You might be living under a rock if you haven’t heard of The Queen’s Gambit. The Netflix show is the biggest of 2020, going number one in 27 countries, including India, US, UK and Russia. This is pretty huge for a show centred around the game of chess.
What made this show stand out among other “prestige dramas” is that the figure at the centre of this story was a woman, not a man. And the fact that her characterization is not defined by her gender. Beth Harmon is a young white woman with a very distinctive hairstyle, dark eyes with a sharp gaze and an unassuming demeanor. You wouldn’t notice her in a crowded room and nobody would either. Unless she sits down for a chess match…
A thousand things can and have been said about this masterpiece of a show. But what I want to focus on is the characterisation of Beth. When I first saw stills of her on social media and a string of fans thirsting over the actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, I was skeptical. Will this show treat her as another pretty girl and eye candy, with the camera gazing upon her body while also claiming that it’s a story about empowerment? Thank goodness it was clear from the start that this is not one of those. She is just another gifted prodigy, not a “genius girl”, if you get the drift.
Beth Harmon develops an immaculate fashion sense throughout the 10 episodes. But the clothes don’t make her distractingly ‘sexy’ as if a story about chess would otherwise be boring. Costumes can tell us about the character wearing them. So, let’s thank costume designer Gabriele Binder who incorporated innumerable geometric squares and boxes onto Beth’s dresses, to reflect her chess obsession.
Recently, some viewers voiced concern over Beth’s glamorous appearance and the fact that the character undergoes a makeover. They said it was a tired trope to always have the female character undergo an aesthetic transformation to go from being plain to pretty. They brought up how Beth went from being an eccentric teenager with an awkward haircut to a sophisticatedly dressed young woman who shops at fancy boutiques. Why should the heroine always be pretty? Or care about hair and clothes and nails? It’s a good point.
But, while the makeover trope is tired and sexist in many movies (we don’t see men getting ‘prettyfied’ as often), it felt natural in this story and very in-character. We see Beth grow as a person along with her style. Early on, we see Beth wear circular skirts and dresses in true ‘Suburban American Woman’ style, just like her foster mother Alma does. This reveals the strengthening bond between the two women. We then see that **SPOILER ALERT** when Alma dies, Beth stops dressing up like her and starts wearing pants and tops instead. We can guess she altered her style because the older style painfully reminded her of her dead mother she missed dearly.
Moving on from costumes, we also see how, despite navigating her way through the male-dominated world of chess, Beth’s life isn’t just influenced by her male colleagues and partners. Women play a heavy role in shaping Beth. The prodigy undergoes depression because of the passing of her foster mother who was her only link to the ‘simple ordinary life’. She also has traumatic flashbacks of her dead biological mother throughout the show. When Beth is at the climatic Paris tournament of 1967, she loses the game badly, thanks to the surreptitious Cleo who gets her drunk the night before. And let’s not forget Jolene, her vivacious and loving buddy, who inadvertently gets Beth addicted to tranquilizers and then re-enters adult Beth’s life to get her out of a financial bind as an apology.
We also learn that Beth’s advanced cognitive abilities in chess and academia were passed on to her through her mother, a mathematician with a Phd. This is a fresh plot point in a sea of movies and TV shows where daughters are written to inherit smarts from their fathers. Look at Jessica Chastain in Interstellar, Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof, and Jennifer Ehle’s scientist in Contagion where she firmly declares: “Father, you taught me this!” We don’t know much about Beth’s biological father except that he’s a professor, but we know that her mother was not only a very smart woman but also someone struggling with mental illness and depression. Something Beth unfortunately inherited as well.
This brings us to the portrayal of Beth as a woman dealing with mental illness. In many films, neurotic women are tragic. Broken. Self-destructive. Their soul irreparably damaged. Beth’s story is nothing of that sort. Her neuroticism and drug addiction are just a part of life, something she’s got to deal with it. She has to ride the wave until it takes her under. She makes no regrets. In a way, this narrative is more common with male heroes who just ‘get on with it’ and try to not let it take over their entire lives.
And the final pleasant surprise that is sadly uncommon in woman-centred biopics is that Beth is never sexually harassed. Or even catcalled. Nor is she ever brought down by a group of jealous, scheming male rivals. Her Russian opponents try to figure out her chess method in a way that is fair and noble, and not malicious foul play. The men are quite nice to her actually, for a show that is set decades ago in a more conservative period.
This ‘escapism’ – or lack of realism – didn’t sit well with some fans who wanted to see the reality of the 50s and 60s reflected on their screens. “Beth’s rise shouldn’t be so smooth!” “Why are they all so nice to her?”
But a stronger majority of people were quite okay with this fantasy wish fulfilment, even celebrating it. One fan comments,
“I just found it to be such a relief that there was no rape. ‘Rape = character growth’ or ‘rape = canonical trauma to be overcome’ is so extremely prevalent and I just loved that it didn’t happen. I don’t care if it’s unrealistic, it was a welcome difference”.
Another adds, “I felt relief when the men didn’t push back. I’m sick of sexism in real life, I don’t really mind not being confronted with it in this show. I actually like seeing female stories that are not about how we are victims. The “then she encountered sexism” trope is true but tired. Maybe it’s more of a problem for male viewers, who don’t actually experience it in real life. They’re the ones who most need to see it reflected.”
Somebody comments on YouTube, “Sure, it’s unrealistic – but at least when young boys watch this show they’ll learn that it is okay if a woman is better than you, and that you should behave nicely even if that’s the case. I’d prefer this any time over all the films that teach children that it’s normal to yell, berate, be violent to women if they’re better than you.”
This really got me thinking about Jalli Kutti, India’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film, which I had recently watched. Those who don’t know the story, the film is basically about human greed set against the backdrop of patriarchy. We see the menfolk slap their wives, get sexually aggressive with them, and fight with each other tooth and nail over bull meat. Finally, in the race to catch the bull, the men throw themselves on one another, forming a giant grotesque pile of flesh and dirt. Then we see a flashback into prehistory where cavemen fight each other over meat, drawing a parallel with the present day. It’s realistic. It’s hard hitting. It’s brutal. But what else? Sure, mankind is greedy and we still are. Nothing has changed. We’re ready to push someone over to get what we want. But how long will we keep making and consuming these simplistic tales-as-old-as-time? Someone said, and I forgot who, that if we can see it, we can be it.
We’re getting tired of, and even desensitised in some cases, to images of men brutalising women since we see them in the news every day. In times of such chaos and polarity, we’d rather sit down for something more escapist and aspirational. Maybe something that wasn’t (Beth Harmon isn’t based on a real chess player), but could be (we are seeing a surge in the purchasing of chess boards after the show). This isn’t a diss to social realism or socially-aware media, but a call for more fairytales based on reality, not fairytales outside of it. Stories that don’t point at our current situation but towards the direction we need to go.