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Feminism: chat

The Chair (Netflix), commentary on woke and many other things

18 replies

leafinthewind · 26/08/2021 09:08

I know there's a thread about this in Film, but I really wanted to discuss it from a feminist perspective. It's fab, so you should all watch! Someone in the Film thread likened it to The West Wing, and I agree - it's very smart, very political. It's also very funny, so takes itself less seriously than TWW.

Sandra Oh as Joon-Yi is the newly appointed chair of an English department in a New England liberal arts college. There's so much that it's fascinating in there from a feminist perspective:

  • Joon-Yi is blamed for the perceived failings of her male colleagues
  • Joan struggles to overcome her resentments about a career stymied by misogyny
  • Lily tries and fails to walk the line between loyalty and self-protection as she looks for promotion
  • Yasmin tries to connect to Elliot, who was once a radical but he is slower to connect to her
  • Joon-Yi becomes part of the Establishment by taking the chair, and is surprised and then horrified by what that means for her

And that's before we get into family and the meaning of family, and family formation, and mothering, and how women struggle with childcare especially for children with additional needs.

I was particularly interested in the role young people play in the drama and the extent to which they are sincere. They are played quite 'straight' i.e. sincere, but more for rabble-rousing than problem-solving. They see Joon-Yi as part of the problem as soon as she is part of the Establishment. They stop listening to her as a woman, and a woman of colour, and just present their demands. Her boss doesn't have her back (and Joon-Yi explicitly mentions that she has been appointed so that a woman is in charge when the shit hits the fan) so she tries harder and harder to be strong. The set-up is incredibly specific (English department in New England) but it's wonderful to see this stuff discussed on screen.
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Theimpossiblegirl · 26/08/2021 09:10

I wasn't going to bother watching this but now I've seen your post I'm putting on my list. Thank you.


GCAcademic · 26/08/2021 09:16

I've just started watching it - I'm two episodes in so far. It's very resonant for me as a woman of colour who is head of a department with very similar issues to the one in the show, and is exactly the same age as Sandra Oh's character. All very close to the bone. The writing and the pinpointing of issues seems spot on.


leafinthewind · 26/08/2021 09:26

GCAcademic thank you - I really wondered whether this would seem familiar from UK academic point of view.

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BigGreen · 26/08/2021 10:56

I'm loving it. Not enough boring meetings to be realistic though, haaa. There are some exquisite moments, like the exchange between Elliot ans his wife about her not getting tenure "somebody had to cook the dinners". Also loved Joan and had the experience of being wonderfully mentored by older women like her. Imho Bill is being played very sympathetically.

I was surprised that the main politics is inter-generational, there's no sense of how competitive it is to be an academic - publications, rankings etc. and how this impacts women in particular (tending to do more service work, get less funding, take on more domestic and caring duties etc.).


camaleon · 26/08/2021 10:59

I am an academic in the UK and lots resonates with the world I know and have worked in for the past 25 years. This is particularly true in how it portrays the sort of petty academic politics that dominate many academic departments. The level of confrontation is often proportionally inversed to the importance of the issue.

It is difficult to imagine persons outside academia being too interested in the series. It also shows (in my opinion) how these academic politics trivialise really important issues in society (such as discrimination against women of free speech). Academics -and University students- often use their understanding of structural issues in society to address their individual grievances.


Notonthestairs · 26/08/2021 11:08

Thought you mind find this interesting from The Times earlier this week.

I really enjoyed the programme and am not in academia. I hope there will be more from Amanda Peet.


leafinthewind · 26/08/2021 12:49

camaleon I think petty politics happen most places - and the use of academia as a backdrop allows for some explication of the structural issues, because that's how the humanities and social science roll. It IS frustrating that academia can't be 'better', given that academics should have a better understanding of the world, but I don't think I'm surprised. (I work in a university, in a research-only role.)

I hope people from outside will be interested... That's partly why I referenced The West Wing. I love it (politics grad, US connections) but I know many others who also love it, even with a non-political background.

BigGreen I know what you mean - the women are all very supportive of one another! Maybe the department as shown is set up multi-generationally to avoid that (in season one, anyway). Joon-Yi is not really competing with Yasmin (yet) because Yasmin is untenured. Yasmin is not really competing with Lily (yet) because Lily doesn't have her PhD. No-one is competing with Joan because everyone assumes she's on her way out. And they're not in the same fields so they're not competing directly for the same publications.

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Huckleberries73 · 26/08/2021 12:52

OOOOOh fab, was looking for something good to watch


leafinthewind · 26/08/2021 12:53

Notonthestairs I don't suppose you have a share token, do you?

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Notonthestairs · 26/08/2021 14:01

Argh. Sorry that I'd cut and pasted it. Will try again.


Notonthestairs · 26/08/2021 14:03

“I used to bestride the world like Colossus,” Elliot Rentz mournfully remarks in the new Netflix comedy-drama The Chair. Rentz (played by Bob Balaban) is an elderly professor who is struggling with the inevitable insignificance that arrives with old age.
That is, I suppose, a complaint common to old academics like me, but nowadays there’s something even more frightening going on. My former colleagues, old or young, male or female, are desperately frightened of the catastrophe that can arise from an innocent gesture or an unfashionable word.
Twenty-one years ago, Philip Roth published The Human Stain, a deeply disturbing novel about higher education. It begins with a small episode of enormous consequence. Coleman Silk, an elderly professor of Classics, notices that two students have not yet shown up to his classes.
Mystified, he asks the other students: “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” It turns out that both students are black and “spook’’ is, of course, a deeply offensive term to describe African-Americans.
It doesn’t remotely matter that Silk had no knowledge of the students’ ethnicity. On learning of his comment, they file a formal complaint and the university backs them, as universities invariably do. Silk is forced into early retirement, a distinguished career in ruins.


Notonthestairs · 26/08/2021 14:04

Each episode is packed with familiar crises — falling student numbers, crippling debt, the relevance of the liberal arts, generational clashes, the minefield of gender and race. The series is painfully accurate but also delightfully funny; humour renders an otherwise depressing situation palatable.
I used to be a head of department, back in the days when the biggest issues were student attendance and the occasional incompetence of colleagues. Watching Oh juggle today’s problems exhausted me. I’m glad I’m retired.


GCAcademic · 26/08/2021 14:05

If you register on the Times website it allows you to read a couple of articles a week for free, I think.


Notonthestairs · 26/08/2021 14:05

My younger friends who still have to work in this increasingly toxic environment are, for the most part, enjoying The Chair. I suppose that’s understandable, since it’s only human to chuckle at one’s own adversity. The lecturer’s job has been rendered precarious by a constantly shifting cultural landscape.
It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the mercurial standards of Generation Z students, or with younger colleagues impatient to reinvent the wheel. Change is inevitable, but what’s happening now seems catastrophic.
Don’t get me wrong; this is not another lament about “woke culture”. I learnt the term “woke” from my Generation Z students in my last year of teaching. That was three years ago, when being “woke” seemed like a good thing.
To me, it’s always meant an awareness of the iniquities and injustices of the world and a willingness to confront them. When a student called me woke, I was proud since I never wanted to be a curmudgeonly old prof like Rentz, stubbornly resistant to all change. There comes a time in every professor’s life when one realises that the world belongs to those younger than oneself. Serenity comes from accepting that gracefully.
In truth, the problem isn’t woke culture. The real problem lies with a tiny minority of students whose minds have been slammed shut by their rarefied standards of acceptable thought. Their imagination is too stunted to appreciate that a slave can be white. They lack the intelligence and discretion to distinguish a simple difference of opinion (or a low mark) from bigotry or bullying.
Yet disagreement is essential to the development of critical thought, which is in turn the lifeblood of a liberal education. Unfortunately, a tiny minority wants everyone to think and act the same. They’re also drunk on their power, which has been magnified exponentially by social media.
In The Chair Bill Dobson (played by Jay Duplass) mockingly performs a Hitler salute. It’s inevitably captured on camera, becomes a viral meme and sparks a furious debate about free speech. The promising career of an otherwise progressive academic is suddenly on the rocks. I shudder to think that I once did that same thing in a lecture.
We’ve seen this scenario before. It’s the Salem witch trials, the McCarthy hearings. A bigoted minority hijacks public consciousness by shouting loudly. Culture is held captive by ignorance and innuendo. Out goes critical thinking.
The fault, in this case, lies not with the “woke” mob, who frankly don’t deserve the outrage they inspire. The fault lies with the universities themselves. They’ve been cowardly in handling complaints. Students — all students — need to be taught the value of liberal thought and of differences of opinion. Embattled staff need to be reassured that they will be defended when bigots (of left or right) attack. Universities, all too frightened of bad publicity, need to stand up for the core values of a liberal education.
I taught at university for 35 years. I was fortunate to be able to teach incredibly bright young people in whatever way I deemed best. I was free to be creative, opinionated and occasionally outrageous. My students loved that. I always felt that I had the best job in the world, but nowadays I wouldn’


Notonthestairs · 26/08/2021 14:06

but nowadays I wouldn’t encourage a young person to take the same career path.
The crisis facing universities is not simply a generational one – old professors clashing with young students. It’s an existential one. A great institution is teetering on the edge. Universities will continue to exist, but liberal education is in peril.
Gerard DeGroot is emeritus professor of history at the University of St Andrews


Notonthestairs · 26/08/2021 14:06

Really sorry it's so disjointed - am a passenger in a car going over an area with massive speed bumps!


TheDrsDocMartens · 26/08/2021 14:23

We started it last night, I could see the issues as similar to my experiences too.


leafinthewind · 26/08/2021 14:23

Thank you Notonthestairs.

I avoided commenting on Bill, because I felt as though he was there for the men. He's a progressive, he's trying hard to be relevant, he's inspired more than he's well-prepared when he teaches...

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