The Office’s Gay Caricature

The office on The Office is a fairly inclusive place – African-American, Indian-American, alcoholic, or evangelist, all may work together more or less harmoniously. Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling), for instance, is one of the most fully realized minority characters on television right now: a woman whose obsessions with celebrity gossip and Netflixing romantic comedies far outweigh the practically insignificant fact of her race. With Kelly undergoing business training, practically anyone could take over the office, once manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) departs at the end of the season! Anyone, that is, but the show’s token gay man, Oscar, who has been marginalized and mocked over seven seasons.

Oscar (Oscar Nunez), one of the three accountants, is a cartoon gay man. He’s fussy, prissy, aesthetic, and cruel – a sketch of a certain type of homosexual drawn by writers who seem to know the type at which they’re aiming. He is a member of the office’s “Finer Things Club”; he and his sometime boyfriend cruelly criticize Pam’s (Jenna Fischer’s) artwork; he is obsessed with one-upping his co-workers. He doesn’t smile –- he smirks. He doesn’t have hobbies –- he has an orientation.

Oscar himself doesn’t respond to his coworkers’ barbs, but the entire conversation around him is about homosexuality. In a recent episode, “China,” Oscar’s joyless attempts to prove he knew more about geopolitics than Michael were foiled by the entire office working together. This was hard to take as anything but a team effort against the group’s most different member: Jim (John Krasinski), that charming rogue, bizarrely referred to Oscar as a “smug gay Mexican.” Having triumphed over Oscar, Michael called his foe a “Latina.” While Kelly can take her coworkers to a Diwali celebration and still retain Kelly-ness, to be Oscar is to be a double helix of other, a racial minority compounded with homosexuality, the strangest trait the Office writers could possibly imagine. (Perhaps this has something to do with Kaling’s prominent role in The Office’s writers’ room –- she has the power to define her character however she wants. Nunez doesn’t.)

It was ever thus: Oscar, never a breakout character, did little, other than don wig and housedress for Halloween, until his homosexuality was revealed, in the second season (like so much else about Oscar, this costume is so clangingly obvious, his drag so much a straight man’s notion of what a “smug gay Mexican” would do on Halloween). The reveal was treated as a delicious moment of dramatic irony. The obtuse Dwight (Rainn Wilson), staking out Oscar to see if his sick day was legitimate, discovered him on a daytime date and didn’t even process that the man-on-man ice-skating he’d seen was more than malingering. One, even in those early and delightful days of the series, had a hard time caring, but the show seemed to think it was a pretty big deal.

In the third-season premiere, entitled “Gay Witch Hunt,” Oscar outs himself to the entire staff after filing a complaint against Michael for using a gay slur. What happens in this episode -– a gay-panic plot that culminates in an Oscar-Michael kiss -– is far less important than what came after it. The show was unwilling to write for a gay character for a while, so Oscar took a leave of absence; like Sal Romano (Bryan Batt) at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper, Oscar at Dunder Mifflin can be made to disappear when convenient. When he returned, his deskmate Kevin asked after Oscar’s “gaycation”: cute enough, if that had been where it ended.

Instead, Oscar has run up against an almost ludicrously unfriendly environment since coming out; if he’s unable to be other than a stereotype, it’s in part because his coworkers won’t allow him. In season 5, when Michael, his boss, “roasted” each employee with a one-liner, he tells Oscar, “You’re gay.” This is a good joke to Michael; a good joke to the writers of The Office is when Michael tells Andy (Ed Helms), the effete Cornell grad, “You’re gayer than Oscar.” The Oscar who filed a complaint against Michael in season 3 grits out an uncomfortable smile in season 5; by season 7, he’s no longer a part of the daily life of the office at all, except when he’s what the office defines itself against, with murmurings of how he thinks he’s better than all of them for some reason no one wants to put into words.

At least the tone-deaf Dwight has the decency to be open in his repulsion. During the Dunder Mifflin-bankruptcy subplot of season 6, a character mentions Oscar’s potential for making serious change at Dunder Mifflin (he is, recall, an accountant), asking what Oscar might tell his grandchildren. Dwight replies, “How is he gonna have grandkids?” The scene ends, Oscar’s skills and potential forgotten. Dwight landed the joke, as everyone knows gay men can’t, shouldn’t, have kids! (That the season saw the much-heralded birth of Jim and Pam’s child is a nice coincidence.)

The show, which can act as a lampoon of straight-white-male privilege –- Michael Scott is too silly to take seriously, much of the time -– too often, lately, takes on that attitude itself. Unlike, say, the emotionally complex Michael, Dwight, Jim, and Pam, Oscar’s otherness is everything he is. In this year’s Christmas episode, he receives a pair of Uggs and looks delighted (after cruising Angela’s boyfriend). A pair of Uggs: tailor-made for a gay joke made flesh, and at least better than an insult.

Any man at Dunder Mifflin who isn’t defined by heterosexual sex –- because they are the show’s central figures, Michael and Dwight have sex with women regularly, and Jim is the theoretically pleasant, utterly straight manifestation of cuddling in a bubble bath after watching a Nancy Meyers movie –- may just be gay. Michael spreads a rumor that Andy is gay that even Andy believes, and the sexuality of new corporate overseer Gabe is constantly cast into question. In this year’s Halloween episode, Gabe dressed as Lady Gaga, and a whole episode was devoted to his Glee viewing party. In this year’s Christmas episode, he asked the camera why no one believes he’s dating his girlfriend.

Gay panic greases the wheels of The Office’s comedy: not since Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’s “Those aren’t pillows” moment has so much been made of straight men’s fear of the unstraight. This season, after Gabe changed the rules on commissions, Jim manipulated an audiobook by CEO Jo Bennet to make it sound as though she is calling Gabe, and not David Geffen (?!), a “gay bastard.” That Gabe is in a relationship with a woman makes no difference -– calling someone gay is a fair prank that Jim can pull, like hiding Dwight’s stapler. Michael’s admiration for temp-cum-boss-cum-temp Ryan verges periodically into the physical, which is more grist for humor. We know Michael’s straight, because he doesn’t act like Oscar does.

What makes The Office so particular? After all, gay men are a standard source of comic relief. On NBC’s Thursday schedule alone, there are recurring gay characters on 30 Rock (the would-be executive Devon Banks) and Parks and Recreation (April’s hip gay boyfriend, and his boyfriend) -– and that’s leaving aside the master’s thesis that could be written on Saturday Night Live’s treatment of gays. But those other shows, to varying degrees, are absurdist –- the character of Devon Banks isn’t a realistic portrayal of a gay man, and he isn’t meant to be. He’s an often scantily-clad striver whose one weakness is Kenneth the Page; he’s about as realistic as the (literally) two-dimensional original gay man in TV comedy, The Simpsons’s Waylon Smithers. April’s boyfriends don’t resemble anyone’s idea of a gay couple, and -– again -– they aren’t meant to. And for all Seth Meyers’s barbs at Weekend Update’s gayish club promoter, Stefon always gets the last laugh. He’s the object of the joke, but for party predilections so zany they have nothing to do with sexuality.

The Office’s sell, from the beginning, has been its un-Stefonian relative realism in depicting characters and situations each of us goes through at work, and the sorts of people with whom one would actually work. That Oscar has no identity other than identity politics is both a missed opportunity and tremendously problematic. As the Los Angeles Times recently noted, a moment in which Michael and Dwight speculate as to where Oscar has sex (“flowers shops,” “the swamp”) is most akin to the much-maligned trailer for The Dilemma, in which Vince Vaughn calls environmentally friendly cars “gay.” In both, the prejudices of the man talking -– Steve Carell’s character or Vince Vaughn’s -– are on display, but in both, the protagonist is the one who gets to tell the joke.

The show used to have a clearer view of what about its characters was funny and what was slice-of-life dreadful. In the first season’s rightly praised “Diversity Day” episode, Michael lampooned Indians to Kelly’s face, pretending, for an uncomfortable length of time, to be a convenience store owner and speaking gibberish. Kelly slapped him –- a satisfying moment, as the show knew Michael was being awful and retrograde. Michael is by now a popular television character, and the writers are on his side. His attitudes are the show’s, and Oscar –- whose character development further into stereotype restrained both by his supercilious “gay” nature and what the audience wants to see –- will never get his Kelly moment. He’ll just ride out his time in the office quietly, trying not to make waves. Maybe The Office is too realistic for its own good.

Daniel D’Addario is a contributor to sites including The Awl, Capital, and The Daily Beast.

The Office’s Gay Caricature