Amid the surge in anti-Asian violence over the past year and a half, more persistent scrutiny has emerged surrounding issues of whitewashing in Hollywood, and the lack of representation of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) both in front of and behind the camera. For me, this scrutiny is something that has turned viewing TV shows and films into a constant cultural critique of the representations, stereotypes and discourses that center certain voices, diminish or exclude others, and affirm or deny a cultural sense of identity and belonging.
As an incoming tenure-track assistant professor of English literature, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard news about the new Netflix show, “The Chair,” starring one of my favorite actors, Sandra Oh. Oh herself is Korean Canadian, and her career has been a marvel to behold as a Korean American woman myself. In the show, Oh plays Ji-Yoon Kim, the first woman to chair the English department at the fictitious Pembroke University. Ji-Yoon is a Korean American woman taking the helm at a failing department where there are few staff members of color. Like Ji-Yoon tells her college’s dean, the faculty at Pembroke is “87 percent white.”
I started my first tenure-track position in an English department this fall, so the specificity with which the show is able to depict both Ji-Yoon’s personal and public lives in terms of ethnic Korean identity and the ins and outs of straddling multiple cultures at once made it easy at first to feel connected to Ji-Yoon. Watching Ji-Yoon’s father (played by Ji-Yong Lee) speak Korean and break through the “1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” brought multiple moments of Korean and Korean American identity affirmation.
Rather than reviewing the show’s plot points and divulging too many spoilers, however, I want to focus on the symbolism that the show conveys in terms of larger questions of the representational politics of academia and the role of professors in an increasingly corporatized higher-education world. I write from the honest perspective of a Korean American woman in the professoriate, and the situations that I have navigated on the way to this coveted and increasingly rare tenure-track position.
There’s a moment in the show when Ji-Yoon notes, “When I started, it was like, ‘Why’s some Asian lady teaching Emily Dickinson?’” It reminded me of the student evaluations I have gotten over the years questioning my suitedness and ability to teach not only Dickinson, who I teach with enthusiasm, but my ability to teach literature at all.
Like many women of color in academia and beyond, Ji-Yoon’s embodiment does not match the longstanding, persistent stereotypes of who gets to not only teach but lead departments. What Ji-Yoon experiences isn’t new to me or many women of color, because like many of us, she is working in a system that sets expectations for her that don’t match the reality of what it takes to get the job done.
As the only other faculty of color in the department, Yasmin “Yaz” McKay (Nana Mensah), tells Ji-Yoon, “You act like you owe them something. Like you’re here because they let you be here, not because you deserve it. I mean, what are they without us at this point?” The department of English is in a moment of transition and luckily has a star tenure-track professor in Yaz who teaches classes like “Sex and the Novel” rather than other classes of outdated interests and struggling enrollment numbers. Ji-Yoon tells Yaz that she is “going to be the first tenured Black woman in this department,” but the chair of Yaz’s tenure committee, Elliot Rentz, becomes a roadblock to Yaz’s journey.
Both the university and college which houses Ji-Yoon’s department are going through a budget crisis and need increased enrollment. Many of their students are frustrated with the lack of faculty diversity on campus and the dearth of critical race and ethnic studies approaches in their classes. These are questions that colleges and universities around the country are facing, and through the parodic lens of the show, they do become relevant to a broader audience.
One of the show’s clearest shortcomings, however, is the absence of adjuncts — the actual professors keeping higher-education teaching afloat. Some 73 percent of all faculty positions are not tenure track, so their seeming absence at the fictional Pembroke reinforces a glaring lack of awareness about what keeps colleges and universities running. This lack of representation reifies the “ivory tower of academia” ideal and erases one of the most urgent problems higher education must tackle: how to turn the profession of teaching into a livable and fair wage job for everyone. The current status quo of grim adjunct life and its necessity for keeping, among other things, higher education budgets, course catalogs and enrollment numbers afloat, may not be camera-ready, but it is more relevant than ever to the world “The Chair” is trying to represent.
In one key scene, Ji-Yoon tells Yaz, “I don’t feel like I inherited an English department; I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it exploded.” As Nancy Wang Yuen notes, “This is a documented phenomenon called ‘the glass cliff,’ in which institutions elevate women and BIPOC to positions of power during crises that puts them at risk of ‘falling off’ and failing.” As we see, Ji-Yoon is ultimately disempowered by this system, which is truthful of what happens to many of us. By the show’s end, the cyclical nature of the “model-minority” trope is clear: No matter how hard we work or how much we go “running around playing nice,” as Yaz reminds Ji-Yoon, the entrenched systems of white privilege which we enter continue to function and, in fact, function better with us “model minorities” firmly in place as proof that meritocracy works.
Critiques and disappointments notwithstanding, watching Ji-Yoon walk into her brand-new office as the incoming chair of English at Pembroke in the first episode, I not only felt represented, but also a type of wonder. Art can do that, I guess. The next scene finds her sitting down in the chair at her desk and having it break beneath her. Was this a reality check for the truth of her situation and the long-established practices that she is soon forced to navigate? My English degree has made me turn everything into a symbol, but whatever it was, I laughed out loud and deeply understood the feeling.
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