Chess Can Also Be Beautiful: Meaningful Feminism in “The Queen’s Gambit”

It’s unlike me to write reviews of films, and even more unlike me to write reviews of film series. But for Netflix’s new (well, it was new when I began this post…) original show The Queen’s Gambit, I find myself having to make an exception. (Fair warning: hardcore spoilers ahead.)

This show. There are so many elements to it that are so masterfully done. The scriptwriting is fantastic, the cinematography an artform in itself. The acting is impeccable, the pace gripping, the whole show so cleanly executed, that it is difficult to even choose what to write about.

One of the several main themes in this show is feminism, and it seems as though most of its reviews centre around that theme, so I would normally choose to talk about something else. I also don’t particularly like the way feminism is often used in stories; I think it tends to make for shallow characters and tired tropes. However, The Queen’s Gambit revisits feminism in a beautiful way — in a chess way. It is subtle, and yet everywhere. You have to study the show to see it, the way you must study a chessboard to go beyond the obvious moves.

The obvious, and dare I say cultural, feminist themes of the show are there, too, of course. Beth Harmon is a young girl in a men’s world. She is strong, she is female, she is charting new territory for women. She is undoubtedly bringing a flair of fashion into the stereotypically drab world of chess. Reporters pick up on this throughout the show; it is the focus of almost every interview she gives. Her clothing is emphasized, her gender is emphasized, the fact that her playing is described in a manly way is emphasized… But this strong independent woman stereotype that TV feminism so often boils down to is, I think, missing the real point of the show. Beth is more than a woman. She is a person. When her adopted mother apologizes for stopping halfway through reading a review, Beth seems almost relieved, and brushes off her fame, saying that “It’s mostly about me being a girl, anyways.” Beth isn’t playing chess to show that women can play chess, nor is she playing for the sake of all women. She never mentions, as Kamala Harris did in her vice-presidential speech, that she is breaking new territory. She doesn’t want to be seen as the best female chess player, but the best chess player period.

Beth’s journey begins in an orphanage, the Methuen Home for girls to be educated. The opening episode shows daily life at Methuen as a place of rules: how to dress, what to eat, how to behave like a proper lady, what sort of music to sing, how to socialize, etc. They are the rules of the world at the time, in many ways. Beth does not blatantly disregard the rules and cause trouble like her fellow orphan, Jolene, though she does learn from the older girl. Instead, Beth finds a different world with a set of rules she wants to learn about. Rules that are universal and equitable. The rules of chess. However, Beth is also introduced to tranquilizer pills at Methuen Home and quickly becomes addicted. It is an interesting paradox, for her character is driven by perfect control over the world of chess on the one hand, and on the other by substance abuse resulting in lack of control in the real world.

At first, Beth purposefully uses the pills to disassociate from the real world so that she can focus completely on chess. Mr. Shaibel, the gruff old janitor of Methuen, starts her at a disadvantage by only letting her play the black pieces, which always start second. He also refuses to tell her all the rules right away, but this only inspires Beth to work them out on her own, again relying on the pills. She states in one interview that chess is like “an entire world of just 64 squares,” and she can control everything in it. It is tempting to read this like the famous Shakespearean soliloquy: “All the world’s a stage,” or chessboard as the case may be. However, the stage is a world in itself, a world in which you may step into the skins and temperaments of many different characters, live out different lives and actions, and learn more about yourself and the world you live in. That’s how chess works in The Queen’s Gambit. Little orphan Beth doesn’t try to fit the real world into her chess set, looking at the king and queen as a mother and father figure (as one reporter suggests). Using the pills, she initially tries to leave the real world behind and make chess her ultimate world. And over time, she learns to fit into the real world through chess.

I think this is what makes The Queen’s Gambit so refreshingly different. There are no attempts to have Beth (or even Jolene) personally relate to the black chess pieces since they begin at a disadvantage, or petitions to make half of the pawns and other pieces female for the sake of equality. This is how a lot of modern feminism works, but this is trying to stuff ideals from our world into the chess set. Beth learns from the inside out. She learns that even though the black pieces starts with a disadvantage, they can still win. Halfway through the show, she becomes obsessed with her pawns, realizing that every little piece can play a hugely important role. She takes these realizations and rules from the world of chess, and she plays by those rules as much as possible in real life as well. It is not confidence in the real world that gives her confidence in chess. It is her confidence in chess that gives her confidence in the real world.

To see how Beth’s confidence in chess is what carries her forward in reality, one need look no farther than her clothing. (A quick pause for a massive round of applause for the incredible costume designer in this series.) Her outfits are obviously stunning and striking, something constantly commented on by the paparazzi in the show, but Beth isn’t wearing clothes in order to stand out. She almost literally clothes herself in the game of chess; nearly every item in her wardrobe, from competition dresses to bathing suits, is black and white with some form of geometric design that corresponds to the chessboard. This trend in her clothes only begins when Beth starts to dress herself, showing again that she is finding a way to bring chess into the world, rather than the world into chess.

Interestingly, there are two crucial moments where Beth’s wardrobe lacks the chess set look. The first is when her adopted mother passes away in Mexico. It’s an event over which Beth has no control, and so she begins to lose the confidence and safety of the chessboard, where she has complete control. Rather than the signature black and white contrast, Beth begins clothing herself in colours of uncertainty and loss: the inverse soft blues and pinks which her mother used to wear. These colours and styles look unnatural on Beth, and serve as an outer reflection of her inner unravelling.

The second noticeable instance of Beth’s outfit deviating from her usual look is during the match with Borgov, the Russian Grandmaster, where she shows up late. Here again, Beth is in a state of having lost control. She had sworn off of alcohol and unhealthy habits as much as possible, but the night before this match she unravels again. When she frantically dresses herself in the morning and runs to the match in disarray, her dress is a tell-tale sign of her mental state. This is the only piece of clothing she wears with a bow, symbolically trying to hold herself together. The dress still has the geometric elements of the chess board, but it is not quite black and white. Instead, it is a dark green and a sickly light green – the exact same colours of the tranquilizer pills to which she has become addicted. She is tinged, if you will, with lack of self control. While she often uses the pills to be able to control the world of chess, this moment — both in wardrobe and in storyline — is foreshadowing that if Beth is not careful, the pills may eventually control her. And her reliance on the pills is no use at all in this particular match: Borgov defeats her with ease.

All of this — the struggle for control, navigating the worlds of chess and reality, trying to establish herself as more than just a woman — is what makes Beth’s victory in the final episode so much sweeter. While in Russia, she flushes her pills down the toilet, determined once and for all to be in control, both of the chessboard and her life. She garners help from friends in the real world who work together to help her be on her best game. And when she faces Borgov and ultimately wins, it is a victory in chess that carries over into her real life. Beth’s final outfit is a stunning white coat with a white beret on top — as many critics have pointed out, she has effectively become the white queen, arguably the most powerful piece on the chessboard. But it is through chess, through winning this ultimate tournament and gaining perfect control of her chess game, that Beth is able to then become a star in real life and gain control of her reality as well. Beneath the white coat her clothes are black, a subtle reminder of both her humbler, disadvantaged beginning, and also symbolic that she has mastered all sides of the board.

What is so beautiful about this journey is that Beth’s respect and renown come from a truly egalitarian playing field. The Russian Grandmasters that she plays in this final tournament do not begrudge her the game because she is a woman; rather, they celebrate with Beth the beauty of a well-played game of chess. It goes far beyond the surface level judgments of gender put on Beth by the press, who constantly accentuate that she is “a woman in a man’s world.” Instead, Beth has found a world where people, regardless of gender, can engage in a sort of dance, where chess truly isn’t always about the competition. In the last scene, Beth walks alone through the streets of Moscow and comes across a set of open-air chess sets. The players recognize her, congratulate her, and invite her to play a game with them. Beth sits down with one of them as the rest gather round to watch, and the ultimate message of the show comes through. One player against another, but both prepared to enjoy the game. Beth in her element behind a chess set, but also outdoors in reality instead of cooped up in her house or Benny’s basement. There is no more distinction between chess and the world, and Beth Harmon is ready to play.

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