By Tamara MC
On August 20, 2021, Netflix released Season I of The Chair, a dramedy about a fictional Ivy league-ish institution called Pembroke created by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the heroine, is the first woman and first Person of Color to be elected chair of the English department. As both, she must navigate the harsh waters of an obsolete academic institution that includes crotchety old white male professors, who fall asleep in department meetings, have hearing problems, and fart.
Then there’s Bill Dobson (Jay Dublass), a 40-something white male bigwig professor.
Many of us in academia know dudes like Bill, trying-to-be-cute professors, unshaven with greasy tousled in-need-of-a-shower hair, who don blotchy oil-stained khakis, loosely tie a too-cool-for-school wool plaid scarf around their necks, and wear nicked brown leather shoes showing off the miles upon miles they’ve accumulated walking on campus as if the unkempt “I’m clueless” look is supposed to elicit sympathy.
Sadly, too often, it does. We fall for these dudes and their disheveled looks. Even Ji-Yoon fell for Bill, who garners sympathy despite being completely inept. He doesn’t return his students’ papers on time, shows up late for class, and isn’t prepared when he eventually makes his magical “I’m finally here” entrance. He edges sexual harassment with a young female student straddling the grey line of flirting-not-flirting, all while acting clueless. Me? Me? Bill?
Still… somehow Bill is cute. We feel sorry for Bill. Poor Bill.
AND, don’t forget, Bill, hails a Nazi salute. Despite the students cancel culturing him, he’s still frazzled, can’t fathom why or how he could be in trouble, be on the verge of losing his job.
Me, Bill? No, not me! Dudes like Bill don’t suffer the consequences of the law. They fly high above. Create law. Women like Ji-Yoon, do their dirty work, combing their hair, straightening their spines on couches—yanking Bill look-alikes’ clumsy asses out of mud, trying to save them from none other than, surprise-not-surprise, themselves.
Bill has the excuse that his wife died—he’s mourning. His daughter recently went to college, and he’s an empty-nester—he’s grieving. Would marginalized academics get away with such murderous behavior in similar situations? Do we ride the wave of blatant ineptitude right after pushing a baby out of our vajayjays or… after the many, many trials and tribulations we encounter as we balance work and home? Doubtfully.
Was Ji-Yoon given a hall pass after adopting her daughter? Heck no. Her responsibilities didn’t change—they persisted. Consequences for dudes like Bill are little to none. Yet women can’t arrive or not arrive without getting reprimanded. We forgive Bill because he’s charming, brilliant— adjectives mainly used to describe men.
Women are supposed to play nice, be nice. Be friendly. Enthusiastic. Caring.
Supposedly before Bill’s wife died, he was a dedicated colleague and prof, but his behavior was viewed as above-and-beyond, as star quality, when being supernatural is the norm for the rest of us non-white, non-male academics. We outshine our job descriptions despite births, deaths, microaggressions, and in-your-face e’ryday inequities. Yet, we don’t get accolades. Or praise.
Bill is the competent one, the superhero. Beloved.
I also hate fuddy-duddy male professors, like Elliott Rentz (Bob Balaban) and Professor McHale (Ron Crawford), who were once Bill when they were younger, who taught Bill to be Bill—the precursors to Bill—Bill before Bill. I also hate all the Bills before Elliott and Professor McHale—the Bills before the Bills before the Bills.
Before-Bills are out of touch and persist in dinosaur-age thinking. With grey hair airborne, snorts and grunts of dissatisfaction, swinging rulers, they try to poo-poo and silence up-and-coming intellectual powerhouse Black women professors like Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah). Unlike Yaz and Ji-Yoon, who are thoughtful, curious, and innovative in their theories and research, these dudes are archaic—desperate to continue the sooty status quo.
Yet these dudes are the ones who remain in large corner offices with windows, whiteboards, and likely ample supplies of Expo Dry Erase Markers, and printing privileges to envy. However, women of their same age and rank, like Dr. Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), who’ve had to claw their way to the top, surviving years of sexual harassment, are forced into dark and airless basements across campus as they “age-out” of their positions.
The message is: hide older women away. They don’t need natural light, windows. Or better yet, let’s hide all women away and give dudes center stage while we sit back passively toiling away at service work, transporting piping hot dishes to department potlucks while bustling in and out of a female hosts’ kitchen. All the while, dudes sit outside squaking, spouting off every darn fact they’ve memorized. Hahaha. People laugh at their jokes. Hahaha.
Dudes like Bill, Elliott, and Professor McHale are so, so funny. Not.
The Chair, a super short miniseries with only six episodes totaling three hours of watch time, amplifies the lampoon-ish state of academia, where women and People of Color jump through hoops and bust their butts to stay afloat while white dudes do next to nothing and still win. Bills, Elliotts, and Professor McHales are venom within academia— sexist, racist, and privileged mofos, who need to step back and let Ji-Yoon, Yaz, and the rest of us femme-identifying and non-binary academics sparkle dazzlingly.