This week’s political news has me thinking of a television character I haven’t thought about in quite some time: Todd Packer.
If you were a fan of the NBC show The Office, you’ll remember him as the Outside Sales Representative for Dunder Mifflin who made the occasional, and very memorable, appearance in the Scranton office of the fictional paper company.
To describe Packer as lewd is an understatement. Beloved by branch manager Michael Scott but loathed by most others in the office, Packer served as the hyperbolic antithesis of civilized contemporary office culture, with its diversity trainings and sexual harassment prevention policies dictated by HR teams and armies of corporate lawyers fearing a lawsuit.
Packer is the kind guy who says what he thinks, filters be damned, and regularly throws out rude sexual comments, homophobic innuendos, sexual body gestures and off-color humor in the workplace, such as:
“Where’s Michael Snot? Sniffing some dude’s thong?”
“What has two thumbs and likes to bone your mom? This guy!”
“Hey, what’s going on, you guys? Yeah. Three muske-queers. ”
Though he horrified the vast majority of the Dunder Mifflin employees, he delighted Michael Scott, who wanted nothing more than to be one of the ‘cool’ guys. In Michael’s fervent desperation for alpha male approval, he coveted the hypermasculine currency Packer offered, even while others cringed.
So what has me thinking of Todd Packer, this infrequently appearing character from a television show that’s been off the air for years? It was after I read the transcript of the leaked Donald Trump audio this week, with choice phrases like:
“I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there.”
“I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women] — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”
“Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
I don’t have the time or emotional energy to outline all of the things I felt or thought upon learning about this conversation, but somewhere, amidst the rage and the anger and the astonishment and, frankly, the lack of astonishment, Todd Packer occurred to me.
If Packer had been on that bus with the journalist and Trump where the conversation happened, he would have freaking loved it. “Hell, yes!” he would have shouted, offering a high-five to Trump, and that kind of puppy-eyed adoration that he was accustomed to receiving from Michael Scott. He would have reveled in that crude behavior. In the casual reference to sexual assault. At the reduction of women to objects available for men to kiss and grab without consent.
In that exchange, Trump, in an attempt to earn the respect of the other men in his midst, evoked that same hypermasculine currency that defined Packer as a character: shock humor, over-the-type hypersexuality, trivialization of women, and bravado.
That same sexual braggadociousness, if you will.
I can picture the bumper sticker almost perfectly –Trump/Packer 2016: The Pussy Grabbing Platform.
As soon as I heard about the leaked audio, I imagined the excuses that Trump, his campaign, and his supporters would wield. (Comments that comprise the bread-and-butter of rape culture.)
It was just a joke.
That’s just the way guys talk.
It was off the record. No one was supposed to hear it.
It’s just locker room banter.
To which I say, no. no. no. no. Locker room culture is something a colleague and I consider in an analysis of gendered hierarchies within the corporate culture of The Office. Locker room culture alludes, generally, to traditionally all-male spaces where the rules of our overly sensitized, PC-obsessed society no longer apply. It’s a bro-friendly safe zone, where no topic is off limits. Where ‘boys can be boys,’ even if they’re men.
The ‘locker room’ is metaphorical, of course. This sort of secret, ‘safe’ male space could be a literal locker room, but its spirit can be found lots of other places — on the golf course, in boardrooms, in the back rooms of bars where deals are brokered. On Access Hollywood media buses back in 2005 (interestingly, the same year that The Office debuted and the world met Todd Packer.)
Though I do pursue news from many different sources, many of my personal acquaintances and lots of my favorite news sites have a feminist perspective, so when something like this happens, I admittedly experience a pretty massive echo chamber of outrage from dozens of angles. As I processed the original release of this story, followed quickly by the feminist media reaction to it, it was overwhelming, and I shut the laptop and returned to my first morning to-do item: making pancakes with my two-year-old son.
In between patiently allowing him to scoop out teaspoons of salt and cups of flour and cleaning up the resulting spills, my mind stayed on Trump, on Packer, on sexual assault, on rape culture, and on toxic masculinity. It’s jarring, when my brain does this thing — bouncing back and forth between the sweetness and goodness of my young sons and horrific examples of hypermasculinity that surround us every day. As I’ve written about elsewhere, my scholarship and my experience raising four young sons are inherently linked and I can’t think about one without the other. My sons are the reason I started studying masculinity in the first place.
I need them to know that there is no locker room ‘safe’ enough for this type of cavalier, violent discussion of women’s bodies is okay.
Even if it’ll get a laugh.
Even if it’ll make a certain type of guy like you more, or, inexplicably, respect you more.
Even if you there aren’t any women around.
Even if no one else was supposed to hear.
Many of us have some choice about the level at which we engage with the Todd Packers of our worlds. Do we humor them? Befriend them? Turn a blind eye toward them? Sleep with/date/marry them? Raise them?
And, perhaps most pertinently, do we hire them?