The Feminist Fantasy in “The Queen’s Gambit”

In truth, chess is still a man’s sport.

Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit is officially the most popular miniseries of 2020. The chess-themed drama, based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, discussed the tragedies and triumph of female chess prodigy Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, from surviving being orphaned and a drug addiction, to becoming a world champion. The show, created for the video streaming platform by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, is credited for making chess more accessible to the public and reigniting the interest in the sport altogether.

In addition to the script and performances of its ensemble cast (particularly that of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy), the series has garnered praise from mainstream media for its supposed feminist depiction of a woman succeeding in a sport dominated by men. Let us take a close look at the underlying themes to see if this is really the case.

The King Anoints a Pawn

The story starts with nine-year old Beth Harmon arriving at an orphanage after she survives a car crash initiated by her mother. It is implied that her mother has a mental illness which will be mirrored to Beth’s character throughout the series. Beth discovers her natural affinity for chess when she was taught the game by the custodian, Mr. Shaibel. This is also the time where Beth’s addiction with tranquilizers would start.

There is an obvious symbolism with chess and how Beth developed her talent. In the beginning, she was like a pawn who lost all her games against the custodian. Soon after, however, she became good enough to compete with people older than her, like a pawn continuously advancing on a chess board with aim of being promoted.

The Pawn Becomes a Queen

Beth’s prodigious talent cannot be contained in school, and thus she started entering sanctioned tournaments. She got adopted by a childless family which enabled her more opportunities to pursue her craft. While her talent drew interest, her age and especially her gender became the source of particular notoriety. At this point, her anointment as the titular “queen” in the series title is complete. She was now in complete control of her own destiny.

Developing Her Pieces

The story arc developed well after Beth experienced her first ever defeat and then eventually losing her adoptive mother, causing her to not only lose confidence, but to completely spiral down a lifestyle of alcohol, drugs and sex. This conflict allowed her to also develop as a character. From being a loner relying solely on her talent, she realized that she would not only need to study chess theory, but to also reach out to her rivals for help in training. This vulnerability that the writers decided to implement made Beth a more sympathetic and ultimately interesting character to root for. In the end, all these help from her former rivals enabled her to win the world championship without the use of her tranquilizer, thereby completing her transformation as a character and providing a satisfying end to the story.

Resigning the Game: The Feminist Fantasy

Despite the three-dimensional trappings, the plot is a common zero-to-hero story amplified by the girl-power trope, anchored on its strong yet sensitive female lead. Beth in many ways can actually be considered an antihero, as she doesn’t really have any portrayed positive characteristics in the beginning of the series aside from being a chess wizard. In addition, her being a female character added an extra layer of legitimacy to the story, especially in a liberal climate calling for equality of representation in arts. That being said, The Queen’s Gambit ironically does not represent the reality of the sport, among many things.

In truth, chess is still a man’s sport. Ever since Lisa Lane’s success in 1961, no other woman had made any similar impact to the sport. In addition, only 37 of the more than 1,600 international chess grandmasters are women, while the current top-rated female, Hou Yifan, and the reigning women’s world champion, Ju Wenjun, are ranked 89th and 404th in the world respectively. None of these women in the real world came close to what Beth Harmon in the story has achieved at age 22. Beth is therefore a caricature for hero worship, perhaps an attempt to balance the narrative in the real world at least in the form of fiction.

While one can argue that Beth’s gender is irrelevant as the series is, after all, fiction, a closer look at the plot shows that significant traces of sexism have been whitewashed from the show. According to an opinion piece by Monica Hesse published in The Washington Post:

“It’s possible the gender of the author has something to do with Beth’s uncluttered path to success. Not having experienced sexism himself, he might not have thought to subject his heroine to it…He writes Beth as a classic Greek hero, which is to say, he writes her like a man: Her biggest obstacles are her inherent flaws.”

It is clear from Beth’s entire journey that her rise and fall depended solely on her hands, and there seemed to be no systematic restrictions impeding her aside from her poverty (especially not her gender). She was portrayed as an equal to men the entire time, and that the hierarchical differences between her and her rivals depended solely on how well they check each other’s kings.

Checkmate: The End Game

The Queen’s Gambit is a well-crafted show, from its script to the superb acting of its cast. We cannot fault the writers for writing the plot as it is, and we can at least commend them for having a deliberate agenda which they executed to perfection. The reality, however, is The Queen’s Gambit is a modern fairy tale. Like how Cinderella made little girls dream of finding their prince, this series aimed to make women everywhere forget, even for a time, that systematic sexism still exists, and that they can achieve anything in life simply by utilizing their gifts and overcoming their own demons. The show did not send any message regarding social change pertaining to gender equality.

Since the show adapted the screenplay for the book, it would have been controversial to make significant changes to the direction of the plot in the series. However, it would have been interesting to include elements of reality in the show, especially those relating to the stark ratio difference between men and women in the upper echelons of the game. It would have been eye-opening to see realistic representation of how women actually fare in chess, and seeing their struggles depicted accurately would have made an actual feminist piece, as it would have provided an opportunity to generate factual discussions on the gender issues surrounding chess today. For now though, we can be content with a show that is entertaining. As long as we can suspend our disbelief in the process.


Jay-ar G. Paloma

Jay-ar G. Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. Jay-ar likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard. Leave your love notes to Jay-ar here: jr@voxpopuliph.com.

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