It is a rule of all Asian Americans (well, Asian North Americans) that you must commit to watching something of Sandra Oh’s each year. It’s why I sat through movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and Mulan II before finally getting to knock out a few years’ worth with Grey’s Anatomy (until, well, you know). I see it as less of a duty and more of a tribute because as Sandra herself said, it’s an honor just to be Asian.
Enter: The Chair. Besides the fact that everyone was buzzing about it, I was excited to watch an Asian woman in charge of things, and without American-izing her name to boot. It felt like Koreans were going mainstream and I was more than happy to go along for the ride because let’s be honest, that’s as close to representation as any of us can really hope to get.
It’s not that I dislike the show. That would be too easy. It does a good job of showcasing the very real challenges women (and especially women of color) face in higher education, the shitty environment of higher education in general, and the struggles of being a single parent trying to juggle a career. There is a lot to like about it, not the least of which is the always formidable Holland Taylor.
Here’s what I don’t like: for a show that hypes Sandra Oh as its lead, the script spends at least (at least!!) the same amount of time focused on a very regular degular white dude in academia. Is he totally typical, coasting by on name recognition and escaping punishment for subpar work while the women are constantly under attack? Yes. But does that mean we watch to watch his narrative be given the same amount of sympathy as Sandra Oh’s? Like, are we supposed to be rooting for these two to get together when even Sandra’s own dad tells her to “stop pining after the sad man”?
But even that is secondary to the absurd “cancel culture” storyline (sorry uh, spoiler alert?) where we are supposed to believe that a beloved white professor gets fired over fabricated racist remarks because a bunch of POC students complain? Excuse me while I go rage laugh for several hours.
First of all, that doesn’t happen. Ask any POC in academia and they’ll tell you that teacher is more like to be *promoted* after such an incident than they are to be fired. Second of all, painting this sub-par, slacker white professor as the victim of overly PC policing of teaching methods is offensive. As in, I am actually pissed about it.
Every day, POC are threatened and harassed simply for being POC, and exponentially so if they even attempt to call out any kind of racist behavior by white people. So to paint them as the aggressors in this situation, to create a literal angry mob that “attacks” this poor, misunderstood white professor? Fucking unconscionable.
This story feeds the narrative that POC are “out to get” any white person who mildly steps out of line with what is deemed “acceptable” behavior–which, as numerous white journalist sub stack accounts show, is simply fiction. Being a white supremacist pays, and it pays well. There is no cancel culture for white people. There is only the demanding of accountability, a possible temporary attempt at that, and the eventual rebound (and generally upward ascent) of whoever committed the gaffe in the first place.
And what makes all of this additionally egregious is that this guy isn’t even a fucking white supremacist. This is all based on a willful misunderstanding, which again, gives the impression that this is something that happens when IT DOES NOT.
So instead of an empowering and complex look into the life of an Asian American woman in power, it becomes a co-story about a poor white man’s downfall and how she ties herself to him. It’s gross and it sucks, especially considering the history and stereotypes associated with white men/Asian women dynamics.
So now, having finished the 6 episode “season” (note to Netflix: 6 episodes is not a season), I’m stuck wondering whether to continue supporting her projects, or whether to bow out of next season because quite frankly, it’s not really her show anyway. Here’s hoping she shoots a new movie before then.