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Book & Movie Club - Lessons in Chemistry

Set in the 1960s, the book follows the life of Elizabeth Zott, an aspiring chemist whose career is derailed by misogyny, sex discrimination, and outright sexual assault. She finds a new way of exploring chemistry in the most unexpected way: by hosting an afternoon cooking show.

I didn’t expect to find so many connections between the theme of this book and the work I do in media coaching. I fully expected this to be a mental escape, but when a minor plotline involves the dawn of daytime television the connection to my work is inevitable. And becomes my singular focus.

Elizabeth Zott is “discovered” by a television producer, Walter Pine, almost by accident. Their kids go to the same school and get into a fight. The parents (who are both unmarried, a scandal in the 1960s) get into their own fight. In this exchange, Pine sees something in Zott. In entertainment it’s often known as the “it” factor. In this novel, the “it” factor is one clear character trait.

Elizabeth Zott knows her own mind.

The actual cooking show makes up a small portion of the book and TV show plot. But it holds the central premise that Zott’s determination for self-expression repeatedly comes up against resistance. Yet she persists. And in this pressure, becomes a household name.

Walter Pine, a cis-gendered, divorced, middle-aged, white man, repeatedly tells Zott what the female daytime audience wants: an escape. This is an assumption TV continues to make. That the daytime audience doesn’t want to be challenged. This is not the time for anything new. It’s the time for familiarity. For daydreaming. And for buying the latest products marketed to women.

Zott, a frustrated chemist also alarmed by the increasing chemicalization of the Standard American Diet (SAD) challenges this with every step. She explains the chemical reactions of baking bread. Of why your pan needs to be searing hot to cook meat properly. We take for granted TV chefs and cooks who share endless tips and tricks on how to master a recipe. 

Lessons in Chemistry nods at how revolutionary this was in the early days of TV. Especially daytime. The TV executives constantly tell Zott she’s ruining her show. But a growing legion of fans proves otherwise.

This work of fiction beautifully illustrates what I nurture in my clients: a strong sense of self will find an audience. You will always come up against people who say “this isn’t for us” or “our audience wants something different”. Just like Walter Pine and the fictional TV executives, sometimes real-life TV executives get it wrong. The only people who know what an audience wants is the audience itself. Focus on what you want to share with the world and the world will find you.


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