In Netflix’s The Chair, Sandra Oh’s character Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim struggles with a lot of things, including motherhood. The show starts with her ascending the academic ranks in a fictional Ivy League. She’s the first woman and the first woman of color to chair the English department, which she describes like this: “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.” So yeah, Ji-Yoon has a lot of challenges.
Being the single mother to an adopted Mexican girl is just one of these challenges.
Seven-year-old Ju-Hee, nickname Ju Ju, scares away babysitters (although it’s actually pretty common for kids to follow you into the bathroom), draws gruesome imagery (the sign of troubled kids everywhere), and generally pushes boundaries, (even when she knows it could spell big trouble for the grownups in her life). That’s a lot for Ji-Yoon to handle but Ju Ju’s problems never take over the show or Ji-Yoon’s story. No, in The Chair, motherhood is (a big) part of the story but never all of it. You know, just how it is for so many of us in real life.
The other thing The Chair gets right about motherhood is that it is both fun AND hard.
So often shows lack this nuance, leaving us with the impression that good moms always like caregiving and bad moms don’t. Yikes. But in The Chair, one of the most joyful scenes is when Ji-Yoon leaves the department party early and ends up bowling with her daughter. Yes, Ji-Yoon is worried about not being at work but the quality time with Ju Ju is more important. AND Ji-Yoon doesn’t face and professional repercussions for the choice, showing that even as a trailblazing woman of color, you don’t always have to choose work to get ahead (and in fact to be happy and healthy, you actually shouldn’t). It’s a win for working moms everywhere.
I’m also into how Ji-Yoon is this flawed, interesting person – and that extends to how she mothers. At one point, she takes over all of Ju Ju’s therapy session because she needs to talk! At another, she expresses regret about how little the mother-daughter pair cuddle, how they don’t resemble the ideal relationship. This moment is tender and vulnerable – The Chair is definitely inviting us to sympathize rather than judge Ji-Yoon. And it’s this tone I’m particularly grateful for. You see women of color know we have to be twice (three times? more?) as good to get half as far. And that’s not just professionally, but too often personally too.
Looking particularly at motherhood, there are all sorts of stereotypes of the bad mom of color. The US has a long, ugly history of the purposeful disruption of our families whether it’s through Indian schools, slavery, or eugenics. These ideas reverberate on, still affecting our access to reproductive choices, quality education, and even the simple ability to not be mistaken for the nanny. So yeah, Ji-Yoon and the less professional impressive rest of us are up against a lot.
Racism and sexism loom large in The Chair, making Ji-Yoon’s path more difficult every step of the way. And the show does us moms of color a solid by naming those forces and letting Ji-Yoon address them imperfectly. It portays motherhood like so many of us experience it: part of our identities but not of all it, this strange combination of difficult and joyful, and part of the messy thing that is being human. With those three things, The Chair makes space for moms of color to better understand and forgive ourselves. We don’t always have to be the best. We can be good enough and that’ll be ok.
The first season of The Chair is streaming now on Netflix.
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