Sandra Oh, Holland Taylor, and Nana Mensah in The Chair (2021)

Netflix’s The Chair Is a Frustrating Look at Whiteness in Academia

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Netflix launched its new comedy-drama last month called The Chair. It tells the story of Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the newly appointed chair of the English department at the fictional Pembroke University.

Ji-Yoon is the first woman chosen for the position and wants to spend her power helping to save the English department from low enrollment. To do that, she attempts to ensure the tenure of a young black colleague, Yaz McKay, protect older colleagues from being put to pasture, and raise her daughter. This becomes complicated when her friend/crush/coworker Bill Dobson ends up causing controversy on campus.

Spoilers for season one of The Chair.

Bill is still dealing with the death of his wife and his daughter going off to college. He has descended into alcoholism and despite being told what a brilliant teacher and educator he is, the Bill we see comes off as a white guy who, instead of taking time off to deal with his loss, creates messes the women around him need to solve.

During a lecture on absurdism and fascism, Bill satirically does the Hitler salute. It ends up being recorded by students and creates a situation on campus where students were offended by it and Bill feels he did nothing wrong.

With this storyline, The Chair attempts to tackle the issue of cancel culture on campus by providing the perfect storm situation. The students at Pembroke are shown largely to be thoughtful, diverse, and invested in their college moving forward with progressive hires. Yet, they are made to be hyper-focused on this one particular incident.

It was brought to my attention that this incident seems to be inspired by Robert Schuyler, an associate professor of anthropology who “held his arm in a Nazi salute and used the Nazi phrase ‘Sieg heil’ during a brief altercation with an invited speaker,” according to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

Schuyler told The Daily Pennsylvanian that he believed his speech was being suppressed and that he was attempting to reference the limits on free speech in Nazi Germany.

For context:

At the conference, the event moderator gave Schuyler permission to briefly interrupt University of York Ph.D. candidate Liz Quinlan as she answered a question about increasing accessibility to future Society for Historical Archaeology virtual conferences. After agreeing with Quinlan’s point, Schuyler asked how the pandemic impacted membership renewals for 2021. Deeming his question off-topic, Quinlan attempted to redirect the conversation to virtual conference accessibility.

“I’m sorry, but I have freedom of speech, and you’re not going to tell me it’s not the place for me to bring this up,” Schuyler said before using the Nazi gesture and phrase.

The Chair of the Anthropology Department said she was appalled by Schuyler, and it seems that his use of the gesture and phrase seemed for shock value more than anything.

With Bill on The Chair, his use of the gesture comes at the end of episode one, after Bill is taken to task for not paying attention to his courses. He finally decides to interact with his class and writes absurdism and fascism on the board. After writing the latter he makes the Nazi salute and gesture, before continuing with his larger point. Because some students are recording the lecture, it goes “viral.”

Watching the episode, the moment reads as Bill, a white guy who wears Joy Division shirts, doing something to shock his students into attention. Well, it does.

It is a lazy moment of connection, and while Bill attempts to make things better, the Dean ends up calling campus police while students are protesting, and Bill doesn’t seem to want to apologize for offending some of his students. The Chair is using Bill to move the Free Speech on Campus needle, but that makes Ji-Yoon spend the entire season fighting to keep her white male love interest employed.

She allows her fellow female colleague Joan (Holland Taylor) to be pushed aside, in order to help an older white male colleague, and makes him co-teach with Yaz, and he is nothing but critical of Yaz’s teaching style. And the show paints this first female chair of the English department as largely ineffective because she cares too much.

When her older white male colleagues decide to remove her as chair at the end of the season, it is jarring to see the people that Ji-Yoon tried to protect throw her under the bus. What is worse is that she isn’t allowed to be mad or bitter; she just passes it a long to Joan, a senior white woman, and that is supposed to feel like a lateral move when all it has done is reinforced the role of whiteness in higher education.

(image: Netflix)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.