TelevIsm: How can jokes both show and fight oppression?

Rachel McCarthy-James
View profile »

While working on my theories of the pathetic, sympathetic Michael Scott of The Office, I’ve been a little confounded. In analyzing comedy shows, how do I differentiate between actions that reinforce the ism at hand, and actions that superficially reinforce but actually subvert or critique the cultural assumptions the characters live with? When is a show making fun of oppression, and when is it making fun of oppressed bodies? Is there a difference? How do you tell?

Comedy is a prime weapon for devaluing and belittling marginalized bodies. Laughter aimed at an oppressed person because of their oppression intensifies and isolates the victim, and emphasizes their status as an outsider. I don’t have to tell you this – if you’re interested in feminism, you’ve probably had these jokes aimed at you and your body. Oppression is a serious topic, and jokes about it must be carefully thought out.

To guide my analysis of the comedies I’ll critique for TelevIsm, I’ve come up with a few conditional rules to help us tell the difference between critique and reinforcement in depicting a patriarchal or kyriarchal act for humor:

Conditions for a Anti-Oppression Joke

IF a character on a television reflects or reinforces the kyriarchy through problematic/loaded language or actions.

AND the action/language is critiqued or rebutted by another character

AND said rebuttal/critique is framed as reasonable and valid

THEN the joke constitutes critique of kyriarchy in society.

These are, of course, not the only kind of jokes that can be critical of the kyriarchy. This applies to jokes on shows like The Office that are not rhetorically anti-oppression the way that shows like, say, Treme or The Boondocks are.

So, what, exactly, do these jokes look like? How do they exist and function in a mainstream, hit television show?

The Office episode “Diversity Day” is about a diversity trainer, Mr. Brown, coming into the office basically to combat Michael’s racist behavior. Throughout the training, Michael behaves poorly, lighting up racism bingo cards with his attempts to prove how non-racist and in control he is.

In the scene above, Michael tells a Chris Rock joke that uses the n-word. His actions are met with vocal disapproval, and a previous similar instance is referenced as the cause of the diversity seminar that is the ongoing plot of the episode. Characters visibly wince, and a person of color who is in authority (Mr. Brown, the diversity facilitator) vocally rebukes him and is visibly angry. Michael stands at the end of the scene as an uncomfortable, ridiculous, pathetic person with the knowledge that everyone sees him as wrong, though with no understanding of why.

There is no tone argument nonsense; Mr. Brown is framed in the incident and the episode as competent and sensitive to Michael, and his anger is framed as valid. The joke critiques how the kyriarchy buffers white people and hurts all people, and the people who make these comments, and sends the message that this behavior is harmful, socially unacceptable, and ridiculous. Michael’s denial that he has done anything wrong, his refusal to be educated even when education is spoon-fed to him, is reflective of the behavior of ignorant white people. The show portrays what everyday office racism looks like, and sending the clear message that it is socially unacceptable.

This episode, I should note, is written by Mindy Kaling – a woman of color and a performer on the show (though it is loosely based on an episode of the British Office). The joke, reinforced by the overall message of the scene, the show, and the POC authorship, is critical of the racism.

However, jokes do not need to be quite so explicitly critical to constitute critique rather than reinforcement. In my opinion, it can be as small as a pointed look at the camera/viewer.

In this scene from season two’s “The Secret”, Michael is speaking to Oscar, who is faking sick to avoid office cleaning. Michael tells Oscar that they could “use some of that famous Hispanic cleaning ethic”. The camera immediately pans to Ryan, who is at this point Michael’s assistant. Ryan gives the camera an uncomfortable look, and the scene proceeds.

This is a very small instance of critique: it is not making a big point. The Office is primarily a romantic comedy about the workplace, and it’s extremely centered around white, straight, male characters. But this small look sends the message to viewers that people do not think it is cool or funny or admirable to contributes to the show’s characterization of Michael’s kyriarchy-reinforcing behavior as socially unacceptable and harmful.

Unlike the last example, this method doesn’t really work independently of the context. The joke works because it contributes to the show’s characterization of Michael’s behavior as uncool, awkward, and unacceptable. In this season, the character rebutting his action is at this point a “cool” character that Michael admires. A small action like this directed at the viewer, especially in the context of many other disapproving, disappointed, or offended reaction shots, helps to show the view that this is not okay or a harmless joke: it’s one in a series of jokes that contribute to an unhealthy, uncomfortable environment.

Jokes that can be interpreted as critical under this condition are not, generally, the strongest critiques of the kyriarchy, no. Because it’s not fiercely anti-kyriarchy , some folks are going to laugh at these jokes for the wrong reasons, and possibly appropriate it in the service of whatever ism the joke is critiquing.

But racism and other isms should not be erased in popular culture, and there’s a way to responsibly portray oppression without an oppressed person as the butt of the joke. Mainstream culture – widely popular television that does not use social justice as a guiding point of the show – can communicate to the audience that active oppression is harmful and unacceptable.

Tune in on Saturday, I’ll introduce two more conditions that define what, exactly, a kyriarchy-reinforcing joke looks like, with examples from South Park and Family Guy.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

20 Comments Have Been Posted

i love the Office

thanks, this is great! I especially love Darryl's character, because he functions as such a clever foil to Michael's wince-inducing racial stupidity. "Arrested Development" also comes to mind as an example of this kind of humor (i.e. Gob looking totally ridiculous with the puppet Franklin). Like you said, I see how the criticism of this would be that while they do expose the ignorance, absurdity, and detriment of racism, the narratives solely hinge upon the white starring cast. Latoya made a similar point in her take on "Mad Men" at Racialicious-- we love Mad Men!, it's so great because it tells the truth of how racist(/sexist) and awful things were back then, plus clothes!.... yet Don Draper is still literally runs the show, and we don't get to follow Carla-the-maid or Hollis-the-elevator-guy into their worlds and lives. Ya know what i mean?

sorry for the tangent, but can i just acknowledge that they completely dropped Pam's interest in her art career when she and Jim got married? LAME

Yes! But...

Thanks Jaymee! I think you're right on with your assessment of Darryl (and of AD, my personal fave show ever), but the word "lame" is ableist language. Next time you're describing Pam giving up her art career after her marriage, try "ridiculous" or "terrible" or "puke-worthy."


Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

i have to get better at that

sorry! thanks for catching me. definitely "sucky" from now on.

The word "lame" has more than one meaning.

There is a dictionary definition of "lame" that is unrelated to physical ability:

"weak; inadequate; unsatisfactory; clumsy"

Several decades ago, the word "idiot" was used to describe someone who is mentally disabled. Most of us use the word "idiot" these days not to describe someone who is mentally disabled, but to describe "an utterly foolish or senseless person." I've never heard anyone be called out for using the word "idiot" because it's ableist language.

I'd put contemporary usage of the word "lame" into the same category as contemporary usage of the word "idiot." Most people are not aware of the original singular definitions of these words, and over time the words have taken on additional meanings unaffiliated with relative physical or mental ability.

Just wanted to share some thoughts on this subject.

Thank you for reading and

Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. However, I feel the need to echo Kelsey and share some reading:

Just because people are not aware of the problems with the language does not mean there are not problems with the language. "Lame" is not a word for feminist contexts, in my firm opinion. It's ableist and harmful to people with disabilities. It is associated with having trouble walking, and it has been weaponized because of that connotation - saying "lame" as an insult is like saying that being like a certain type of marginalized body is definitively crappy.

Here is some further reading on the matter:

Neither is "idiot", and yes, people do get called on it:

The word lame has one root

Regardless of what a speaker may intend to convey when they say "lame", I hear once again that as a disabled person, I am somehow less than a person. The word lame as a perjorative is firmly rooted in the idea that disabled = incapable, bad, less than. It doesn't matter how many times people trot out the dictionary definition to defend their word usage (seriously, it's condescending as hell), it still hurts.

Slightly Guilty Agreement

Um...sorry Kelsey, but i agree with PP here. No one (that i've ever met at least) uses lame as a put-down or to make fun of disabled people. I think it's become more of a slang word for 'stupid' or 'dumb'. If i ever meet a disabled person who takes offense at my use of the word lame, I'll absolutely phase it out, because i can see your point totally, but honestly i think it's kind of changed its general meaning.
I won't use it on the website, but i think that as long as it offends more able-bodied people than the people they're supposedly protecting, it's okay to use colloquially.


@Anonymous, as someone who had to work to remove "lame" from her vocabulary a while back, I hear you. However, I don't think it's fair to assume that the term is offending more able-bodied people than it is "the people they're supposedly protecting." First of all, disabled people don't need our "protection," they need our respect. To me, that includes not using language that disabled people–those that I know personally and those writing in a larger forum–have asked that I not use (see RMJ's links for more on the topic from disabled people themselves).

In addition, I think that if a word like "lame," the colloquial meaning of which has tons of synonyms and isn't that fun of a word to say anyway, offends even a small group of people, it's better to just use a different word, regardless of whether or not you feel personally offended.

That being said, thank you for refraining from using the term on this website. To us, it is ableist.

And now back to commenting on the subject of RMJ's post instead of word choice!

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

As someone with a physical

As someone with a physical disability in her feet (and who says "lame" all the time), I find it entertaining to see that you repeatedly referred to us as "disabled people" while judging someone else's language. I especially appreciate your pulling of the "my disabled friends" card.

But like you said, we're not supposed to comment on poor word choice after you've already done it, so I guess you're all good. Nothing to critique here at all.



I'm not sure I understand your intention with this comment. Are you advocating for the use of the word "lame"? Saying that you dislike the term "disabled people"? Questioning that I actually know disabled folks who've said they don't like the word "lame"? Please clarify.

I guess I see your point about the "my disabled friends" card, except that in this case I was trying to say that the reason I don't say the word lame anymore is because some disabled bloggers I know explained to me why it was problematic. I certainly wasn't trying to use my interpersonal relationships to try and one-up anyone.

As far as critiquing word choice goes, feel free to do so if it's adding to the conversation. However, there is no reason to continue to re-hash the "lame" issue here when we at Bitch have already said that we won't use that word in this space.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

<i>Ask me about our <a href="">Comments Policy</a>!</i>

"Disabled people."

The issue is that the terms "disabled"/"disabled people" have been railed against for a good 15 years now by the disability community, and yet you're telling someone to stop saying "lame" while you yourself are using a term that's considered offensive. People with disabilities aren't defined by their disabilities, yet the term does exactly that. The common example used is that no one seems to call people with cancer "cancerous," because that's considered an acceptable condition and not one to be used as a pejorative or definition. But with people with disabilities, we/they are defined by our conditions. And if individual communities want to keep using those types of terms -- the Deaf community, for example, has been very clear about wanting to be Deaf (not deaf or hearing-impaired), as have many adult autistics (as opposed to people with autism); and we in the "lame" community even sell fun "I'm Lame" t-shirts as fundraisers -- that's fine, of course, but the majority have said no to "disabled."

People-first language subject that's been beaten time and time and time again on disability blogs, including feminist ones, so it was a bit shocking to see you using the term while telling others to be more sensitive. I'm always happy to see people educating others about my issues, but only if they themselves are first educated enough to do it right. Maybe you can do some reading on disability etiquette.


Hi Augustina,

Thanks for your reply. I'll be honest; a lot of the policies here at Bitch regarding ableist language come from our friends at <a href="">FWD/Forward</a>, a blog authored by feminists with disabilities. They have also blogged for us here at Bitch—hence the policies. Here's an excerpt from their <a href=" post</a>:
<blockquote>We tend to use the terms “people with disabilities” and “disabled person” interchangeably. “Person with disabilities” is an example of what is known as “person first language,” which tends to be preferred by disability activists in North America. “Disabled person,” seen more commonly in the United Kingdom, is a reflection of the social model of disability. We understand that many people prefer one term to the other and may actually find the other offensive, and wish to stress that offense is not our intent, for those who may be chafing to read “person with disabilities” or “disabled person.” </blockquote>

I also use the terms interchangeably, but I thank you for reminding me that not everyone feels the same. I disagree, however, that all feminist blogs abhor the term, which is what you seem to be implying here.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

<i>Ask me about our <a href="">Comments Policy</a>!</i>

I love this show ... but I

I love this show ... but I don't think Pam giving up her art career was horrible or "puke-worthy." She obviously made the decision herself. Whether or not the audience thought it was a good decision, it was HER decision only, which I thought was entirely feminist of her. Maybe it wasn't politically correct, but it was where she wanted to be. That's part of why I like the Office. It's a challenging show while still remaining a romantic comedy.

pro-Pam, pro-marriage, pro-art

I would agree with you 100% if The Office led us through Pam's decision, and she came to the conclusion that putting her art career on the back-burner was what was best for her. But the show didn't take us through that-- it just silently dropped her art career from the plot altogether. Pam's choice itself isn't puke-worthy, just the fact that the show didn't even presume that she dealt with making a choice at all. Wedding + baby = career on back-burner as an implicit default. I definitely didn't think it was "obvious;" I see it as an omission.

Thanks RMJ for tolerating my double-whammy derail on your first post here!

Maybe, but not sexist

If anything, I think Pam's decision to stop pursuing art was puke-worthy for unrelated reasons. If I recall, it hasn't been mentioned as a plot point since she failed out of design school and held an unsuccessful exhibit, long before the wedding. She seems to have given up because of other's opinions of her, which is disappointing, but I don't think it's related to her marriage.
On the other hand, changing her last name without even discussing other options? PUKE.

Just a friendly reminder

....that the post isn't about Pam's decisions on the show, but how jokes work to enforce or subvert kyriarchy. Just a reminder so that the comment thread doesn't get too off topic.

Kjerstin Johnson
Web Content Manager

Yes to most of this - great

Yes to most of this - great observations! And nice work responding to Kelsey's critique! :)


I agree that "Diversity Day" was a sharp piece of writing. It managed to reveal many common racist behaviors as such (and as *not okay*) without coming off as a "message" episode. Your bit about Ryan looking into the camera in annoyance is dead-on. One of my favorite elements of <i>The Office</i> for the first two seasons was the manner in which it showed how oppressive, and downright annoying, bigotry in the workplace can be. Michael's offensive behavior, while hyperbolic, is an extension of many actions that still pass as acceptable, and it shows that they shouldn't be.

I've generally been pretty happy with the way the show has portrayed sexism and racism, but I can't say the same for homophobia. I thought the episode "Gay Witch Hunt" in Season 3 was <i>The Office</i>'s lowest moment. We can all probably agree that being outed in the workplace is horrible, for starters. My main issue was that, unlike in the other episodes about bigotry, the main non-Michael characters acted really poorly toward the victim. First there was Toby, normally a favorite of mine, outing Oscar to Michael. Sure, Michael was going off about there being no gay people in the office, but he didn't need a name to contradict him. Then, Oscar's coworkers treated him badly for his queerness, both overtly (Angela) and subtly (their looks of shock and horror when he confirms that it's true.) And then Michael forces a kiss upon Oscar to prove he's not a homophobe -- and the assault-like scene is played for big laughs. UGH.

Also, okay...points for the one out-queer character not being Mr. Gay Cliche, but does he have to be so BORING? Where is Oscar's personality? I was happy about the addition of Erin, because I read her as a queer woman, but instead she's just had a boring romance with Andy.

I also don't know how to feel about what they've done with Michael's character in the past few seasons. He's being portrayed as less of a buffoon and more of a sweet, clueless kid, and this seems problematic.

Yes and no

I do like that Oscar's not a cliche or a message. I *don't* like that he's the only permanent character without a personality.

I think that while they

I think that while they criticize racism they promote sexism. I mean Pam gives up her dreams for a man in a one-note town and a shitty thankless job. Love is grand, but there wasn't even any question, any conversation... Kelly is psycho, even when not with Ryan who we know manipulates her, her emotions and obsessions out of control, and while there could be the potential to figure out why she feels this way, its often brushed off as comic relief. Plus, in the beginning she was... just a normal Indian woman working there with professionalism and then they morphed her into this fake-rape calling psycho. Angela very suddenly and quickly overrides what seemed to be deeply held moral and spiritual values for men with no reasoning ever given, basically a foil for Dwight and Andy's characters. Phyllis is often the butt of fat jokes, and ugly jokes, and old jokes. Meredith's alcoholism and promiscuity are only once that I remember ever addressed as an emotional problem instead of comic relief. Don't even get me started about what they did to Jan. I hate what they did to Jan most of all, and they morph her into a person so unlikeable that there is no way for the audience to care that she was the only strong female and they wrote her off faster than she came on.

I like the show, I watch it and when these things come up I cringe... but this is sadly what's out there. Consequently, I don't have cable.

Add new comment