Saturday, August 21, 2021

When Will a Show Get Today's Students Right?

I'm watching The Chair, because I'm an academic so of course I am (the Sandra Oh top billing isn't necessary, but it's nice). Most of the commentary I've seen on the show has come from academics, who give it the usual lovingly mixed reviews one expects when one's own profession is placed on the big- or small-screen (lawyers do this so often we've given up). The offices are absurdly big. There are no contingent faculty. Nobody is teaching an oversubscribed first year writing class. The old White men of the department would have gone to grad school in the late 70s and 80s -- they are far less likely to be scandalized by the teaching of sex in a novel than they are to be a little too enthusiastic about it. Being a department chair is less of an "honor" and more of a "massive headache someone has foisted upon them unwillingly." And so on.

But I want to ask a different question, and one not limited to The Chair: when will one of these shows stop doing today's students dirty?

The Chair isn't even the worst offender here -- that would be the current(?) season of Billions -- but it is certainly in the family. Hollywood has gone all in on a very specific caricature of the modern Gen-Z student: a bunch of whiny, self-indulgent and self-righteous identity activists who willfully take things out of context in order preserve a posture of angry, confrontational grievance. Every class includes some student yelling out "when are we going to talk about patriarchy!?" in a tremendously sanctimonious voice, to murmurs of agreement meant to evoke the incipient formation of a mob. Rallies feature speeches and chants that are pulled straight from a tumblr thread and any challenge is derided as verbal bullying or silencing.

It sounds familiar because it's the portrait of today's student one gets from reading any Free Beacon article. As always, it's not entirely coming from nowhere -- no caricature does -- but it's already grown intensely tiresome. I've said before how little it tracks my own experience with Berkeley students (a place where one might expect such a caricature would be most accurate). It's the epitome of a cold take that still thinks it's hot -- story after story of student boots stomping on Erika Christakis' face, forever.

Is there any show set at a college that doesn't fit this template these days (putting aside those going with the far older template of "college students are engaged in one giant party/orgy/frat rush") -- one that actually tries to deal with and present today's students as actually thoughtful, considerate, nuanced individuals -- at least normally? The closest I can think of -- and I haven't seen the most recent season -- might be Dear White People, which is not perfect on this front either, but certainly is putting forward a far more genuine effort. Beyond that? I'm drawing a blank.

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