Finding Ourselves in Pop Culture
Let’s begin this article by visualizing something together. A conversation I don’t doubt that at least a few of us will remember watching on a computer a few years ago.
“Michael, do you know what secularism humanism is?” asks an annoyed-looking Oscar Martinez. Imagine his surprise when Michael Scott, a man not exactly known for his knowledge pertaining to topics as complex as philosophy, life stances, and religion, does in fact provide a succinct and correct answer. “Yes. It is a philosophy which says that people can improve their lives by using reason instead of religion or superstition,” Michael replies, without thinking twice and without hesitation.
Anyone curious about this particular scene and where it fits into The Office can click here. The episode this conversation takes place in is the first episode of Season 4, entitled Fun Run, though the scene itself is a deleted one. Michael is asking the employees at the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company about their religious views while trying to come up with an exculpatory explanation for why he hit Meredith Palmer with his car just outside of the office building where the employees report to work every weekday.
Now take a second to imagine my surprise, a full fifteen years after this episode of The Office first aired, when I realized that this is still one of the only portrayals of humanism and, critically, features one of few explicitly, self-described humanist characters I’ve ever seen on television. I’ve seen several portrayals of atheistic characters, and I’ve even seen depictions of crises of faith, but I can quite literally count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen humanists represented on television. This is a tragedy.
Humanism is not atheism. There are powerful links between the two terms, especially if we’re focusing on secular humanism, but they are not interchangeable. When we see an atheistic character on television, or in other media, we do not necessarily see a humanistic character. It is tempting for many of us, especially if we’re even further starved of representation—such as if we are also queer or happen to be BIPOC—to just assign humanism to the character, but we shouldn’t have to do that. We deserve representation that is real, explicit, and even takes up space.
Representation is real. It is a powerful thing to see aspects of your identity in a character you care about, and sometimes even in characters you dislike or that are antagonists. Circling back to the example of Oscar Martinez, it is worth noting that he is not particularly meant to be likable to the audience. While he’s far from a hated character, even in the eyes of his colleagues, he simply does not get the same amount of focus and screen time or sympathetic, full story arcs as the show’s big trio—Pam, Jim, and Michael–have received at this point in the story.
As the show matures, he becomes a far more complex character with deep and surprisingly story-central relationships, but at the time that this scene was written, filmed, and then deleted from the episode, Oscar had often been a bit of a background or one-note character whose interactions with his coworkers often focused on his homosexuality. He, or more commonly, the homophobia of Michael, was used as the butt of various jokes. And honestly, it’s fine with me that Oscar is not a protagonist who is also a secular humanist. Even if this had been the only time Oscar was allowed to shine, Oscar’s identity as a queer, Hispanic secular humanist who—going beyond the sort of identities one can note on a checklist—possesses sophistication and wit, makes the fact that he is a secular humanist who is willing to speak that aloud mean that he can represent something.
Humanists deserve real representation and that doesn’t have to mean being the protagonists of epic stories or being at the heart of astounding multi-season story arcs. It certainly can mean those things, and I’d be thrilled if humanists got that treatment, but real representation can also mean mundane characters who are just doing their best and who just so happen to be members of communities or groups.
Oscar is an example of that, and one that meant something to me when I first watched this scene. At the time I first watched The Office, I was still coming to grips with what it meant to be an atheist, as I myself am a Hispanic, queer person whose family and communities are often quite religious.
Seeing someone like me explicitly self-identify as a secular humanist meant something to me. It made me more interested in secular humanism, and it was one of the first times I saw a Hispanic person on television say, quietly, that they had once been Christian and weren’t anymore. I had seen non-Hispanic people say that, but that hadn’t provided me with much help when I thought about how disappointed my family and friends would have been in me if they knew I was irreligious, as I was raised Roman Catholic. That representation mattered to me, though I hate that I had to go out of my way to find it since the scene was deleted.
Mundane representation can matter just as much as epic representation. I don’t need humanistic superheroes, as cool as that’d be to get, I just want more representation in any form. If it means I get to see more people like me on television say that they are humanists, I’d be so happy to get a dozen more Oscars. We deserve to have characters say they are like us, and for those characters to take up space. Our stories are not minor things that can be depicted in a single episode, or even a single season, and every humanist should be able to remember a few characters who are like them. It’s a shame that I doubt many of us can name even a handful of explicitly humanist characters. I hope that changes, eventually.