From the moment we heard about Netflix’s The Chair, we were intrigued. And, after hungrily bingeing our way through all six episodes, we are here to report that it ticks so many “must-watch TV series” boxes.
Starring the always-impeccable Sandra Oh, the show shines a spotlight on Yi-Joon, the new chair of the English department at a US university, and the first woman in the college’s history to be appointed as such. So, yeah, you better believe that this a very big career moment for her – a fact which is underscored by the dramatic choral music that plays as she marches optimistically onto campus, and her joy at unwrapping a sweary new nameplate for her very own desk (in her very own office, too!).
Yi-Joon is, finally, the “fucker in charge,” something she’s worked towards for pretty much ever. And, when she walks into her very first meeting, we, the audience, feel buoyed by her positive energy; this is a woman in control of her own destiny. This is a woman who has finally, finally, finally got her dream job. And this is a woman, it quickly becomes apparent, whose bubble is about to be burst.
First of all, there’s the people who persist on referring to her as “lady chair” – despite the fact that she is, as she gently corrects them, the new chairwoman. Then there’s the old white men who persist in interrupting her at every single opportunity. And let’s not forget the fact that the department is “in dire crisis.”
“I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb,” she says, “because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.”
This idea – that doors are only opened up for women, and particularly for women of colour, when there’s nothing else to lose – is a theme which is revisited throughout the limited series. Because, despite its playful tone, The Chair explores the gender pay gap, the sacrifices that women are forced to make for their families, the ‘boys club’ that feels so impossible to break into, and the onslaught of obstacles that women are forced to overcome almost every single day of their working lives.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is Yi-Joon’s growing disillusionment with the dream job she fought so hard for. Sure, it’s the role she always wanted – and in an industry she loves, for a truly prestigious institution, with a title that says she gets to do what she loves all day long. Too bad, then, that she finds herself hating it.
“It’s a shit job,” she says at one point, noting that there are “too many assholes to manage.”
Later, during an ill-advised therapy session (which she had initially booked for her young daughter, but needs must), Yi-Joon confesses: “I got engaged when I was 36, and I wanted to start a family, but then he was offered a job at Michigan…
“We tried to make it work long distance. When he told me he met someone else, I just buried myself in my work and pretty soon I had a half dozen universities begging for me to apply. But Pembroke’s retention offer was…
“They gave me everything I wanted, so I stayed. Now I’m scared to show my face on campus.”
This – this realisation that a job that you thought and dreamed about for the longest time isn’t what you were expecting – is one that many of us can relate to. Hard. But, while it’s easy to feel deflated by such a reckoning, Yi-Joon’s own response offers us… well, it offers us hope.
She allows herself to remain open to the opportunity of change. She makes a point of holding the door open for other women, even on her way out. She lifts her voice up and makes sure it’s heard. And, slowly but surely, she realises that her true passion doesn’t lie in senior management, but in…
Well, that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, though, that Yi-Joon soon realises that her version of the “dream job” doesn’t involve climbing to the top of the managerial ladder. And, considering a recent report from the Chartered Management Institute has found that managers are facing a mental health crisis thanks to feeling trapped between the expectations of their own bosses and the team they manage, this feels believable as hell.
A dream job, after all, is only as dreamy as the people you’re working with will allow it to be. And no amount of money, or status, or “fucker in charge” nameplates will ever change that.
The Chair is available to stream on Netflix from Friday 20 August.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.