The Chair: How To Be A Badass Woman In A Mostly Privileged, Insecure, Male Bastion Of Academia

Women have always been represented as stereotypes in academia. It's either a nerd, or a siren with no real women representing the age, class, race reality onscreen.

Women have always been represented as stereotypes in academia. It’s either a nerd, or a siren with no real women representing the age, class, race reality onscreen.

There is no dearth for content but the endless scrolling on Netflix is enough for many of us to lose interest in watching. So a good choice for anyone who wants to binge, Netflix has a currently streaming series The Chair, a new series that is short, crisp, and funny.

Starring Sandra Oh, the setup for the series is the university campus. Appointed as the first female chair to the prestigious college’s English department, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) has her hands full, and thus starts a delightful series of bad judgements in the face of serious issues like ‘free speech’, ‘deconstructing English or per say classics’.

Supported by Holland Taylor as the ageing Professor Joan and Nana Mensah as Dr. Yaz, the cast represents a spectrum of women characters.  Additionally , Ji-yoon’s daughter Ju-Ju is a refreshing child character.

With issues from funding to student retention, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim is served a full plate of worries. On her personal front, she is struggling with the antics of her daughter as a single working parent. Her love interest is a grieving widower who further complicates matters.

Spotlight on women in academia

The series describes how she struggles to ease out the tensions between colleagues, establish a new order and changes to the relic that is the English department. One striking aspect of the series is the comradeship between the female characters, be it the assertive daughter, or the colleagues.

For many who have wondered what it feels like to be a woman in academia, the series offers a light hearted behind the scenes with varied  representations. Even the self-destructive spiral of  Ji-yoon’s  love interest Professor Dobson (Jay Duplass) remains only part of the narrative and does not become her sole conflict. While he remains a constant, he does not occupy the entire narrative and his interactions with JuJu are entertaining.

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An Asian woman in a position of power in an intrinsically white male space

The conflicts arising out of identity are portrayed with the character JuJu, Ji-Yoon’s  daughter. The existing cultural constraints within Asian communities, as well as the positive choices by Ji-Yoon to foster a multi-ethnic identity are definitely refreshing.

Ji-Yoon remains the crux of the series, with a portrayal of a single mother and an independent woman. Her distinctive choices, with regard to her profession and her daughter make her a truly memorable character. She is imperfect but she still remains confident to approach challenges and many women can relate to this paradox.

As a person in charge, though she puts forward her bold choices, it takes a lot of social manoeuvring for her to realise her wants. This struggle is emblematic of all women who are placed in the position of power but still toyed  as dummy representatives and constantly asked to prove themselves. The comebacks by Ji-Yoon, deserve special mention as it relays the angst of women who have to constantly prove themselves.

The semblance of power that is offered to her as Chair, is described with dialogues that reflect the irony. The supporting women academics Professor Joan or Dr. Yaz, represent the challenges that haunt women who choose to remain in the male bastion of academia. As an older woman in teaching, Professor Joan’s distinctive style of tackling prejudices is entertaining. On the other hand, Dr.Yaz, who has to deal with the insecurity of an ageing male colleague, represents the tension between establishment and change.

Standing up to an all boys’ club

All these conflicts are represented with a gender view showcasing the common challenges women face. Though the series does not delve deeply into the intersectionality, it offers a glimpse at the varying strands of thought with regard to empowerment and representation.

For example, the conversations between Prof. Joan and the Title IX counsellor explore the hard reality for many women in academia.  Additionally, the challenges to the boys’ club and the lack of diversity are dealt with quirky representations, comic interludes and dialogues layered with social satire.

Double standards

The series glosses over the woke students, when the free speech issues spiral out of control, and retains the focus on the administration in charge, while relaying the conflicts faced by the women in charge, who have to deal with the optics.

The double standards, with regard to academic excellence, the challenges to old order are common day challenges that many face in academic circles. These issues of reviving old practices, making teaching accessible to all, and particularly allowing subjects to explore new research are social realities that need more traction.

Women have always been represented as stereotypes in academia. It’s either a nerd, or a siren with no real women representing the age, class, race reality onscreen. There has always been a skewed representation of women in academia by media be it in terms of on-screen characters or off-screen technicians. By laying bare the challenges, the series gives a birds’ eye view of the cracks in the ivory towers of excellence.

The Chair is a series that echoes a change with writers, and actors dealing with real-life social issues. Anyone looking to binge-watch a series should not miss The Chair– a 30-minute interlude with social relevance, each episode.

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About the Author

Ambica G

Am a feminist who wished for a room but got stuck in a jar. Still, I go on clueless but hopeful and I keep writing. Taking it one step at a time! read more...

23 Posts | 88,196 Views

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