Netflix recently aired Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream, a three-episode series based on the lives of students at Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. While trying to portray itself as a progressive show which focuses on issues like sexism in STEM colleges and the high rates of suicides in our most prestigious institutions, the series does not entirely succeed in its attempts to look ‘woke’.
Alma Matters deals with issues that every engineering or science major faces: academic pressure, harrowing placement seasons, depression, suicide and over-the-top college fests. To break down these issues for audiences, the directors largely chose a group of 20-something boys to represent the ‘IIT dream’ – except, of course, in the 20-minute segment about the lack of girls and rampant sexism in engineering colleges.
Alma Matters’ treatment of women in STEM is typical: only referring to them when there is a need to address feminism and come across as liberal. Throughout its almost three-hour runtime, the show focuses its camera on only one woman – a campus elect who became sports captain. Even when there is talk of gender bias, it simply means going up to a bunch of men and asking them if they think there is an issue. Absolutely no measures to involve women, or to ask for their opinions, have been initiated at any point throughout the show.
I am a woman in STEM, and I have seen thousands of girls around me: struggling for placements alongside men, feeling equally pressurised by the bloated expectations that accompany engineering, putting up large banners to decorate the campus during fests, and smoking cigarettes sneakily in their hostel rooms. Alma Matters conveniently avoids showing women performing any usual everyday activities, and the only still we have is when we see a couple of girls sitting hunched over (no surprises) a rangoli.
Representation is no longer an add-on, it is a requirement if you want to portray realistic stories. Alma Matters’ excessively politically correct stand is not just plain annoying, it is a part of a larger narrative that intentionally alienates women, Dalits and the physically challenged from being worthy enough of being in STEM. While caste-based discrimination has been a much talked about issue in the IITs, no mention of the same has been made throughout the show.
Strangely enough, the show is replete with examples of female alumni but no female student made the cut. This further makes it seem like women are only relevant when talking about the discrimination they face, or as successful candidates who made their way out of the toxic systems that uphold engineering in India. There’s no place for the women in between – the ones who struggle and strive to make their mark in a field that puts men in positions of almost absolute power.
Men are shown struggling, sitting for hours outside placement seminars, staying up all night preparing for interviews, and celebrating with endless bottles of beer. Women, on the other hand, seem to go straight from students to modestly dressed professionals. It is as if their struggles do not deserve screen time, for they are overshadowed by the men who work hard and are weighed down by endless pressure.
While makers might argue that access to women’s hostels was difficult because of privacy or security concerns, it still does not excuse them from leaving women out of every important conversation. When there are discussions about a recent suicide on campus, not one girl is asked about it. Even casual activities like decorating the college halls for fests or dressing up for cosplay only show women as mute spectators. Such exclusion is simply lazy, if not outright dangerous.
By not addressing the fact that women exist beyond being mouthpieces for a feminist agenda, the show just ends up propagating the very stereotype it wants to dismantle – that there are no women in STEM. And if there are, they just exist to suffice an arbitrary diversity quota.
Anoushka Raj is a final-year student of Environmental Engineering at Delhi Technological University.
Featured image credit: Netflix