Distressingly true in many places, but this frequently mars its own optics without realizing it.
The Chair is a rare Netflix production that is worth watching. It’s a comedy about the first female head of the English department at a fictional American Ivy League university, and the struggles she faces with misogyny, racism, the defunding of the humanities and cancel culture, to say nothing of her personal life.
This review will have certain spoilers for the entire plot of The Chair, which is pretty short and easy to watch in just a few sittings if you’re so inclined.
The premise of the show is straightforward. Sandra Oh stars as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, recently elected to chair of the English Department at Pembrooke University (filmed at the one of the University of Pennsylvania’s campuses and that of Chatham College, for those keeping track). She is the first woman elected to the chair and probably the first person of colour as well in an overwhelmingly male and White department. Her professors are largely ageing and the university is attempting to force several of them into retirement, and the changes she’s hoping to make to the department, such as securing tenure for Dr. Yaz McKay, the only Black person and one of very few other women in the department, are immediately overshadowed by her colleague, Dr. Bill Dobson, being ‘cancelled’ for making a mocking Nazi salute in his class on modernist literature.
The show gets a lot right. Universities are overwhelmingly White, male institutions and racism and misogyny are embedded deep in their cultures. The conservatism of institutions is highlighted well here, and interesting is the way the pernicious nature of that conservatism is represented. Even Ji-Yoon ends up falling into it throughout the series, holding off on revolutionary things she knows are important “for the good of the department,” and being called out on it by her fellow faculty. She ends up resigning her position as chair when she realizes that holding it is making it impossible for her to do the things she actually wants to do, which incidentally is the exact experience of many, many real-life academics who have held chairships of departments.
The dismissal of Yaz’s research and teaching ability by Dr. Elliot Rentz, a much older faculty member who is on a list to be forcibly retired because of his high salary and low enrollments, is also painfully accurate. He doesn’t understand her work and therefore doesn’t see its value, despite their occasional connections on small personal details, he is sabotaging her career not necessarily because he is evil, but because his mindset it outdated and the world has moved on without him. I think the show does well in portraying him sympathetically without taking his side. The work of younger academics, especially women, queer people and people of colour, is overwhelmingly dismissed by older professors across all fields, but especially in the humanities, where methods of doing things that were revolutionary in the 80s have continued to dominate despite far more interesting and nuanced ways of doing research having come about long since. Try being a young faculty member interested in race theory and going to a conference where all anyone wants to talk about is philology. I speak here from my own experience as a younger, queer academic, though I’m not a woman or a person of colour. It’s painful and depressing and demoralizing to have your work constantly dismissed like Yaz does, and when she opts to leave for a university that actually respects her work, it’s such a relief for me because I just want her (and everyone like her in real life) to not be subject to shitty institutions like this.
My opinions on forced retirements are controversial in the academy and pretty common sense outside of it. The show presents forced retirement as a bad thing, because it’s making people leave jobs that they love, but it also makes it clear that these are professors who are mostly out of touch (except Joan, more on her in a minute) and whose courses students aren’t interested in. I think that mandatory retirement is a good idea—after a good amount of time, mind you, not when people turn fifty-five, but after they’ve been at a post for thirty years or something—because older academics refusing to retire is the reason why younger academics can’t get hired. Try getting a job as a young academic in today’s job market. You can’t, and one of the reasons why is because every university in North America has dozens of faculty in their seventies and eighties who refuse to leave their positions, and I think that’s frankly selfish and unfair. It’s a fraught position because of course it’s horrible to say that people should get out of the way once they’re older, and of course ultimately the fault lies with institutions themselves refusing to hire new people, but yeah, I don’t think mandatory retirement is a bad thing. Except that universities in real life do it and then also don’t hire new faculty, using mandatory retirement as a backdoor way to gut departments. That doesn’t show up in the show and I think it would have been better if it had, honestly, because then the fear from the older faculty about mandatory retirements would have felt more sympathetic and legitimate. Often the reason why people refuse to retire is exactly because they know they won’t be replaced and their departments will suffer for it.
The other storyline that doesn’t quite fly for me is that belonging to my personal favourite character, Dr. Joan Hambling, another older faculty member who realizes over the course of the show that she’s been treated poorly her entire career because of misogyny. We’re supposed to believe that nobody enjoys her classes, but we see some excerpts of her lecture style and I’d like to just confirm that anyone who lectures like that is usually a student favourite, no matter their subject matter (this ties in with a larger complaint I have coming from a genuinely maligned humanities discipline: English is consistently the highest performing humanities department at every university in North America, it’s one of the only humanities disciplines that genuinely isn’t in trouble and genuinely doesn’t have to fight for recognition). We see Joan’s Rate My Professors page and it’s just full of endless terrible reviews from students not on the basis of her teaching but calling her horrible names, saying she’s ugly, and so forth. This is something that legitimately happens—most female faculty I know have course feedback that includes remarks about their clothes, their hair, their weight, and so on, and it’s legitimately awful and should not be dismissed, and I don’t want to claim that never happens. But nobody’s Rate My Professor page is just a wall of reviews calling them ugly, first because the website wouldn’t allow it and second because by and large students who use the site take is at least somewhat seriously. The ones who don’t give a shit don’t bother to rate their professors. We’re supposed to believe that everyone hates Joan’s classes and that her students are only ever mean to her and that she’s a bad teacher, but from what we can see that’s demonstrably not true and it doesn’t really accord with reality, leading me to wonder when the last time any of the writers of this show was in a classroom.
Related to the obvious lack of actual experience with universities in the writing staff is the whole ‘cancellation of Bill’ storyline. He makes an objectively inappropriate joke in his classroom and it’s spread virally and soon students are protesting against him and he ends up being fired. This really falls flat for me because it buys into a popular mythology about liberal arts universities that seems to be very popular in the United States but simply doesn’t accord with reality. The myth is that students are a woke lynch mob who will ‘cancel’ any professor who doesn’t meet their exacting standards and who don’t allow free speech because they use the internet to shut down anyone who disagrees with them and to get people fired for minor infractions. Every time I’ve spoken to someone about this they insist that it happens all the time and then when I ask for evidence they point to one of the same two cases in which it’s very hard to find reliable information that isn’t inflected by right-wingism. This show buys into that narrative wholesale though, with the students very obviously taking Bill’s joke out of context, then refusing to let him explain himself, throwing buzzwords at him rather than listening, chanting at him when the tries to explain himself, and so on. There’s one major scene where this happens and it’s the worst part of the show, and seeing an otherwise intelligent narrative buy into that conservative propaganda is really distressing.
Furthermore, the university takes immediate and definitive steps to remove Bill from the faculty, which is also simply unrealistic. Not to be all “in real life…” but in real life, when scandals like this happen, universities make every effort to cover them up, deny they happened, gaslight their students, and then when they are finally forced to do something—months or even years later—they set up a pointless task force, announce that the university now has an anti-whatever-bad-thing-happened training, and wait for everyone to forget it happened. For the purposes of this storyline I’d have much preferred if there actually had been a faculty member who’d done something legitimately horrible and then Ji-Yoon was trying to make sure they faced actual repercussions, instead of the other way around. Bill makes what is again an inappropriate joke that he shouldn’t have made and that he should face some repercussions for, but ultimately we know he’s harmless because he’s Ji-Yoon’s love interest. If one of the older faculty had said or done something awful the show could have actually tackled this issue with some nuance rather than just tacking on a cancel culture storyline because that’s something we all cared about last year.
Finally, just a note on a few of the show’s optics. Ji-Yoon’s difficult position as chair is played really well in her relationship with Yaz, who frequently has to call her out on supporting a racist institution. There’s a subtle commentary here that runs throughout the show in which Black people explain racism to Ji-Yoon as if she wouldn’t have understood it was a thing, and I think it’s really interesting how she hardly ever comments about it. Obviously anti-Black racism in the U.S. especially is a particular thing so it’s not like it’s a mistake to draw this distinction, but I do sometimes think that Ji-Yoon not saying anything about it feels more like the show being quiet on the fact that anti-Asian racism is also a whole thing. I’m not one to say how a show about race should handle the nuances of different types of racism against different people, but I personally felt that the subtlety of that got lost a little bit too much, especially when so much of the show is about how Korean Ji-Yoon is. There’s also what for me is a really troubling scene when Bill has to tell Ji-Yoon to stop being so conservative in the last episode. It’s hard to explain exactly what my issue was here if you haven’t seen the scene, but it’s a lengthy moment of this White guy explaining to this Korean woman why it’s important to stand up to institutions that try to oppress people…but the context is that he wants her to do more to stand up for the institution that’s trying to oppress him and this is not played for irony, you’re meant to take it as a serious criticism of Ji-Yoon, and it just really feels a bit awkward and highlights several problems with the show for me.
All that said, however, I really liked The Chair. It was very watchable, very short, funny throughout and had a lot of incisive things to say about the academy. The characters are complicated and none of them are just good or bad people. They nailed the dress code and the bureaucratic bullshit and administration/faculty divide and the way we all fail at work/life balance. David Duchovny makes an appearance in one episode and it’s hilarious, and also there’s a part where he wears a very tight small bathing suit and you can see basically everything, and I was right there hiding behind the plant with Sandra Oh in that scene.
Overall I think The Chair is worth a watch. Just take it with a grain of salt, which is what any good junior faculty in any good English department would want you to do anyway.