Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

The Performative Wokeness of Netflix’s The Chair


[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

Netflix’s The Chair is the newest water cooler conversation fodder for academics. Or it would be if we could gather around water coolers.

Virtually everyone I’ve talked to has had pretty positive things to say about it. And as a recently tenured female academic, I’ll say that it is in certain ways very real and relatable: drinking whiskey over student evaluations, disproportionate service burdens, administration’s monomaniacal focus on dollar signs, and being touched or having one’s appearance commented upon in a way that is vaguely but not egregiously inappropriate.

It also has some very unrealistic moments: snow in the second week of the fall semester, that someone would have their first job in their PhD-granting department, that giving a talk one place means you can’t give it elsewhere. Also, in this alternate reality, apparently people want to be chair. In our reality, being chair is a lot of thankless, unpleasant administrative work that ultimately makes it harder to do the work that you love to do. There’s less time for teaching and less time for research. It comes with a pay raise, sure, but if academics wanted meaty salaries, they would have chosen a different line of work. Most often, becoming chair means losing a war of attrition.

But this newest offering from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, written by actor Amanda Peet, clearly tries to do more than just depict the modern humanities department in a realistic way. It tries to keep pace with and reflect on the New Woke Order and its impact on university life. And it tries very hard itself to be woke. Behind this veneer is something which, though not awful, is certainly not in keeping with a truly progressive outlook.

* * * * *

The cast is quite diverse, starring Sandra Oh as the protagonist Ji-Yoon Kim, a Korean-American English professor recently appointed as chair of her department. There’s her father, who speaks little English; and her adopted daughter Ju-Hee, or “Ju Ju”, whose biological parentage we are given to understand is Mexican. And there’s the star junior professor Yasmin “Yaz” McKay, a Black woman sporting natural hair who teaches, among other things, progressive critiques of traditional Western texts. Finally, we get a host of non-white and/or non-male supporting characters, including one graduate student teaching assistant who is finishing her dissertation and a good number of undergraduate students. The show reads like a veritable Bingo card of racial inclusivity: Asian, Black, Latinx – check, check, check. (Though – no Indigenous cast?)

The show not only boasts representation, but also manifestly tries to center these characters’ stories. The plot revolves around Ji-Yoon, a Korean-American woman who has fought to get where she is. We see her struggles as a single mother, trying to juggle parenthood with the demands of her job and the highly irregular academic schedule. (Luckily for her, she doesn’t have to attend any conferences during this period, where she’d face the bonus dilemma of whether to take Ju Ju along or leave her at home for an extended period.) We also witness the ordeals faced by Yaz, the young Black professor trying to secure tenure at a historically sexist, racist, colonialist institution where the system still works against her. And we watch as Ju Ju grapples with her own identity as the non-biological child of a Korean woman who doesn’t look like her.

This looks quite good as an attempt at inclusivity. But if we look more carefully at each of these three central characters, we don’t get the progressive narrative that we’re promised.

* * * * *

Start with Yaz. She excels at everything, publishing in the best journals and boasting envious enrollment numbers backed by genuine student enthusiasm. Unfortunately, she faces the problem that all tenure-track faculty face: actually getting tenure. The chair of her tenure committee – and apparent chief obstacle to her successful tenure case – is Elliot Rentz. It’s hard to fully understand Yaz’s character without contrasting her with this obvious foil. Elliot is an established expert in their shared subfield; she is a relative newcomer. He is old, white, and very out of touch; she is none of those things. His lecture notes are outdated, and worse, all he does is lecture; she is unusually pedagogically innovative. He isn’t interested in racial or feminist critiques of the texts and authors; she is. In every respect, he is on the way out and she is on the way in.

But if the show tells us to sympathize with Yaz, it does not show us why we should. Instead, Elliot is presented as a far more sympathetic character. When forced to combine their courses, they come into direct conflict. Yaz’s innovative teaching is illustrated in her assignment to have students tweet their favorite line from Moby Dick, which she says mobilizes close reading skills, and in a Hamilton-esque performance where students skewer Melville with low-hanging jokes about sperm. Pedagogically speaking, neither of these is my cup of tea. Still, it might be perfectly fine – classroom innovation inevitably takes unfamiliar forms, after all – except that the story primes us to see things from Elliot’s perspective.

We read his book dedication; we learn that his wife was denied tenure; we see him constantly confronted with his age, especially in one unbearably vulnerable moment where his wife gently urges him to wear adult diapers to bed. We also watch him stage a department coup, and we follow him and not Yaz in the aftermath of their altercation in the archives. In short, the story simply shows us more about him. By contrast, we never see Yaz in comparably vulnerable, human moments. We see her frustrated, of course, but frustration does not build sympathy. When she is booted from giving the Distinguished Lectureship, why don’t we see her reaction to finding this out? Why don’t we see her receiving a phone call from Yale? Why don’t we learn anything about her personal life?

And so, when scenes that should laud Yaz’s innovation and progressiveness are punctuated by Elliot’s visibly disturbed face, we can’t help but feel for him. At one point, Yaz accuses Ji-Yoon of being overly sympathetic to Elliot – and we hear ourselves indicted as well. But it’s an unfair indictment if the show forces our emotions into that corner.

* * * * *

What about Ju Ju? Ju Ju constantly rails against her mother with biting and personal insults, at times wounding her quite deeply (and she’s not even a teenager yet!). She accosts babysitter after babysitter. She expresses reluctance and hesitation to be around her Korean grandfather and outright disdain at being with her mother. Yet she mysteriously loves Bill Dobson, the sole white man we see her interact with.

I must confess, too, that I don’t understand why Ju Ju is in this story except to complete the Bingo card. In any narrative, one must ask why this and not that. Ji-Yoon has a child. Why? To show that successful female academics don’t have to forsake family – and to illustrate what having children as an academic is like. The child is adopted. Why? To show that Ji-Yoon is a strong single woman who doesn’t have to depend on a man, I suppose (though she does rely on her father for childcare). Now: the child is Mexican. Why Mexican and not anything else? The child loves Bill. Why only him? The child is cruel to Ji-Yoon. But why must Ju Ju’s navigating her identity express itself in such extreme behavior?

I don’t see any satisfying answers to these last questions. Because she is mostly portrayed from others’ perspectives, we don’t really understand her inner feelings and her frustration. Her Mexican heritage thus reads to me as tokenism, and as a way to demonstrate Ji-Yoon’s own progressive stance for being willing to adopt a child of a different race. Her love of Bill seems like a way to validate his essential goodness, so that she becomes an instrument to his character development. Lastly, the cruelty to Ji-Yoon is gratuitous. The key parts of Ji-Yoon’s personality would have been perfectly clear without these added difficulties. As it is, Ji-Yoon’s constant professional suffering isn’t enough; she must also constantly suffer at home. And so, the only moment of the show that brought real tears to my eyes – when Ju Ju makes a Dia de los Muertos altar for Ji-Yoon’s mother – is unearned. It works, but only because it’s a cheap formula. A mean, hard character reveals unexpected understanding and tenderness at a moment when it is very meaningful for the recipient – and bang, waterworks. But the show has damaged our woman of color lead and us unnecessarily so that we can be grateful when we’re given a balm.

* * * * *

Finally, to complete the trifecta of women of color, we arrive at Ji-Yoon. Ji-Yoon is the ultimate figure of compromise. She is presented as hope in an increasingly polarized and partisan landscape. She always exists on the edges of two worlds: Asian and American, professional and domestic, dominant and submissive. Indeed, even in being Asian, she exists outside of the traditional American Black/white racial dichotomy. And we look on as she does her best to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of administration and faculty, propriety and morality, and loyalty and responsibility.

As with Yaz, it is hard to fully understand Ji-Yoon without discussing her white male foil, her colleague Bill Dobson. Where she compromises, he is a man of integrity. Where she feels the weight of professional obligation, he glibly ignores it. Bill is just what Ji-Yoon accuses him of being, “the disaffected middle-aged white male professor cliché.” He is a disheveled, disorganized mess excused by genius. Our first sight of him is an emotionally wrecked man who ends up drunk and pissing in an airport parking lot. His syllabus is incomplete when the semester starts, and he is constantly late for class. At one point, Ji-Yoon literally helps him put on shoes.

It bears mentioning that every female academic I’ve spoken to has disliked Bill. For a woman in academia, a character like Bill is a bit too familiar. The women I spoke to did not invariably maintain that the show presents Bill as dislikable – just that they disliked him. In fact, I think the show does quite the contrary. Bill is presented as flawed, but nevertheless extremely sympathetic. Jaunty, playful music provides the soundtrack for his antics. He is a joker, always ready with some lighthearted quip. Ju Ju – who is fond of no one – is very fond of him. Most tellingly of all, Bill can’t be a bad person because our protagonist loves him. Their love story is something we are made to root for. It is a condition of the happy ending.

This is the backdrop against which the main action takes place. One day in class, Bill utters “Heil Hitler” while performing a Nazi salute in class. In the context of a lecture about fascism and post-war modernism, this is presented as an awkward, ill-conceived joke. The undergraduate students react very poorly to this. It’s worth examining the student reaction for a moment, since their depiction is important to an assessment of how the series portrays non-white, non-male characters.

The students are shown as one-dimensional woke police. They film Bill’s behavior on their phones and proceed to meme it and share it. They accuse him of being a Nazi and promulgating fascism. It becomes a scandal and flash point for ongoing protests. (It is revealing that the show does not pick something more incontrovertibly morally wrong, where the student reaction would be clearly justified, nor something more morally complex, where Bill’s action would be less excusable.) In the classroom, too, students are dismissive and contemptuous of any analysis, position, or reading that isn’t ultra-left. They openly mock and deride professors and interpret them uncharitably. They threaten Ji-Yoon about what will happen if Yaz is denied tenure. The reality, of course, is that students are more perceptive than this, and their views are more nuanced and varied. Female students and students of color are not a monolith of radical left politics, and to present them as such is caricature.

Back to Ji-Yoon. There is much to say, but I’ll restrict myself to two points. First, the show does not celebrate Ji-Yoon’s successes. And I don’t mean that it realistically portrays her as underappreciated by those around her. At one point, she has a stroke of sheer genius. She convinces David Duchovny to forgo giving the Distinguished Lectureship and instead to endow a new chair. For non-academic readers, let me emphasize that this is absolutely huge for any department, and especially one with money problems. But for all the talk of donors and finances, we don’t see any celebration of this win. Nobody stops by for a moment to congratulate or thank her; the dean does not relent for a moment to praise her. It doesn’t even garner her good behavior points during the ongoing Bill debacle. This would be jaw-dropping news, but we see nothing. We face an interpretive choice: in the fiction, either she isn’t praised – utterly implausible – or she is praised but we don’t see it. But then we ignore this woman of color’s obvious success in a leadership position.

Second and more important is the fact that, in the climactic scene of the show, it is not her resolve but Bill’s that wins the day. The scandal has resulted in a university procedural hearing. Bill offers a short but poignant speech about poetry, narrative, love, and understanding that (unintentionally, from Bill’s perspective) shakes Ji-Yoon out of her compromising ways. It’s his profession of love, his profession of selflessness, his integrity that moves and shakes her. She is inspired to recuse herself and thereby invalidate the hearing. She chooses his side; she chooses integrity. That is the narrative as presented to us.

Ultimately, she is not in control. Bill is the one who knows best. We are told that she is a strong, independent woman, but what we are shown is a woman with somewhat weak resolve, constantly vacillating. There is a version of Ji-Yoon that is endorsed by a feminist analysis: she represents compromise, a relational and cooperative way of approaching conflict, while Bill represents integrity, an independent and adversarial approach. But such a version of Ji-Yoon could never conclude this way, moved by Bill to renounce the accommodating, cooperative spirit that characterizes her problem solving. Such a version of Ji-Yoon must ultimately win Bill to her way of thinking and moreover be cheered on by the show when she does.

To be clear, the show is not terrible. But for all its diversity in representation, its inner narrative logic prevents it from being truly inclusive. It fails to honor and valorize its women of color, and its women and people of color more broadly. It tells us to like them and sympathize with them, and it tells us to believe they are successful and worthy of our respect. But it does not depict them sympathetically or as commanding our respect. In this, the show does a disservice to people at all levels of academia, as well as to the very real sexism, racism, and systemic prejudices in higher education.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.