Jo Page: On the stereotypes we challenge, and the ones we cling to – Times Union

Posted: September 29, 2021 at 7:23 am

The Chair is about the first female, Asian-American professor appointed to chair the English department at fictional Pembroke University.

Now, if you were an English major, if you enjoy the inner workings of academia, and if you love Sandra Oh, The Chair could be for you. I checked all three boxes. And I did go through all six episodes in just a few days.

Its engaging. The filming locations are pleasing. And the plot aims to be inclusive and politically correct, though that means that Sandra Ohs character, Ji-Yoon, has a lot on her plate.

She is leading the tenure charge for a brilliant American literature scholar who is Black and female. She contends with a group of students triggered by another professors mock sieg heil gesture in a class on Death and Modernism.

She is also grappling with her adopted Latina daughter who is aggressively bright for a seven-year-old, but doesnt like her mom very much. Nor can her extended family understand why she didnt adopt a South Korean child.

On top of that, Ji-Yoon has to deal with the old guard a coterie of professors who have taught the Western literary canon with gusto for decades, but who now see their livelihoods threatened by forced retirements. Class size is dwindling. Revenues are down. The dean of the college is leaning on Ji-Yoon to squeeze out the geezers who cant seem to figure out the copier, Wi-Fi, Blackboard or their students interests. (Moby Dick plays a big role here.)

I want call the series big-hearted. But the term doesnt really fit.

Yes, it makes statements about racism and sexism and an outdated pedagogy that doesnt reach the students any longer. It introduces the viewer to Mexican and South Korean culture in engaging, touching scenes.

But sometimes it just trips over itself, dismissing some biases and stereotypes while making sport of others. Its clunky in its political correctness.

Ji-Yoons renegade professor, Bill, is a disheveled mess of arrogance and charm, who prefers brewskies and popping oxycodone to teaching his classes. Inexplicably he becomes Ji-Yoons daughters babysitter, whom she much prefers to her mother. And when Bill is threatened with termination because of the sieg heil move, Ji-Yoon champions him in a kind of stand-by-your-(jackass)-man way.

What of the foppish old pedants? They are an on-the-nose stereotype of the clichd English professor: tweed-clad, bearded, bespectacled and hopelessly out of touch with their Gen Z students. They are not treated kindly, ageism seemingly the only ism we dont have to correct.

But the Gen Z students dont go unscathed either. We know from context that the sieg heil move was derisive, not divisive; this teacher is no Nazi. But the students are triggered and their reaction is outsized, which makes them look more whiny that politically astute.

And the fact that the charm-heavy professor is also in love with Ji-Yoon prompts the eternal question: Why would an intelligent woman be drawn to such a mansplaining, arrogant, self-destructive, unrealistically idealistic, Seth-Rogen-style putz? (Dont ask me about my dating history. ...)

Did I like The Chair? Of course. I love Sandra Oh. And Holland Taylor, who plays one of the geezers, is an uncut gem. I admire the heart and effort that went into writing a series that calls out stereotypes in ways that are simultaneously humorous and woke-making.

But it also highlights that we still hang on to stereotypes some overarchingly politically correct: minority students and professors who are written as brilliant and ethically blemish-free (and therefore a bit tedious). Others trade in old tropes: the charming screw-up who nevertheless is going to get the girl, the obstreperous youth who both annoy and enlighten, and the tried-and-true trashing of old folks whose most grievous sin is getting old.

As T.S. Eliot said I grow old I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Jo Page is a writer and Lutheran minister. Her email is jopage34@yahoo.com. Her website is at https://www.jograepage.com.

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Jo Page: On the stereotypes we challenge, and the ones we cling to - Times Union

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