms. Your friend you say? Please, that’s so 19th/20th century, get with the times. These days, your girlfriends are your bitches. Although many pose slang as a joke, it has defined and enraptured the vocabulary of our generation. As the derogatory word suggests, “bitchy” behavior commonly surfaces in stereotypical friendships among women.

Angela’s last prod at Phyllis triggers a giggle from anyone who appreciates humor. The show’s intention, however, is more than a laugh. Angela embodies the stereotypical “bitch” friend, who could easily win a lunch spot with the popular crowd in many, many pop-culture films and TV shows, like my personal favorite Mean Girls. This behavior ultimately fosters a culture that demeans the essence of female companionship. Angela’s offensive comment choked Phyllis’ self-confidence until no breath was left. “Bitchy” relationships depicted by society strips away goodness and leave raw, beaten stereotypes. This false portrayal only sets up friendships between women for failure, mirroring Angela and Phyllis’ relationship.

Meredith: In five years, I’d like to be… five years sober.

Jan: That is an excellent goal.

Meredith: Four and a half.

Kelly: I’ll tell you one thing. I am not going to be one of those women schlepping her kids around in a minivan.

Jan: Great! Uh-huh?

Kelly: I want an SUV… with three rows of seats.

Women: [general murmuring of agreement]

Phyllis: …and a big walk-in closet.

Meredith: Oh, that’s part of my dream too.

Kelly: Oh, me too.

Jan: Great, great. And Pam, what about you? What is your dream?

Pam: Well… I always dreamed of a house with a terrace upstairs. Plant flowers on it… stuff like that. Since I was a girl. Um… More seriously though, a husband that I love… Roy. And I love to draw. And I… I did a little in college and I’d still love to do something where I could work with art or graphic design in some way.

Phyllis: I’m excited about today. [whispers] I love girl talk.

Girl talk: a seemingly innocent notion, possesses strong connotations. The negatively connoted term captures an image of women chatting about clothes, nails, hair, homes, and—no shocker here—boys. There isn’t anything wrong with these topics—I for one find myself talking about them at times—but when pop-culture fixates solely on the connotative form of girl talk, the oppotunity to embrace the full reality of female conversation is lost. Real women aren’t all Cinderellas. As hard as it is to believe, we don’t always fixate on finding a man and settling down. Our conversations may range anywhere from politics, to movies, or even sports—shocker, I know. Most of that has to do with the fact that we too are humans with minds, varying personalities, and opinions we care to share—something that seems surprisingly difficult for men and society to grapple with. The Office, satirically, nails it right on the head by focusing the women’s dreams of domesticity. In a laughable fashion, the TV show slams society’s old-fashioned, Quaker-like views.

Jan: Sports metaphors are one of the ways women feel left out of the language of the office. Now, I know this might sound silly but a … many women ask to go over it. So… Fumble means…

Phyllis: Mistake.

Meredith: Slip.

Jan: Right. Par for the course is a golf term. It means right on track. Below par means worse. Wait… that should mean better, that doesn’t make sense.

Kelly: What about second base? Like if Michael said that he got to second base with you? Does that mean you like closed a deal?

Jan: Excuse me?

Kelly: I mean that’s a baseball term, right?

Jan: I don’t know what Michael was talking about. I don’t know.

Kelly: [in the background] …and you went to Chili’s and he got to second base with you.

Jan: [in the background] Kelly, I don’t know what Michael’s talking about.

Kelly: [in the background] He told everybody so I just want to know is that a baseball term…

Angela: Are you married?

Jan: I’m divorced.

Phyllis: That must have been hard.

Jan: It was. Yes.

Kelly: You were probably feeling really depressed and sad and that’s why you did that thing with Michael.

Jan: I think you should all spend a little more time thinking about your careers and less time on personal stuff.

Phyllis: Mmmm, I think we’re all okay with the balance we’ve struck.

Angela: At least you don’t have kids. You have no kids, right? Thank God.

Jan: Okay. Let’s take five. I think we can all use five.

Kelly: How can someone so beautiful be so sad?

The women in the workplace meeting traveled many diverted paths. In lieu with Michael’s prediction, the women’s conversation eventually led to men—surprise! The stereotypical gossip cloud grew larger and larger until the absurdity of the conversation grew so profound that it transformed into a downpour of humor. With Angela’s remarks, Kelly’s fake innocence, Michael’s threatened nature, and the review of sports terms, how can you not gawk at the ridiculousness of it all? The overarching theme of the “Boys and Girls” episode is not simply dumb humor, insteadThe Office seamlessly intertwines Woolf’s notion of female friendships with the character dialogue fans know and love.

In Woolf’s writing, she attempts to locate a time in her reading, “where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.” Nearly 87 years later, female friendships in our culture orbit around the center of our society’s perceived universe, men. Yes, laws are changing. Yes, feminism is on the rise. But changing a culture? That is a drastically different battle. The Office’s satire sheds light on a huge cultural issue, and although large, this issue has carved its way deep into our culture, allowing it to slip by without a trace.

Although the “Boys and Girls” episode approaches a conversation about women and society’s perception of female relationships, The Office as a whole fails the relevant “sexism tester” the Bechdel test. In order to pass the test, Alison Bechdel laiddown ground rules for works of fiction: The work must include two women characters that talk to each other about something besides a man. Simply put, it measures equality between men and women. Too many films and TV shows, shockingly, fail to pass this simple test (including some Disney animated films, which was an absolute shock me to!).

We can view this dilemma surrounding The Office in one of two ways. First, the show may purposefully place less female interaction to satire the issue. Or, secondly, the writers chose to not satisfy the requirements of the Bechdel test to align more vividly with pop-culture trends. Although I crave a clear answer, I’d like to argue that the answer is both objectives. Few episodes reveal conversation amongst female characters and I believe this may be due to sheer obliviousness. However, some episodes are intentionally written for satire on female friendships including—hence the name—“Boys and Girls.”

When asked about my deepest passions, The Office is at the top of the list. The show, with it’s effortless humor and lovable characters, is like a cold bottle of Miller Lite: A refreshing spirit-lifter. Despite watching the entirety of the seasons more  times than I’d like to admit, never once did I notice its mocking nature. The “Boys and Girls” episode reveals deeper layers of female friendship prevalent in modern pop-culture. Instead of recognizing these cultural faults, I chose to glaze through it (maybe because it’s easier that way, or because I’ll admit at times I’m a lazy Netflix junky). It’s as if I launched myself into the circle full of kindergartners singing “kumbaya.” Singing in obliviousness trumps solving a cultural issue, apparently. However, in reality, the false perception of female friendships in today’s society screams to be heard—and is far more important than a Miller Lite. Female friendships are epitomized from 17th century Quaker ideals. Pay attention and take action, because we hold the power to alter the negative perceptions of female friendships and hopefully change them.

Sydney BorchertSydney Borchert, a 2016 St. Thomas graduate, is currently the Partnerships & Engagement Associate at Special Olympics Minnesota. When she’s not riding four-wheelers at her cabin, she’s laying fireside with her best friend—her cat Kiki. 

One thought on “Exploring Female Friendships in “The Office”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s