On the stereotypes we challenge, and those we cling to

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“The Chair” is about the first female professor of Asian-American origin appointed to chair the English department at the fictitious Pembroke University.

Now if you were an English student, if you like the inner workings of academia, and if you like Sandra Oh, “The Chair” might be for you. I checked all three boxes. And I went through all six episodes in just a few days.

It’s engaging. The filming locations are pleasant. And the plot is meant to be inclusive and politically correct, although that does mean that Sandra Oh’s character Ji-Yoon has a lot going on.

She heads the tenure charge of a brilliant American academic in literature, black and female. She confronts a group of students triggered by another professor’s mock “sieg heil” gesture in a class on “Death and Modernism”.

She is also struggling with her adopted Latina daughter who is very bright for a seven year old, but doesn’t like her mother very much. Her extended family also cannot understand why she did not adopt a South Korean child.

On top of that, Ji-Yoon faces the Old Guard – a coterie of professors who have enthusiastically taught Western literary canon for decades, but now see their livelihoods threatened by forced retirements. Class sizes are shrinking. Income is declining. The college dean leans on Ji-Yoon to oust geezers who can’t seem to understand the copier, Wi-Fi, blackboard, or their students’ interests. (“Moby Dick” plays a big role here.)

I want to call the series “big heart”. But the term doesn’t really fit.

Yes, he makes statements about racism and sexism and an outdated pedagogy that no longer reaches students. It introduces the viewer to Mexican and South Korean culture in engaging and touching scenes.

But sometimes he stumbles upon himself, rejecting certain prejudices and stereotypes while making fun of others. It is awkward in its political correctness.

Ji-Yoon’s renegade teacher Bill is a disheveled mess of arrogance and charm, who prefers brewskis and bursting oxycodone to teaching his classes. Inexplicably, he becomes the babysitter of Ji-Yoon’s daughter, whom she far prefers to her mother. And when Bill is threatened with dismissal because of the “Sieg Heil” movement, Ji-Yoon defends him as a sort of stand-by-your- (jackass) -man.

What about the wacky old pedants? They are a stereotype on the nose of the cliché English teacher: dressed in tweed, bearded, in glasses and hopelessly disconnected from their Gen Z students. They are not treated kindly, ageism apparently being the only “ism”. Which we do not have to correct.

But Gen Z students aren’t doing it either. We know from the context that the “sieg heil” movement was mocking and not divisive; this professor is not a Nazi. But the students are triggered and their reaction is overreacting, making them more whiny than politically astute.

And the fact that the charming professor is also in love with Ji-Yoon begs the eternal question: why would a smart woman be drawn to such a mean, arrogant, self-destructive, unrealistic and idealistic Seth-Rogen-style putz? (Don’t ask me about my dating history. …)

Did I like “The Chair? ” Sure. 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 denounces stereotypes in a way that is both humorous and enlightened.


But it also highlights that we still cling to stereotypes – some politically correct on the whole: of minority students and faculty who are written as brilliant and unethical (and therefore a little tedious). Others swap old tropes: the damn charming who is going to have the daughter anyway, the rowdy youngster who both annoys and enlightens, and the proven rampage of old people whose gravest sin is growing old.

As TS Eliot said “I’m getting old … I’m getting old … I’ll wear the bottom of my rolled-up pants.”

Jo Page is a Lutheran writer and pastor. His email is [email protected] Its website is at https://www.jograepage.com.


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