I always take my students through a chapter focused on Iola’s work experiences in the North, where she secures positions based on skill and demeanor but loses them when those around her reject or attack her because of her race. She then takes a job as an in-home nurse for a 15-year-old whose health improves so much that her father rewards Iola with a position in his store. On her first day, he tells his staff that Iola has “colored blood in her veins” and they can leave if they object to working with her.
On multiple occasions, I’ve listened as students tried to find reasons other than race-based malice that might explain the behavior against Iola; often they go on to make a hero of the store owner who intercedes on her behalf. There’s nothing in the text to suggest these interpretations, primarily because these characters are not fleshed out beyond this chapter. They’re tangential, meant only to illustrate the protagonist’s — Iola’s — experience.
The impulse to valorize a fictional character as a white savior is evident in popular culture, everywhere from Kevin Costner’s character in “Hidden Figures” to Sandra Bullock’s in “The Blind Side.” But the so-called “white savior” narrative isn’t the only reason my students insist on trying to see this chapter from the perspective of minor white characters — it’s something that runs even deeper.
The problem is that some of my students simply can’t see Iola as the protagonist in her own story. I don’t blame my students for this tendency. It simply highlights the intellectual work that I must help them do — and what I am up against as I try.
This has been on my mind as I’ve observed the emerging popularity of and critical discourse around the new Netflix show “The Chair.” Many critics and viewers seem obsessed with whether the series is a “realistic” depiction of life and work in the academy.
‘Ji-Yoon is a character, not a person’
A protagonist is a character whose dilemmas and choices drive the action because their development (or lack thereof) illuminates the truths about life that a story exists to convey. Some of my students struggled to treat a woman of color as a protagonist, one whose perspective is meant to be central to their understanding of what happens in the story. As “The Chair” reminded me, my students aren’t the only ones unable to do this.
Admittedly, “The Chair” plays up the absurdity of human interactions, especially those among people who take themselves too seriously — because it’s a comedy. However, using realism as the most important standard for judging art like this would be far more absurd. After all, these are characters, not real people. This is not a novel, but it’s also not a reality television show or documentary.
Ji-Yoon Kim begins her time as chair intent upon bringing the department “into the twenty-first century” by supporting cutting-edge research and teaching that engages students who care about the world’s injustices. She is also at a precarious moment in her personal life, having sacrificed a serious romantic relationship and declined offers from other universities. Her undeniable affection for her one senior woman colleague, Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), and for colleague, friend and love interest Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) complicate her ability to take strictly professional, goal-oriented actions in her career.
Because Ji-Yoon is a character, not a person, these details shed light on her motivations as a protagonist. They give context for how her insecurities, desires and fears shape her decisions — all of which shed light on how human lives are lived. Whether elements of her professional and personal life are “realistic” misses the point; what matters is that they are true to her character.
‘Good art elicits intense emotion’
Storytelling is tied to a very human interest in truths, and I think this is why it is so tempting to treat one’s visceral reactions like informed cultural criticism. When a creative work elicits emotion, it is because it has hit upon a truth. Art does this not simply with verisimilitude, though; art uses deliberately crafted elements to go beyond facts to evoke a sense of deeper truth.
Whether viewers are affiliated with higher education or not, the pull of human conflict, drama and truth here is irresistible. After all, “The Chair” has skillfully captured a workplace that everyone believes should be high-minded but is actually just as racist, sexist and petty as any other. It’s no wonder that despite the criticism from some quarters, “The Chair” is still one of Netflix’s most-watched offerings.
So: What would it mean for more viewers to understand and treat Ji-Yoon Kim like a protagonist? First of all, her perspective would take priority. Viewers would need to consider how she approaches the situations that emerge rather than making the purported realism of those situations more important.
Take, for instance, the plotline involving student protest. Bill’s classroom lecture on fascism and absurdism inspires a meme. Anger builds as it circulates, and students call for accountability. Ji-Yoon encourages Bill to apologize, but he insists this is an opportunity for dialogue and advertises an open forum on campus. It does not go as he expects, to say the least.
Watching the inability to treat a woman of color as a protagonist is especially frustrating because of how many people claim to want more diverse stories. So many of us say we value complex representations of people of color, but without some awareness of how easily we can fail to engage with such characters as protagonists, we kill the creative work and swear someone else wielded the knife.