Beth Harmon is rarely seen in the show without a chessboardTWITTER/ROTTENTOMATOES

There’s no question that The Queen’s Gambit is a joy to watch. With beautiful cinematography, masterful storytelling and a stellar performance from Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, it’s one of Netflix’s biggest successes. The show follows Beth — chess prodigy extraordinaire, fashion lover, addict — on her journey from orphanage to international chess championship and the obstacles she overcomes in order to become not just good, but the very best.

“[S]he experiences the 1960s with all of its style and none of its sexism.”

Such challenges include drug and alcohol dependency, but notably, not her gender. Chess is a hugely male-dominated game to this day, yet this never poses a problem for Beth. Her male opponents respect and admire her. Outside of the chess board, she experiences the 1960s with all of its style and none of its sexism. A vague sense of patriarchy is felt — in her first tournament, Beth is unhappy about being matched with the only other girl — but in general she’s unencumbered by any gendered inequalities from opponents or institutions. "The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex," a commentator notes in Beth’s final match, "and even that’s not unique in Russia," where the championship is being held. It is left at that.

Beth's expressions during chess games let the viewer anticipate her wins and lossesTWITTER/0lgiPolgi

Ultimately, this is a deeply refreshing approach to gender. Beth’s relentless ambition is immensely gratifying to me as a viewer, as is the support from all the men around her. "Men are gonna come along and want to teach you things," Beth’s mother warns ominously in the opening line of the trailer. Indeed, they do, as supportive mentors within relationships of mutual respect. At the same time, Beth’s most emotionally significant relationships are with other women: Alma, her adoptive mother and Jolene, a friend from her childhood orphanage. Beth’s embrace of fashion not only allows for some incredible costume design, but also neatly sidesteps the "brains vs beauty" dichotomy. There's no need to choose between chess and the dress.

Several critics, however, have called out The Queen’s Gambit for erasing the institutional barriers faced by women in the 1960s. Certainly, Beth’s experiences in chess are close to impossible. Judit Polgár, the only woman to be ranked in the top ten of all chess players and therefore Beth’s closest real-life counterpart, commented on how her own experiences of sexism diverged from the show: "They were too nice to her." Moreover, despite Beth's interest in fashion, The Queen’s Gambit only ambiguously rejects the "not like other girls" trope. Harmon’s school career follows the well-trodden path of the outsider among the popular girls, alienated from her classmates’ obsession with pop culture and boys. She isn’t like other girls, because of her exceptional chess ability. In turn, the other girls are not like her, remaining one-dimensional without the privilege of Beth’s complexity.

“Beth Harmon is a poster girl for the American dream, where hard work and talent will get you anywhere.”

In the show’s embrace of meritocracy, Beth Harmon is a poster girl for the American dream, where hard work and talent will get you anywhere. It’s a classic rags-to-riches story which prefers escapist fantasy to the acknowledgement of structural inequalities. In this case, it works, and a distraction into the world of chess proves highly welcome. I’m glad viewers didn’t watch Beth face institutional sexism, but I wonder about the extent to which this was a deliberate choice. Chess is one site of gender inequality; the film and TV industry is another. Since the show is written, directed, and produced by men, it is possible that the absence of institutional sexism is simply a reflection of the fact that neither Walter Tevis (the author of the 1983 eponymous novel), nor the all-male creative team experienced it.


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Perhaps the true significance of The Queen’s Gambit lies beyond the screen. The massive popularity of the show is itself redressing gender inequities within chess, leading to a huge spike of interest in the game, particularly among women. On another practical level, the show has helped female chess instructors. Anastasiya Karlovich, a grandmaster, pointed out that the parents of her chess students now have more respect for her. Providing tangible benefits for female chess players in real life (and engrossing escapism for everyone else), The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t need to show institutional sexism on screen to combat it.