That part is a bit frustrating. Children as learning devices for women is about as tired as rape is as a learning device for men. We need a new narrative that doesn’t make motherhood compulsory for women who don’t want it. Still, it’s nice to see the real challenges of raising children, particularly newborns, taken seriously on screen. It’s a monumentally difficult task and one that is not understood as such (see the erroneous belief that maternity leave is “vacation.”)
In that, motherhood mirrors other feminine-coded tasks of domesticity. It may be hard to dramatize the importance of cleaning or doing laundry, but “Lessons in Chemistry” does an excellent job verbalizing the importance of cooking—stating it often and clearly. Both an art and a science, domestic cooking is the type of work that can feel like drudgery when it’s not appreciated.
But Elizabeth sees and articulates it differently, opening her new cooking show with these words: “In my experience, people do not appreciate the work and sacrifice that goes into being a mother, a wife, a woman. Well, I am not one of those people. At the end of our time here together, we will have done something worth doing. We will have created something that will not go unnoticed. We will have made supper, and it will matter.” With touches like that, “Lessons in Chemistry” clarifies the social construction of gender—too often, it’s the masculine endeavors that we deem valuable, not the thing or the person itself.
Likewise, Elizabeth’s kindness and rationality power the show, particularly as it nudges its characters to improve. Its moral compass is so strong, so clear as to be both reductive and satisfying simultaneously. “Lessons in Chemistry” is largely a morality play where Elizabeth represents the pinnacle of white feminism. She’s smart, determined, courageous, caring, and beautiful, but reluctantly so.
The show is more nuanced with race. When we meet Harriet Sloane (Aja Naomi King), Elizabeth’s eventual neighbor and confidant, we see she is also battling gender norms as she puts her career on hold for her husband. But her larger problem is how the powers-that-be view her mostly Black community of Sugar Hill. She leads the committee to stop Los Angeles building the 10 Freeway to Santa Monica and through her neighborhood. It’s a battle that anyone who’s driven to the beach in LA knows she will lose.