Netflix’s The Chair tells the story of Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, who was promoted to chair of a prestigious university’s English department during a tumultuous time. Ji-Yoon’s character is also a single, adoptive mom of a young girl named JuJu. As a single, adoptive mom myself, I haven’t seen much of this kind of representation. In fact, the only single, adoptive parent roles I’ve seen depicted fathers (Gru in Despicable Me 2 and Jean Valjean in Les Misérables). So, I was interested to see The Chair’s depiction of this role.
What it gets wrong
Unfortunately, I was disappointed overall. Ji-Yoon’s role as a mother is not the main plot of the series, so there wasn’t much screen time to develop the nuances of the mother-daughter relationship. Instead, JuJu’s role was relegated to a negative stereotype: the unattached adoptive daughter with behavioral and boundary issues, and problems at school.
I am exasperated by the media’s continued insistence in depicting adopted children as one-dimensional, troublesome, inappropriate, and unattached individuals. They threw in every stereotype in the book: being aloof and uncaring, drawing disturbing pictures, running away multiple times, yelling, biting at school, giving the silent treatment, getting suspended, and screaming, “You’re not my mom!” All they missed is JuJu setting something on fire. Of course, everyone’s experiences are different, and some adoptive kids do exhibit some of these behaviors. But if producers want to responsibly depict these behaviors, they also need to take the time to work through the complex emotions of loss, grief, confusion, and identity that drive those actions.
Furthermore, none of these behaviors were addressed by the adults caring for her. When Juju’s teacher suggests that she go to therapy, Ji-Yoon ends up using the therapy sessions for herself. Grandpa refuses to speak English to JuJu and won’t let her bring her comfort-stuffie because it’s Hello Kitty, and he has issues with the manufacturers. Nobody stops to ask JuJu about her feelings when she is running away, drawing disturbing pictures, etc. JuJu even uses her Dia de los Muertos project to support Ji-Yoon and a family friend in their grief, but nobody asks the child how to support her in her grief of losing her biological family.
At the end of the show, JuJu finally gives her mom a hug when she is crying and then speaks Korean to her. Frankly, I hated this part. It depicted healing and growth within the family without showing any effort from the adults involved to work towards that. The show doesn’t do justice to the intricacies and complexity of adoption, and all of the emotions associated with it. Overall, it is unfortunately a stereotype-addled show that added an adoptive element for increased conflict and drama.
What it gets right
All that said, there were a few elements of the show that I did appreciate.
The mom guilt: I think this is something that all moms can relate to. There’s an additional layer to this thought process that happens in adoption because there is a “choice” involved. Ji-Yoon says of JuJu’s birth mom, “Why did she pick me? … I’m a raw deal; different skin, no father, old, no dog, no siblings.”
So many times, I’ve wondered about my own child: Would she be better off in a two-parent household? With a family that can give her more attention? With someone more like her? Someone wealthier? Someone more ready to be a parent? A family with other kids? So, in this case, The Chair does highlight an element of the adoption process that I know to be true for me.
Sharing heritage and traditions: The Chair portrays an interracial adoption and I was pleased to see that it was not the typical “white savior” situation. Ji-Yoon is Korean, and JuJu is Mexican. Ji-Yoon made an effort to ensure JuJu’s heritage was learned and respected in their family. She arranged for JuJu to learn Spanish, and they planned a vacation to Oaxaca, where JuJu’s ancestors lived.
JuJu was also actively involved with Ji-Yoon’s family, learned Korean, and participated in Korean traditions. One of the most heartfelt moments of the show was when JuJu made a Dia de Los Muertos altar for Ji-Yoon’s deceased mom. I thought that was a sweet way to bring both of their heritages together. Still, as mentioned above, I think that this part could have been done better by showing increased emotional support for JuJu and her own grief.
“Duly F---ing Noted”: Let me set the scene: Ji-Yoon and JuJu are in the car. Ji-Yoon is running late and feeling pressured at work; she is trying her best, but everything is falling apart. On the other hand, JuJu is feeling hurt that her school project representing her heritage is not receiving enough attention. Ji-Yoon is distracted and JuJu is angry.
JuJu: “P--a” (a bad word in Spanish)
Ji-Yoon: “The reason you know the word p--a is because I am giving you Spanish lessons. The reason we are going to Oaxaca this summer is because some of your ancestors are from there.”
JuJu: “Ava is going to Disneyland.”
Ji-Yoon: “Duly f---ing noted.”
I felt this deep in my soul and had to pause the show to laugh. Honestly, I’ve thought some version of this line many, many times, and I am sure I’ve verbalized it, too. It’s a line of surrender, of defeat, of that “I’m doing the very best I can, and it’s noted that I am failing you at this moment, but I’ve got nothing else to give,” feeling.
What it can remind us of
Single parenting, adoptive or not, is hard. Like Ji-Yoon, I have people in my life who give of their time and provide support, but it still can feel incomplete. It is hard prioritizing your time, playing both “Mom” and “Dad,” being the sole person accountable for all of the responsibilities, finding childcare, not letting the pressures of work seep into home life - the list goes on. We give everything we have, and sometimes it is just not enough.
It is at these times especially that I turn to God and put everything in His hands. In our discouragement, mistakes, and brokenness, we are enough for Him. Wholeness, strength, comfort, and joy will only come through a relationship with God. Consider how your relationship with God and your prayer life play a role in your decision making as you plan for your family. God wants nothing but good for you, and no matter the situation - single or married, biological kids or adopted kids or no kids at all - He will be with you and provide grace, comfort, and love.
Overall, The Chair was an entertaining and hilarious show, and I would recommend it. It is not, however, a show I would put on a list as a holistically good representation of adoption.