Rewatching Dwight Schrute in the Age of Proud Boys
My brother and I loved watching The Office together in high school. We loved to talk like Dwight: authoritative and snooty and weird. We wanted a Dwight in our own future workplaces — a lovable weirdo, equal parts annoying, well-meaning, and disturbing. We loved how Dwight was always tense, always sitting up straight or running awkwardly, bounding up stairs or crashing cars.
Nowadays, I rewatch The Office when I’m sad or stressed. My boyfriend calls it my “comfort food” show: I put it on when I’m anxious, and I calm down. It has soothed me enough to detract from countless near–panic attacks.
For a long time, I saw Dwight’s desire to appear important as pathetic yet also sweet. He is, like me, very nervous. His nerves just show up in a different way.
For those who don’t know or who need a refresher, Dwight Schrute is the deeply awkward and earnest character in the American adaptation of the British show The Office. (His character’s British counterpart is named Gareth Keenan.) He is less concerned with selling paper than with defending his authority or protecting his co-workers from imaginary dangers. Known for wearing mustard-colored shirts and Coke-bottle glasses, as well as his tryst with the severe Angela from accounting, Dwight is alone in perceiving the world of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as a place full of action and danger. He is a personification of a particular kind of anxiety: a white masculine fear that’s nostalgic for a more conservative time. He will submit only to his boss, Michael (played by Steve Carell), the company’s hapless regional manager. Dwight’s personality is Mennonite-adjacent wannabe alpha male mixed with sincere nerdiness. He’s absurd, and actor Rainn Wilson uses an intense amount of physicality to animate him. Dwight is profoundly alive and alert to hazards — so much so that he ignores the social cues in front of him.
Dwight wishes to assert his manhood in convoluted ways that often backfire, like setting a controlled fire in a garbage can to force his co-workers to think through how they’d escape the office in the event of a catastrophic fire, or hiding guns, arrows, and throwing stars around the office as a means of security. He stands on hot coals to prove his devotion to Michael. He dwells on safety even when no one is unsafe. He’s so desperate to be good in a crisis, to be seen as a hero, that he neglects the complex humanity of those around him. His efforts to appear smart show how obviously ignorant he is. His earnest desperation is cringeworthy and laughable, based in an honor code that perhaps existed long ago and has since been forgotten by everyone else.
Dwight’s fixation on power and significance stems from his experience with loss. The beet farm he lives on is a lonely place that he shares with his strange cousin Mose. It presumably no longer produces enough income for him to work full-time as a farmer — left behind by the decline in agriculture, his family’s legacy is among the “forgotten.” Dwight now desires to climb the corporate ladder alongside Michael despite the company’s dwindling profits. Angela, his office paramour, dates other men after he mercy-kills her terminally ill cat without her permission.
Dwight’s desire to be a hero blinds him to the fact that he himself is often the one putting the people around him in danger.
In short, there isn’t a bright future ahead for Dwight. As The Office actresses Jenna Fischer (who played Pam) and Angela Kinsey (who played Angela) point out in their podcast Office Ladies, the only characters who face the window in their talking-head confessional shots were those who had a future outside the office: Jim and Pam. Dwight has no future elsewhere. Jim and Pam get married, have babies, and eventually leave Scranton, and Michael leaves Scranton to be with the love of his life, but Dwight’s life on the beet farm remains relatively stagnant over the many seasons of The Office until the very last episode, when he makes up with and marries Angela. Even still, they marry while standing in their own graves, which he views as a symbol of their eternal bond to each other, but which the viewer understands as a sign that they’re going nowhere.
Throughout the series, Dwight acts as a foil to Jim, the laid-back cool guy who breaks the fourth wall and is hopelessly in love with receptionist Pam. Jim often pranks Dwight, provoking opportunities for Dwight to act out his fantasies. As Megan Garber recently recalled in The Atlantic, one episode involves Jim pranking Dwight by helping him write a speech for a work conference that is based entirely on real speeches by dictators. His speech is incredibly well-received by his audience, but for the viewer at home, its queasy comedy also reveals Dwight’s darker side: ambition deeply rooted in masculine identity and authority. All that mattered to Dwight when he was on that stage was that he finally had the spotlight. He, a “real man” commanding the attention of his colleagues, finally held power over his audience. And that’s the thing about Dwight that’s the most human and also the most toxic: how his desire to be a hero blinds him to the fact that he himself is often the one putting the people around him in danger.
Given the chaos of 2020, it’s been harder to relax when I watch The Office. Dwight’s worries about grandiose threats, emergency preparedness, and flashy displays of dominance seemed hilariously exaggerated in 2005. Now, his toxic masculinity doesn’t lend itself to humor in the same way. He’s an exaggeration of what was always there, simmering beneath the surface of our workplaces; he’s a man worried about others who don’t look or sound like him taking what he assumes to be his. The hum of energy he emits onscreen hits differently now.
Yes, Dwight is a fictional character. His politics aren’t a direct corollary to Trumpism. And his character is just one of many aspects of The Office that make the show a product of the ’00s — Steve Carell has cited these elements as a reason why the show shouldn’t be rebooted in the way many other classic TV shows have.
But I can’t help wondering what Dwight would look like in the year 2020. It isn’t difficult to imagine him getting fired for harassing women in the office or making professional decisions about co-workers based on race or ethnicity or sexuality. I suspect he’d vote for Trump or become a follower of QAnon. I fear he’d be one of the many who stock up on assault weapons after mass shootings. I wonder if he’d be one of the Proud Boys that President Trump told to “stand back and stand by” in the first presidential debate.
When talking about his ability to survive extreme threats, Dwight quips, “If I’m dead, then you’ve been dead for weeks.” Dwight, goofy as he seems, is out to preserve himself—at the expense of others, if need be. Dwight exists in an anxiety so chaotic that it makes him calm, smug, arrogant, and irritating. “How exhausting, to stay that many steps ahead,” I think to myself as I watch him now.
If these past six months of pandemic lockdown have taught me anything, it is that no matter how anxious and prepared I am, however many steps I’m sure I’ve thought through, I’m certainly never going to be able to think through every way to stay safe, healthy, alive, and, as Dwight so badly desires, dominant. The world we live in is too chaotic for that.
When Dwight feels powerful, it quells his anxiety for a moment. But as we’ve learned these past several years in America, toxic displays of masculinity, however harmless they may seem, still bleed into the cultural groundwater. They poison us. I’ll always love The Office, and I’ll keep my soft spot for Dwight’s character, even as he remains a warning sign for the era that was to come after the TV series ended: one defined by anxious men, desperate to feel powerful the way they might have in a bygone era, while insensitive to the humanity of others.
Comedy gives us a chance to laugh off life’s seriousness, but it is also meant to hold up a mirror. Dwight’s benign fear of losing his manhood isn’t meant to be taken literally. But it is meant for us to see a reflection of ourselves, and the men we tolerate, more clearly. Perhaps Dwight is right, to an extent: If our tolerance for him is dead, our tolerance for men like him has been dead for some time.