The Corner

Culture

The Chair and the Inevitability of Conservatism in Hollywood

The Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, Calif. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The movie and TV industries are, famously, populated mainly with progressives and liberals (the latter of whom now live in terror of the former), with a smattering of libertarians and a much smaller, mostly silent minority of conservatives. Hollywood’s output increasingly displays those politics: the inability of many of its creative people to understand people who disagree with them, the didactic desire to tell stories that promote left-leaning pieties, and the obsessions with “representation” and the sexual politics of the Left.

And yet, no matter how hard they try, people who tell stories for a living — if they are at all good at their jobs — inevitably wind up producing tales with popular conservative characters and conservative themes. This is partly because the kinds of narratives that audiences respond to tend to follow certain conventions. Good guys fight bad guys by every available means, romances lead to marriage, pregnancies lead to children, merit is ultimately rewarded, chaos is bad but freedom is good. One example of that is Sonny Bunch’s dictum that “environmentalists make good movie villains because they want to make your real life worse.” The reason why audiences respond to those narratives leads us to the deeper point: Many universal truths about life are the things conservatives preach, often over the objections of Hollywood-lefty types. Sexual liberation is one of those: Films and TV overwhelmingly portray divorces and extramarital affairs as leading to complication, conflict, and unhappiness. Abortions, even when shown onscreen, often inevitably come across as selfish choices, sometimes to a sociopathic extent.

The inevitability of conservatism in portrayals of reality came to my mind watching the Netflix limited-run dramedy series The Chair, created by Amanda Peet and starring Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve veteran Sandra Oh as the new chair of the English department at the fictional Pembroke University, a not-quite-Ivy League college that is being buffeted by the times. Pembroke is casting a gimlet eye at the English department’s falling enrollment, overpaid and geriatric faculty, and failure to demonstrate the relevance of its subject to 2020s college kids. Oh’s character, Ji-Yoon Kim, is an impeccably PC figure — she talks about being the first “woman of color” to chair the department, uses all the fancy buzzwords, and agonizes over unfairness to female faculty. (One discordant note: Professor Kim anguishes over needing more “women of color” in her department — besides her, there is a young black female professor — but looking around the table at the faculty meetings, nobody seems to care that there are no nonwhite men.) She is also a single, never-married mom trying to raise her adopted daughter in a combination of the Mexican culture of the daughter’s birth and the Korean culture of Professor Kim’s aging, non-English-speaking father. We are given to believe that all of the characters we see onscreen are progressive or liberal, and some conservative viewers may find their woke college-speak hard to swallow.

And yet, The Chair is packed with themes that conservatives will find familiar, and even sympathetic. Professor Kim’s daughter very visibly needs a father. One of the professors is targeted by a woke cancel-culture mob for a classroom gesture taken wildly out of context, and the show’s sympathies are entirely with the faculty; the students are portrayed as an unreasoning Jacobin mob, and the administration as pandering cowards unconcerned with truth or fairness. David Morse plays the college president as a maddening cipher who stands for nothing. The elderly professors, two of whom are played with skill by veteran character actors Holland Taylor and Bob Balaban, come across as out-of-touch ivory-tower backstabbers, but also as sincere and sympathetic scholars who cannot understand why the lifetimes they’ve dedicated to the enduring relevance of Chaucer and Melville are suddenly out of fashion, and are baffled by the hostile social-justice-warrior rhetoric of their students. (Balaban says that he prepared for the role by listening to his daughter’s graduate-school stories of how “cancel culture” is “even more terrifying” than the series shows.) The “cool” liberal professor who charms young women with his charismatic lecture style is also an irresponsible, drug-addled mess. Some of the show’s best moments underline the power of traditional Korean and Mexican culture, the difficulty of imparting it to the next generation, and how raising an adopted child to learn a culture that is not your own is harder than just embracing slogans. Some of these may not have been the morals this series intended to tell, but telling a good story sometimes means working with reality as it actually is.

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