Photo courtesy of Netflix.
As is the case with many college students, the point in the semester is approaching where the work is piling and the motivation is dwindling. If you too are finding yourself in this position, I highly recommend starting Netflix’s The Chair. It has intellect, politics, wit, a touch of realism, and even romantic understories between the characters and their line of work.
Watching this as a college student, I appreciated the balance of romanticism and relatability. The series depicts Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh), the first woman (and also woman of color) to be chair of the English department at Pembroke College. She deals with sexism and racism surrounding her new position, familial and relationship issues, and the struggles of holding her own values versus Pembroke’s in priority, all in a way that is delightfully charming and scathingly realistic.
One issue that Ji-Yoon faces is a result of her white, male co-worker and good friend (and also love interest) making a Nazi joke in class that is caught on camera. The students of Pembroke, predominantly students of color, react in a way that encapsulates this generation’s frustration with insensitive “jokes” and the maker of such jokes not being held accountable. Ji-Yoon’s reaction emulates the recognition that this joke was not meant to cause harm, but rather was a result of white male privilege, while acknowledging that society has a need to show more respect to marginalized communities. This difficult balance is excellently portrayed by Oh and juxtaposed by Jay Duplass, the accused “Nazi.”
Duplass is a scruffy and reluctantly loveable English professor who is spiralling after the loss of his wife. His joke was not intended to be a harmful one, but his reaction perfectly captures the common attitude of privilege when called out. He continuously shrugs the incident off and is slow to apologize sincerely until his job is seriously threatened.
In my opinion, Oh is quite nearly a perfect feminine protagonist. She is strong and endearing with a biting sense of humor. She is the pinnacle of femininity in its true, non-exploitative way. The scene where this is most prevalent is when she is crying in front of her daughter, Ju Ju, and her father scolds her. Ju Ju is quick to defend her mother, arguing that emotion is not a reason to feel shame. The viewer can visually see Oh’s tears turn from exhausted frustration to pride and love.
The show leaves you with a somewhat simultaneous feeling of somberness and hope in respect to women, especially women of color, and the challenges they face in positions of authority. I spoke with Dr. Virginia Craighill, a professor in the Sewanee English department, about her thoughts on the show.
When asked if she found the show realistic, Craighill said that the first episode when they are having to discuss budget cuts “hit way too close to home.”
“Here at Sewanee every department is frightened about whether they are going to get to hire more people” she said. “The budgetary concerns are very much a part of our world.”
I asked if Sewanee is seeing similar issues with enrollment in English classes that the university in The Chair is facing.
Craighill explains that the English department has always been one of the strongest and most popular departments because of the University’s strong history of English and writing. However she explains that “lately [it] has been beat out (if it was a competition) by economics and psychology and a little bit by politics.” She states that she would love it if “we could open up the English major to a wider diversity of Sewanee students and that is a lot like what I saw in The Chair is a sense of the struggle with diversity and inclusion and equity. Even though we do teach diverse authors, it doesn’t always look that way.”
I inquired about the issues regarding gender and race that the characters face in the show and if there are any similarities or differences in the English department here at Sewanee. Craighill responded that “the faculty of color at Sewanee take on a much greater burden than those of us who are not. They are the ones that the students of color go to even if they are not their advisees. I think it is really difficult for them. For a long time we had an administration that was not really diverse here and so there was a gap of understanding.
Along the lines of gender, she says, “I do think that there have been issues with female faculty members not getting paid the same amount but it is really hard to know. As far as the way we are treated I feel like it is pretty equitable.”
Craighill began watching the show because of her own position as an English professor. . She said that there have been very few shows about colleges and even less about the faculty side of things, about English departments. “The inside of an English department is often fraught with drama, luckily not ours.”
Craighill became an English professor because “it was what I was always good at. I loved reading. I would escape from my three brothers, who were annoying, by books. They were my escape, my salvation, my companions, the things I always loved. I loved to write from a very young age. I never really veered off of that course probably because I was not good at anything else but it was always something that I loved and saw myself teaching. I am very fortunate that I ended up on that career path.”
I am not sure about English being the only thing that Dr. Craighill is good at, but as a student of hers, I do know she is exceptional at it.
Whether currently a student, university faculty member, or a person who has long since experienced the unique challenges and wonders of college, this show is for everyone. It speaks to the current political climate, educational transitions, and kick-ass female leads. If you are a student like me, I encourage you to watch an episode of The Chair and do your damn homework.