The new Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, based on the homonymous, tells the story of Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon, an orphan who develops an obsession for chess. It turns out that she is incredibly talented at chess. She quickly climbs the ranks in the male-dominated chess world of the 1960s. What struck me the most in the series is that although Beth is constantly surrounded by male opponents, the pinnacle of the story is not that Beth is a passionate feminist fighting for equality but that she is a passionate chess player. All the while, the series manages to make bold statements about femininity, equal opportunities and gender roles.
In feminist philosophy, the discussion around the term “woman” focuses on expanding our concept of female identity, allowing us to change our beliefs about its associated gender role. Feminist philosopher Sally Haslanger, in her endeavour to end women’s oppression, has argued that we have to get rid of the concept “woman” because it has bad connotations. Firstly, she argues that we need to acknowledge and enforce that the overall concept of “woman” constitutes their systematic subordination to men. By doing this, Haslanger defines it as a negative term, predicting that over time we will stop using the word “woman”.
Whether Haslanger adopts an effective strategy to end female oppression, I will not aim to discuss it in this article. What is interesting, however, is how the show illustrates Beth as a character who is able to defy the prejudices around the concept of female chess players and how this benefits her. At the beginning of the series, her chess career grabs the attention of the press because of her gender. “It’s mostly about my being a girl”, Beth complains to her mother when she discusses the latest article about her over dinner. I do not think it is a coincidence that, as Beth gains more recognition for being an extraordinary chess player, she is seen more and more for her talent and skill. The explicit label of female chess player almost disappears. Because she is no longer perceived as the weaker one, the subordinate, the label “woman” is suddenly not that important anymore. Indeed, the show quickly surpasses the initial amazement of “the female chess player”, it focuses predominantly on the game itself.
The series could have addressed the difficulties of Beth in the world of men more, for example by including sexist jokes and the repeated amazement of her not having a family or even a fiancé. When a journalist asks teenager Beth after her first tournament whether the chess pieces perhaps represent her lost parents, Beth is quick to respond: “they are just pieces.” Beth refuses to play the role of the victim, instead, she stands her ground to become the best chess player at all costs. The chessboard is not a metaphor showing how the queen is able to beat the male king. Beth surpasses this battle: she has to prove herself as a chess player, independently of her gender.
Nevertheless, the show addresses gender roles very effectively by contrasting Beth’s indifference towards her being a woman in a society where gender roles are clearly divided. In the 1960s, women were stereotypically perceived as weaker and needy, subjugated to the dominant patriarchy, which ultimately defined their life goals as housewives. We can already see this in the very first episode when Beth grows up in an orphanage and is told to “be a good girl,” to sit up straight, to be polite. The girls were educated to fit the norms imposed by a patriarchal society in order to become good women later in their lives.
Beth’s female counterparts are important to The Queen’s Gambit as they remind her that she is special because she still owns her independence and was allowed to develop her talents. At that time, women were not allowed such luxury as the very concept of ‘woman’ indicated their inherent subordinate status. The destructive effects of this are shown for example in Beth’s foster mother Alma. Depressed and ignored by her husband, Alma is not recognized as a person with talents but instead a woman moping in her house all day. Similarly, in the scene where Beth meets a previous classmate in a shop, we see how the girl’s duties of womanhood became quickly empty and meaningless. A large bag of liquor under the baby stroller reveals the unhappiness of the young mother and wife who was once a popular and vibrant schoolgirl.
The costume department has done an amazing job of showing the ultra-femininity of women in the 1960s. Clothes make the man, or rather in this case, the woman. The silhouettes and pointy bralettes highlight the ideal image of the hourglass figure. Impeccable accessories of earrings, heeled shoes and little hats add to the woman’s “dolled up” image. Beth, on the other hand, is characterized as a couture fan who discovers throughout the series her own style to express her personal female identity. Her clothes are predominantly black, white and patterned, mimicking the style of a chessboard and its figures. Whilst Beth becomes more and more independent through her vocation as a professional chess player, her style becomes more powerful and iconic.
To stay true to my analysis, let me finish with a brief look at one of the great aspects of the series: chess. It is worth mentioning that if you observe the chess games more closely, you will notice the accuracy in the setup and moves. This is due to the two chess consultants present on set: former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and chess coach Bruce Pandolfini. A special mention should also be given to the cinematography. The long matches – involving mostly staring at a board – are effectively heightened by employing a different montage style for each tournament that is incredibly pleasing to watch whilst also building tension. For example, the playful checkerboard montage in episode 6 is not only well picked as it fits the style of the 60s but is also very dynamic as it paces the scene. The Queen’s Gambit is an excellent show that succeeds in putting forward the excitement of playing chess, whilst also posing questions about gender roles. In Beth’s words, “it shouldn’t be that important. They didn’t print half the things I said, they didn’t tell about Mr Shaibel and they didn’t say anything about how I play the Sicilian.”
The Queen’s Gambit is now available on Netflix. To see the costumes “up-close,” The Brooklyn Museum has an online exhibition featuring the costumes of TheQueen’s Gambit and The Crown. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/queen_and_crown.
Haslanger, Sally (2000). “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?” Noûs, 34 (1): 31–55.