In Praise of Dwangela
Is there any television couple as singular and yet as well-suited as The Office’s Dwight Schrute and Angela Martin? Having watched nearly all of the series’ first five seasons in an intense early new year viewing session, I am convinced that it exceeds standard representational templates in some important and valuable ways.
In celebrating this most perverse of television pairs, I want to argue first that it operates as a bracing “shadow couple” for the wholesome Jim and Pam and second that its meanings are deepened by the fact that Dwight and Angela represent versions of culturally normative modes of masculinity and femininity pushed to pathological extremes. I shall refer to the couple henceforth using the moniker bestowed upon it by series fans – Dwangela.
I want to assert at the outset that The Office is a series whose well-wrought couple relationships have not been sufficiently analyzed. The web of overt and covert desires that animates the series is complex and multi-dimensional as may be seen in the numerous suggestions of Michael’s fascination with Ryan and the often devastating relationship between Ryan and Kelly. (When Ryan confesses dejectedly that “For whatever reason, I can’t do better than Kelly,” beside him Kelly beams in complete misunderstanding). At the same time we would do well to note the series’ preference for couples which is indicated in part by its often shocking handling of single mother Meredith.
In this context, Dwangela emerges as a product of the impossible authoritarianism that characterizes the bizarre world of the contemporary corporate workplace. Where Pam and Jim (a couple whose sweetness is wonderfully conveyed by the fused appellation “Jam”) are associated with mild and often toothless critiques of the corporate regime, pulling pranks and expressing symbolic (and frequently non-verbal) opposition to or incredulity about the absurdities of corporate life, Dwangela perform a more substantive critical function.
Dwight Schrute’s signature characteristic is a reverence for all forms of order and authority. His conceptual templates for individual and institutional behavior are adopted from the brutalities of nature and the animal kingdom. (He avoids smiling, we are told, because “showing one’s teeth is a submission signal in primates”). Dwight’s understanding reflects a comically exaggerated form of the ubiquitous corporate parables that use animal metaphors to promulgate fantasies of self-empowerment in an era of consolidating corporate control. Business mantras that exhort workers to “run with the wolves,” pursue re-located and deferred rewards conceptualized as the cheese for worker mice or typologize themselves and their co- workers as residents in an “organizational zoo” have proliferated in the neoliberal workplace. Dwight is the company man turned inside out, his continually thwarted sense of grandiosity is matched by a sometimes touching credulousness (he believes in androids, bats that turn humans into vampires and the powers of Amazon women).
If Dwight is a distorted version of the aggressive and diligent capitalist male, Angela is a hyperbolic version of the “good girl,” seemingly adherent to old-fashioned behavioral norms and regularly seeking to act as a moral watchdog over her office colleagues. Intensely attracted to power (as Dwight himself astutely observes) she, like Dwight, identifies intensely with animals and indeed she appears to have more of an affinity with animals than with humans (the precipitating cause of the Dwangela breakup in Season Four is Dwight’s decision to euthanize Angela’s cat Sprinkles). The extent of Angela’s identification with the feline is made clear when she describes a Halloween picture of herself in cat costume holding Sprinkles as “just a couple of kittens.”
Tall, deep-voiced and yet sartorially “off,” Dwight represents an idealized masculinity that isn’t quite right. Similarly the diminutive and blonde Angela (so tiny she sometimes buys her clothing at the American Girl store) pushes idealized femininity to an uncomfortable extreme. Despite their shared affinity for order and control (each repeatedly praises the other to co-workers as “efficient”) Dwangela’s propensity for troubling the workplace keeps bursting forth partly in episodes of office sex, secret rendez-vous and (mostly) private modes of communication. They actively personalize the workplace and appropriate it for their own interests. Dwight secretly stocks an arsenal at Dunder Mifflin while Angela brings her cat to work where it sleeps in a file cabinet. The resulting impression undercuts authority with anarchy, the human with the animal and the surface appearance of productivity and order with a complex libidinal economy. I suggest that the Dwangela couple is fundamentally organized around an awareness that the kind of contemporary workplace it is so devoted to has lost its humanity.