As a student specializing in English, and a fan of Sandra Oh, I was interested to see a combination of the two in Netflix’s new comedy-drama The Chair. For the first time, I watched fictional characters casually mention names like Geoffrey Chaucer and Audre Lorde, in the same way I encountered them in my university classroom. While The Chair is by no means a flawless show, it hits the mark in its depiction of women’s experience—specifically women of colour in academia.
The show follows Oh’s character Ji-Yoon Kim, the first woman to be appointed chair of the English department at the fictional University of Pembroke, as she does her best to keep everything afloat while the department faces various crises. The series does a decent job of showing viewers the various levels of aggressions and microaggressions women face in a field dominated by white men. Ji-Yoon is under constant pressure to meet the demands of the dean and her department, while aiming to make progressive changes, such as trying to secure a distinguished lectureship for Yasmin ‘Yaz’ McKay (Nana Mensah)—a brilliant and popular professor who is also the only Black woman in the English department.
At one point, Ji-Yoon says to 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.”
While Yaz’s character is a supporting role, who could have been given more screen time, her storyline accurately shows audiences the difficulties Black women face in academia, especially in gaining tenure. Yaz’s tenure case is chaired by a senior white male professor who disapproves of her teaching style and does not treat her as an equal. But these characters challenge racist myths about who is or is not suited for English by depicting women of colour who are passionate about teaching literature and poetry.
Another female character of the show is Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), a white woman who has taught at Pembroke for over 30 years. Despite her seniority, her office is moved to a basement, separating her from the nice offices given to her male colleagues. At one point, Joan shares that when she first started as an assistant professor, the dean offered her a lesser salary than her male colleague who started in the same year. Joan stays silent to avoid being seen as “that woman,” presenting a situation that may resonate with many female viewers.
While the struggles three characters face are fairly accurate and brilliantly portrayed, ironically, the show does them a disservice by focusing so much on the white men. Much of the storyline comes back to Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), Ji-Yoon’s predecessor as department chair and love interest. While Duplass offers a comedic performance as Bill, he has a lot of screen time which should have gone to Oh and Mensah. It also does not help that Duplass and Oh lack chemistry.
Ultimately, while the show could have done a better job fleshing out the storylines of these women and their experiences, The Chair is definitely worth the watch for Sandra Oh alone.