There are countless media that aims to show how women try to fit into a strongly patriarchal society/establishment. The Queen’s Gambit, a show about a female chess player in the 1950’s/60’s, is no different, but what, if anything, sets it apart from the rest? Before we start with the analysis it will be helpful to define some terms to better understand the goal of this analysis. To start, feminism “explores the diverse ways that men and women are socially empowered or disempowered” (Ott & Mack 2020). Other key terms that are needed are sexism, or “discrimination based upon a person’s perceived sex” (Ott & Mack 2020) as well as stereotype, or “misleading and simplified representation of a particular social group” (Ott & Mack 2020). One last term needed for this discussion is patriarchy (Ott & Mack 2020):
a system of power relations in which the interests of women and the value of femininity are subordinate to the interests of men and the value of masculinity. It is the logic of sexist discrimination.
Or in other words, a system that places men above women. With these terms defined and understood we are just one step away from being able to analyze the chosen media, but of course, we need to understand the piece of media being discussed.
The Queen’s Gambit is a 2020 Netflix show created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, based on a novel of the same name. The main character is Beth Harmon, who learned to play chess at the orphanage she was raised in. The series is mostly about her wanting to become the number one chess player in the world. Most of this analysis will focus on Beth and how she fits into the predominately male chess world, however it is also worth looking at other women depicted in the show to form a comparison of how they operate in their world.
The tagline for the show might as well be “girls do not play chess” (The Queen’s Gambit 2020) which is also a quote from episode one by the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, who teaches Beth how to play chess. Beth immediately starts listing off the possible directions each piece is allowed to move, which she figured out by watching him play and thus ultimately, he allows her to play. This is one of the first instances of Beth encountering a stereotype, again, a “simplified representation” (Ott & Mack 2020). Another form of stereotype that takes place in the basement while playing chess is when Mr. Shaibel brings in the coach of the local high school chess club to play against Beth. Mr. Ganz, the chess club coach, gifts Beth a doll after their playing. Beth hadn’t showed an interest in dolls at any point in the show up to there and it was clear that Mr. Ganz got her that particular gift because he thought, based on stereotypes, that it was something she would have wanted. She threw it away, perhaps a chess board would have gone over better as a gift? This hesitation of “girls do not play chess” is something that follows Beth for a while, or at least for the beginning of her chess career.
The stereotype is a part of a sub type of gender stereotyping; logic/emotion. This is how “media texts construct logic as a masculine trait and emotion as a feminine one” (Ott & Mack 2020). In other words, people are hesitant to see her interest in chess because it is a logical sport built on rational decision making which, because of stereotyping, isn’t something that should appeal to women. This isn’t to say that the show avoids stereotyping. The other girls that go to Beth’s school tease her for her clothing, which reinforces that women care about beauty and looks. Later, in episode 3, Beth is hanging out with the same girls that bullied her, instead of asking her about chess they ask, “Is there anyone you’ve met that you’d like to… trade rooks with or whatever?” (The Queen’s Gambit 2020). The girls aren’t interested in chess, they are interested in boys, beauty, and bands as they begin to ignore Beth completely to belt out the words of a song that came on the TV. Beth’s adoptive mother, Mrs. Wheatley, is also a stereotypical character. In episode two she is playing the piano and reveals to Beth that she once dreamed of being in an orchestra but put those dreams aside because of stage fright and then later pregnancy (The Queen’s Gambit 2020). This falls under the provider/nurturer stereotype (Ott & Mack 2020):
Women, in contrast, are coded as passive and weak, and media texts therefore tend to represent them as the “family nurturer.” The common sitcom image of the housewife is the most obvious expression of this. Here, the woman’s responsibility is to nurture the family by cleaning the house, taking care of the children, and fixing meals
Mrs. Wheatley abandoned her dreams of playing the piano because instead she was forced into the role of housewife while her husband got to play bread winner. Even when her husband abandons the family, Mrs. Wheatley’s role only slightly shifts, in her own words, “Though I’m no longer a wife, except by a legal fiction… I believe I can learn to be a mother” (The Queen’s Gambit 2020). While her role changes from wife to mother, that is still a stereotype of nurturing, but it is possible it was too late for her to follow her own dreams, but not too late for Beth. This may be why she so strongly encourages Beth to keep playing chess, since it is Beth’s dream.
If the above is how Beth fits into the world around her, how so do the men in the world react to her? In other words, how does the patriarchy of the chess world respond when the rising star is a female player? As stated above, the hesitation will follow Beth at least in the beginning of her career. In her first tournament the other players are astonished as she is routinely the first to finish (and win) her matches and quickly rises the brackets to go against highly ranked opponents while she herself isn’t a ranked player. During her first tournament a ranked player named Beltik is her last match in the finals. He shows up late to the match while his clock was running the whole time and while playing he yawns often as if bored and sure that he can win. When he realizes he lost he forces Beth to keep playing instead of forfeiting until it is absolutely clear that he lost. The crowd cheers and Beth is named the winner of the Kentucky State Championship. What is interesting with this turn of events is that Beltik is one of the few if not the only player who are absolutely devastated at being beaten by a girl. Other players seem to not only take Beth seriously as a player but also closely follow her career and congratulate her at each milestone.
Other media may have the female lead constantly proving themselves and their abilities to their male cohorts. Take Hidden Figures for instance, in a movie about three African American women who worked in NASA, they are seen dealing with constant push back and trying to reaffirm their position amongst the other scientists and mathematicians. In that particular movie there are constant roadblocks put up to deter those women from doing their jobs, such as not being allowed into meetings or being forced to use a female bathroom on the other side of the campus. While Hidden Figures and other media with female leads who encounter constant obstacles may be more realistic to the real world, it is worth noting that Beth Harmon doesn’t seem to have the same number of objections on her skill and belonging. In other words, the men around Beth don’t seem to act in an actively sexist manner by belittling her or putting down her skill. Instead their sexism is more passive because they mostly can’t believe that a woman would want to play chess due entirely to their perception of stereotypes.
In conclusion, a feminist analysis of The Queen’s Gambit will show how Beth Harmon navigates the predominately male chess world along with how other women have managed to fit into the world. The surprising outcome of the analysis is noticing the show’s avoidance of typical gender discrimination tropes which leads to a viewing of a patriarchy that is more accepting yet still hesitant at a female’s interest and skill at chess. Which comes at the cost of potentially seeming less realistic. Though Beth Harmon is an outlier within the show as there are depictions of other women who fall into more classical portrayals, or stereotypes, of women. While feminism is about individuality and choice meaning that a person should be able to decide to how much they want to fit into certain stereotypes, there should still be broad depictions of people across media to show the possible ways one can choose to fit into the world around them instead of feeling locked into default life options. The Queen’s Gambit seems to do a good job of showing the different ways that people can fit into the world with the choices they have made.
Ott, B. L., & Mack. R. L. (2020). Critical media studies: An introduction (3rd ed.) John Wiley & Sons, Incorp.
Alan Scott (Writer), and Scott Frank (Director). (2020) The Queen’s Gambit Los Gatos, CA, Netflix
Allison Schroeder (Writer), and Theodore Melfi (Director). (2017) Hidden Figures Los Angeles, Ca 20th Century Fox