The Office: Pam Beesly - The Perils of Being Normal
Pam Beesly is the “normal” one in The Office. Is that actually a good thing? Find out how being normal is both the strength and the downfall of our favorite “Girl Next Desk.”
When you think of the most iconic “Girls Next Door” of modern times, near the top of that list has to be Pamela Beesly, the girl-next-desk to her shy, regular guy admirer, Jim Halpert.
The girl next door has long represented an unassuming, everyday beauty, wholesome values, and a down-to-earth outlook. But girls next door in Hollywood have hardly been truly average in any way. More often the trope is a way to make an exceptionally attractive actress feel attainable, unthreatening.
“Tomorrow, I’m gonna wake up and I’m gonna be Joey. Just Joey, you know? The too-tall girl from the wrong side of the creek.”—Joey from Dawson’s Creek
The Office does two revolutionary things with Pam. First, it actually makes her normal—to an extreme. Jim (and the viewers) fall in love with her because she captures what’s amazing about being a regular person.
Second, rather than looking at Pam primarily through the eyes of her male admirer, the show digs into her psychology, maybe even more than any other characters on the show. It studies the effects of this extreme normality on her mental health.
Here’s our take on why Pam’s commitment to normality is her strength, her downfall, and her burden to overcome.
“It would just-just make my heart soar if someone out there saw this and she said to herself be strong, trust yourself, love yourself, conquer your fears.”—Pam in The Office, Season 9, Episode 23 “Finale”
TV viewers are used to women onscreen being impossibly glamorous, super sexy, or impeccably intelligent—often all three, and maybe an athletic badass, too.
So it’s hard to overstate how bold and refreshing The Office’s approach to Pam still feels. It carefully avoids idealizing her, instead using her to represent a real woman and highlighting her normality as part of what makes her wonderful.
“I mean, it’ll just be cool to just have some after work clothes that aren’t pajamas.”—Pam in Season 3, Episode 3 “Launch Party”
Pam’s likability is the same reason The Office continues to have such enduring resonance with audiences. This show proves that, actually, audiences want stories that investigate, study, and celebrate normal, without caving to the temptation that almost all onscreen stories do to make life more exciting. And nowhere is that exploration of the regular deeper and more accurate than in the character of Pam.
“Normally, I find Pam to be a comforting, if un-arousing, presence around the office. Like a well-watered fern.”—Dwight in Season 9, Episode 14 “Vandalism”
When she went for the role, the clearly beautiful Jenna Fischer said she was told by the casting director: “She said please look normal. Don’t make yourself all pretty, and dare to bore me with your audition. Those were her words: ‘dare to bore me.’”
Pam is not cool, and she’s decidedly not stylish. So the show made it very clear from the beginning that Pam is as normal as normal can be.
But the interesting thing that happened as the show took off is that this normality itself actually made her aspirational. Seen through Jim’s eyes, Pam’s friendly, perceptive, funny personality made her more appealing than plenty of other women who might score higher in typical metrics of status.
When The Office opens, we meet an ensemble that’s full of nutty, zany over-the-top types, while Jim and Pam are the two “normals,” which comes out in the fact that they see the others around them clearly.
This might make us think of what the expression “down to earth” actually means. It’s being grounded and realistic, not having your vision clouded by pie-in-the-sky illusions.
Eventually, though, Pam comes to feel too tethered to the earth. She might benefit from dreaming a little bigger.
“Dreams are just that. They’re dreams. They help get you through the day.”—Pam in Season 2, Episode 15 “Boys and Girls”
While Pam embodies all these really healthy aspects of normal, over time, clinging excessively to an idea of normalcy is also her great flaw. Some of what she tells herself is satisfaction with normal is, in fact, apathy.
Nothing happens quickly for Pam. It can take a lot of agonizing, and years of unhappiness, before she’s motivated to change
“Jim was 5 feet from my desk, and it took me four years to get to him.” —Pam in Season 9, Episode 23 “Finale”
Apathy manifests as an absence of positive feelings and interests, and a hopelessness about the future. It’s a response to disappointments and the belief that you’re not good enough to overcome obstacles.
Pam spends most of her time in a state of inertia, always ready to settle. She believes that because she’s not special, she doesn’t deserve to be treated especially well. She starts season one with cripplingly low self-esteem. She’s normalized disrespectful behavior from her fiancé, Roy, that shouldn’t be seen as okay.
Pam: “And when I went to the bathroom, the game ended, and they forgot about me.”
Oscar: “That’s a joke.”
Pam: “No, they had to come back for me.”—The Office, Season 2, Episode 7 “The Client”
As the show goes on, she endures a series of setbacks that she classifies as personal failures. There are many possible explanations for how Pam first became apathetic, but the daily office environment we observe is clearly a big factor that exacerbates this tendency in her.
When we first meet her, she’s been working at Dunder Mifflin for six years, and she’s become institutionalized.
“These walls are funny. First you hate them. Then you get used to them. Enough time passes… you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”—from The Shawshank Redemption
The way she’s treated signals to her that receptionist work is not important or worthy of respect. Even though she’s widely liked and indispensable to the people around her, she’s rarely thanked or applauded.
Michael: “I would never say this to her face, but she’s a wonderful person and a gifted artist.”
Oscar: “What? Why wouldn’t you say that to her face?”—from Season Season 4, Episode 13 “Job Fair”
But look at how much Pam actually does for this office, often above and beyond her job description: she instigates bonding activities, irons out problems, offers total support to those in need without being asked, and absorbs the worries and troubles of others.
There’s a word for the unappreciated work Pam does around the office: emotional labor. This term was coined in the 1980s by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, and she used it to mean the act of “performing or deliberately obscuring emotions at work.”
So far, so Pam, right?
Since then, the term has come to encompass broader emotional work including acts of feeling, listening, communication, and caring. Things like remembering to call elderly relatives, comforting a friend who’s upset, checking in on neighbors. It is almost always unpaid and, not exclusively, but often undertaken by women. Pam’s role as the Office’s human glue, a sounding board, an emotional support worker, the provider of gentle nudges, is a classic example of someone taking on the lion’s share of emotional labor for a group.
So because most of the great stuff Pam does has no value or compensation attached to it, she internalizes a feeling of worthlessness that’s very tough to shake.
“It’s just, I don’t think it’s many little girls’ dreams to become a receptionist.”—Pam in Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot”
Making the problem worse is all the casual workplace sexism Pam endures. What’s incredibly realistic and powerful about how The Office portrays this situation is that nothing ever comes of it. The harassment is more or less constant.
“Usually the day we talk about sexual harassment is the day that everyone harasses me as a joke.”—Pam in Season 2, Episode 2 “Sexual Harrassment”
So we can see why Pam feels that to object to any one instance would be futile, and instead ends up normalizing this behavior.
The picture we often see onscreen is an impossibly beautiful woman being appreciated for her looks, so it’s easy to fall into the assumption that, even if it’s annoying, this kind of attention gives a woman confidence. The Office shows that’s a myth.
Pam is worn down by the onslaught of scrutiny. Pam’s looks are subject to a constant commentary, as everyone feels entitled to weigh in and evaluate her. It’s a very recognizable situation. When a woman is labeled “attractive,” a debate frequently ensues about how attractive or not attractive she truly is.
Over the show’s run, the sexual harassment towards Pam gradually dissipates, as she becomes a mother and ages out of the category in which women are deemed fodder for this kind of analysis.
“You were at your most attractive when you were twenty-four with a slight, gradual decline and a steep drop-off when you got pregnant for the first time. Gradual recovery and, uh, well now, obviously, you’re at an all-time low.”—Dwight in Season 8, Episode 7 “Pam’s Replacement”
It’s no coincidence that, as she’s sexualized less over time, she gradually starts to stick up for herself and go after what she wants more. Punctuating Pam’s resting state of inertia, something fierce periodically surfaces in her, rebelling against her smothering apathy with sudden, snap decisions to assert herself and be bold.
These mini-moments of retaliation and growth feel like big victories for Pam.
“I have decided that I’m going to be more honest. I’m gonna start telling people what I want directly.”—Pam in Season 3, Episode 17 “Cocktails”
The Brave Pam feels like the Real Pam in a sense, the Pam we root for, whereas much of the time she’s holding her tongue, being nice, not saying what she really thinks.
Pam’s biggest victory is arguably creating the role of Office Administrator for herself. She eventually recognizes that all this work she’s been doing in the office deserves a legitimate title and fair salary, so because this doesn’t exist yet in her workplace, she takes charge and creates meaningful change through channeling that gutsy person we love within Pam.
Another aspect of normality we see explored through Pam is her love with Jim, which echoes the trajectory of so many real relationships: from the first flutters of romance to the excitement of getting together, through long-distance love, unplanned pregnancy, diverging interests, and marriage counseling.
This is so rare on TV, which tends to focus on the drama of love connections sparking or imploding. Watching the many stages of regular life this couple goes through is in many ways a lot more interesting, and lets us see ourselves in Jim and Pam.
Near the end, though, this question of whether normal is enough forms the central test of their marriage. Pam feels she’s totally content with their typical family life.
“Dwight, you might find this hard to believe, but I love my boring life exactly the way it is.” –Pam in Season 1, Episode 9 “New Guys”
But when she voices her vision of their future in front of Jim, he’s visibly shell-shocked. Pam thinks she doesn’t need more than they already have, but Jim realizes he does. And in this conflict, all the issues we’ve been talking about in Pam’s character come to a head.
As she resists Jim’s drive to go after a more fulfilling career, we have to ask, is this coming from her healthy contentment with normality, or her apathy rearing its ugly head? It’s not always easy to tell.
“If I didn’t do certain things without telling Pam, she’d be married to Roy.”—Jim in Season 9, Episode 19 “Stairmageddon”
Should we constantly be wanting more, or is it a virtue to be happy with less? On the one hand, Pam’s aversion to change denies Jim the freedom to pursue a professional passion, something he’s finally doing for the first time after years of wasting his potential at a job he doesn’t really like.
Jim apparently begins to wonder if Pam is what’s been holding him back. When the couple goes to Roy’s wedding and he’s suddenly become this amazing guy with his new partner, both Jim and Pam seem worried that, by not expecting more of Roy, Pam was somehow partly responsible for his stagnation.
Of course it’s totally unfair to blame Pam for Roy’s lack of growth while they were together, but the question is raised in Jim’s and Pam’s minds, while they talk about whether it’s important to still have surprises in their lives.
When Jim wants to work in Philly, Pam almost seems hurt that he’s showing this level of enthusiasm for something besides her, as expressed in her fixation on whether she’s enough for him.
“And I’m afraid that this is not enough for you, and I’m afraid that I’m not enough for you.”—Pam in Season 9, Episode 22 “A.A.R.M.”
Meanwhile, Jim’s dishonesty coupled with his lack of appreciation for what she’s doing to make this possible for him, brings out the revelation from Pam that she’s been stifling her honest reactions to a number of events in their life before now. Jim has repeatedly failed to communicate or consult her on important joint decisions, but because he presented his actions as grand gestures of love she felt she couldn’t protest.
“He took this job in Philly without telling me, he bought our house without telling me. At a certain point, he shouldn’t be rewarded for that.”—Pam in Season 9, Episode 19 “Stairmageddon”
It’s only really in the final season that we see the toll this has gradually taken on her.
The Office isn’t a show with explosive plots every episode. It’s slow and steady, just like everyday life. Their crisis in the last season illustrates that there doesn’t have to be dramatic anger or a torrid affair at the root of a marital breakdown. A pattern of poor communication can be enough.
Once Jim proves that their normal family life is everything to him, that he doesn’t need anything else, her insecurity and feeling of imbalance is cured. And in the finale, brave, bold Pam emerges once more with a big gesture to support Jim. So we can only hope that her apathy will at last be kept at bay.
While this healed Pam may have a slightly more exciting life, when we leave her she’s still a pretty average person, and that’s the point. She takes her life purpose from her family, as so many of us do, and doesn’t end up as some kind of inspirational female symbol with an amazing career. Her endpoint probably left a lot of viewers with a degree of mixed feelings, which proves The Office stuck with its honest portrait of the normalcy mindset through this character to the end.
From the outside looking in, even Pam herself can see what she should be doing differently.
“I kept wanting to scream at Pam. It took me so long to do so many important things.” —Pam in The Office, Season 9, Episode 23 “Finale”
But The Office spends a great deal of time inside Pam’s mind, making us understand why she’s so easily satisfied with less.
The phrase “girl next door” contains its point of view right there in the words. It’s the girl next to our protagonist. Instead, The Office zeroes in on Pam herself, exploring how it feels to be that shy girl, who’s sidelined, belittled, critiqued, and under-appreciated until she finally learns to be aggressive and believe in her self-worth.
Apart from these surmountable perils that can arise from the normal-is-enough mentality, Pamela Beesly-Halpert exemplifies, time and again, the beauty in the ordinary.
DeAngelo: “Why do you use your name when you answer the phone?”
Erin: “Oh, that’s how Pam does it. I just copy her. She’s sort of a living legend.”—from Season 7, Episode 19 “Training Day”
Her life isn’t perfect but it’s filled with perfect moments, and the rest of us can hope to be blessed by such perfectly wonderful pieces of normal, too.
“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” –Pam in Season 9, Episode 23 “Finale”