The Chair Castigates Every Academic Archetype, With Good Reason
Olivia Rutigliano on Hollywood Depictions of the University
It is often the case that films or series which concentrate on a particular industry will often get the minute details of that industry wrong; few jobs seem to suffer this more than “the professor.” To Hollywood, “professor” is a job where you get to charismatically languish and then performatively reflect; you are often able to come to a great epiphany about the meaning of life while delivering a cool, off-the-cuff lecture to an auditorium of rapt students. The great professors who have waxed symbolic in the halls of cinema include Michael Douglas’s writer-in-crisis Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, Barbra Streisand’s Dr. Rose Morgan in The Mirror Has Two Faces, who gives an applause-worthy speech on how “being in love feels great” in her standing-room-only Romantic Lit class, and even Harrison Ford’s Dr. “Indiana” Jones, whose lackadaisical pedagogy needs no further introduction.
The irony of even the more modest characterizations is that, in reality, the humanities professoriate is in the middle of a flaming crisis. The paucity of tenure-track jobs sends most qualified PhD graduates (who have already spent 5-7 years as poorly paid grad students) into postdoctoral fellowships or adjunct gigs for years, if they want to remain in higher education. The few tenure-track jobs that do appear require their new appointees to teach, churn out peer-reviewed articles, and have a second book project in the works by the time the tenure board convenes. Furthermore, most of these departments are inordinately white: in 2018 the National Center for Education Statistics measured that 75 percent of full-time university faculty were white, while only 12 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, 6 percent were Black, and 6 percent were Hispanic.
In this environment, the best-case scenario is getting the opportunity to overwork yourself for years, chasing job security at a school whose practices reflect a culture of white supremacy, which will pay you unspectacularly, prioritize a Western-centric curriculum, and probably never have your back. I don’t mean to sound cynical, because so many scholars (especially in the new generations of hires) are doing incredible work. But academia is a fossilized snake pit—there’s no sugarcoating it.
Thus, it is with due fatigue that The Chair, the new Netflix series developed by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman (who earned her PhD at Harvard) begins. Ji-Yoon Kim (the great Sandra Oh) is the first woman and the first person of color to become the chairperson of the English department at the Ivy League-y institution Pembroke University. But what she finds is that the white, male, geriatric culture which she hopes to make more progressive, inclusive, diverse, and invigorating is basically a lost cause, because of all the roadblocks long-grandfathered in.
The Chair immediately, depressingly identifies the real-life problems that exist at universities, while it pinpoints that the people burdened with fixing them are its historically most excluded members (particularly, women of color). Ji-Yoon, the only tenured POC in the entire department, wants to promote a brilliant tenure-track Black professor named Yasmin McKay (Nana Mensah), who handily out-teaches Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban), a fuddy-duddy old-guard professor, even after her popular class is forcibly merged with his under-enrolled one. Meanwhile, most of Ji-Yoon’s time is spent satisfying the Dean’s demands, putting out fires, and soothing the egos of the department’s tenured high rollers: a “genius male slacker” and a bunch of “wise old scholars,” all of whom are white. Notably, these are archetypes you’ve seen before.
I’ve never seen this unsentimental approach to academia on film before. But The Chair doesn’t simply expose the rampant problems with diversity, Western-canon-worshipping, and tokenism in real Universities; it excoriates the fanciful approaches to academia that we have seen on film before. The Chair demands accountability. In dismantling Hollywood’s romanticization of “the professor,” it emphasizes the inherent privilege (and whiteness) of this figure, long excused for a lack of boundaries, given slack for phoning it in, and always let off the hook because of brilliance.
Nothing kicks this persistent trope more than the end of Episode 1. In this scene, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), an irresponsible “fun dad” professor who has been coasting for years, winds up accidentally doing something insensitive in a lecture (when defining the concepts of “fascism” and “absurdism” as antipodes, he parodies a Hitler salute; this is filmed, goes viral, and enrages the student body). Importantly, this lecture also provides him with an epiphany about his personal life—the kind of speech we’ve seen too many times in movies, since movie-professors often use lectures as playgrounds for extemporaneous reflection. It is precisely because Bill’s oration is so casual, unprepared, and self-centered that it does cause trouble. He pushes the envelope to feel like academia’s bad-boy, not to meaningfully challenge the actual fascistic currents flowing through University culture. Ironically, when the students begin protesting Bill (after he defends himself), they are doing so because his behavior seems to jive with the chauvinistic vibes that have long defined the institution.
The show criticizes the figure of the superstar professor elsewhere, too—notably, in a subplot in which Yaz is given the department’s Distinguished Lectureship, an honor that University higher-ups later withdraw so that they can give it to the actor David Duchovny. Though he brings star power to the university, his academic credentials are slim: he graduated with honors from Princeton and was a PhD candidate in English at Yale before dropping out. Yaz has been elbowed out by the very person who played the epitome of the charming, inappropriate, rule-breaking novelist/professor on Californication for seven seasons; with this clever three-punch, The Chair could not be clearer in its condemnation of Hollywood for valorizing figures who use their privilege in the academy to do what they want, rather than repair their Universities.
The Chair does not want to steep in the disappointments of the profession, onscreen or off; it wants change, everywhere. Even its problematic professors are drawn with such humanity that we want better from them. Nothing communicates this more than by casting the great Holland Taylor—who played one of the coolest movie professors of all time, namely, the intimidating Harvard Law prof in Legally Blonde—as Joan Hambling, a long-tenured faculty member more concerned with uncovering the students who scored her badly on RateMyProfessor.com than figuring out why her students hate her classes. When Rentz is resistant to hiring Yaz because he doesn’t take her seriously, he seems pathetic—a waste of power and credibility.
The show represents Bill sympathetically throughout, and so it’s easy to see his Hitler salute merely for the stupid mistake it is; elsewhere, he is shown to be an understanding, sincere, and justice-focused man. Despite his self-sabotaging tendencies and stubbornness, he truly cares about teaching, loves his teenager, and wants to help Ji-Yoon take care of her own six-year-old enfant terrible, Juju. The show does not excoriate the students who try to take him down, because it clearly represents their grievances as valid; Bill is caught in the crosshairs of their legitimate frustrations.
Managing all these conflicted, complicated faculty members leads Ji-Yoon to neglect the one person she wants to support the most: Yaz, who makes the knotty concepts and indecipherable vernacular of literary studies both accessible and joyous to students (while presumably performing considerable emotional labor as the only Black person in the department). In this regard, The Chair represents the slipperiness of the archetypes at hand: so high maintenance that even when they mean well, they distract from giving support to the people who deserve it.
When, at the end of the season, Ji-Yoon is removed from her position as chair by the insecure old men in her department, it’s a relief: it should not be Ji-Yoon’s job to handle all these people. She gives the chair-ship to Joan, whom the University has been pressuring into retirement harder than any of her male peers. Ji-Yoon is free from having to carry the department’s burdens and can now devote her time to caring for her students. This is a win. But it’s not her only win. Incredibly, she convinces David Duchovny to endow a professorship (which could give Yaz the job she deserves). And she inspires Bill to properly mentor his long-suffering advisee, a woman of color; after finally reading her exemplary dissertation, he uses his connections to get her an audience with a publisher.
Even more importantly, Ji-Yoon gives us one of our first, major, compelling WOC professors in Hollywood. Finally. It takes a long time to change institutional policies, but we don’t need a committee to change our signifiers of greatness: we need Hollywood to do it, too.