Holiday Show Rec: The Queen’s Gambit

By Alexandra Johnson

On October 23, 2020, Netflix released its limited mini series The Queen’s Gambit, and since then, the series has enjoyed stellar reviews from critics, a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and incredible popularity. The Queen’s Gambit utilizes the rising “mini series” format, which combines elements of the television and movie formats, such as the shorter plots and solid endings of movies and the well-developed, immersive characters and storylines of tv shows. The show tackles issues of drug addiction, social issues, and most prominently, sexism in daily life and in the world of Chess. 

When the show first premiered, some viewers were originally put off by a series about chess with a classic prodigy trope. But the show is far from just that, and as audiences began to appreciate the series, it quickly became the top show on Netflix. The Queen’s Gambit takes place in 1950s and 60s America, and follows the life of Beth Harmon. At age 9, Beth is orphaned and placed in a Catholic girls’ home, where she learns to play chess. She falls in love with the game, and soon realizes that she is a prodigy. Beth grows up, and eventually enters the world of professional chess, and we spend the rest of the series immersed in her journey to become a world champion Chess player, amid drug addiction, battles with sexism, and so much more.

But why has this show garnered so much popularity? Why are so many people pressing play and finding themselves watching the whole show in one sitting? Though there are many reasons, such as the beautiful cinematography, costumes, and acting, one of the most important is the way that Beth Harmon is written. She is a woman in a male dominated world and is constantly fighting sexism. At the same time, her character challenges and strays away from popular female character tropes, and her lines can even be seen as similar to the writing for typical male characters. Thus, Beth Harmon is refreshing, multi-dimensional, and viewers want to see her succeed. 

At first, Beth is set up like some other tropes. She has a tragic backstory, is immature and unstable, has an uncommon relationship with chess, and sticks out in the male denominated word of chess, where she is constantly seen as an object for men. The expectation for that typical female character is quickly shut down as we begin to see more sides of Beth, and as the men in her life begin to see more sides of her too. Her character is not defined by the constraints of her trauma, instability, addiction, or the opinions of others. Like many male characters, she engages in several romantic relationships with different people, but she never chases after any of them, and these relationships are never a big focus. The focus is always Beth’s determination to go as far as she can with vhess. Through these relationships, some men also stop seeing Beth as a poor, young, misunderstood object of desire, but as an equal, and end up forming friendships with her to help her succeed. 

As the show is set in the 1960s and 1950s, we get a glimpse of the way women were viewed and treated by men in that time period, most notably in the world of chess. As a woman who has played and competed in chess since a young age, the ingrained sexism seemed normal and expected to me. Chess isn’t exactly one of the most followed games, and many people probably don’t even realize there are professional chess competitions and chess Grandmasters. I never heard any discussion about chess outside the Chess world, so I never realized how bad the sexism was, and still is. 

Since I was around six years old, boys expressing anger when being paired to play me,  refusing to shake my hand, or making sexist remarks they probably didn’t even understand at tournaments was normal to me. Boys’ fathers getting upset when their sons were paired with me on the basis of me “just being a girl” was also normal to me, and was just something that happened during tournaments (on a side note, like Beth, I would often win, and prove them wrong then and there). Watching The Queen’s Gambit is the first time I ever really questioned experiences like that, and gave me a character who rose up against and did not let herself be affected by that sexism. The Queen’s Gambit sets a standard, and shows that movies and tv shows have the power to uplift and represent certain people, while also having complex and interesting characters and storylines so it can appeal to other people who may not have had those experiences. 

The Queen’s Gambit is an amazing example of what it takes to make a show great. It is a limited series, so it is only worried about telling the story from start to finish, and not setting up characters and stories for further seasons. The characters, especially the lead, Beth Harmon, are written in an interesting and refreshing way, and it is based on an interesting and unusual topic, the world of chess. It has received amazing reviews and a strong reception, and sets new standards for female characters in media, all while being visually appealing, engaging, and very entertaining.