The Queen’s Gambit: Female Genius or Femme Fatale?

On the 23rd of October, Netflix released its original limited series The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon to immense critical acclaim. Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Trevis, it follows the beautiful, intellectual but deeply troubled Kentucky orphan who, from a young age, becomes dangerously obsessed with attaining the World Chess Championship title. Through her journey into the professional chess world she battles drug addiction, alcoholism and emotional turmoil as the balance between her professional and private life comes to a crisis point.

The series, split into 7 hour long episodes, is visually breath-taking in its 1950s and 60s setting, with stunningly cohesive colour palettes and attention to detail, constructing an aesthetically pleasing journey through Harmon’s early years to young adulthood. Moving through the greys of her childhood, to the pale pinks and teals of her teenage years and the rich black and white of her twenties, we are taken on a visually ornate pleasure cruise full of mid-20th century Americana iconography and culture.

Anya Taylor-Joy, now tipped to break further into the mainstream off the back of The Queen’s Gambit, cuts a stark, often androgynous figure, as the fiery redheaded Beth. Her large eyes and almost doll-like appearance work well to create tensions between her petite and immaculate presentation and the ruthless dedication and determination that lurks within. Many of the supporting actors deliver equally commendable performances, particularly Marielle Heller as Beth’s adoptive mother who provides a sardonic but gentle counterpoint to Beth’s acuteness. My only criticism would be Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s character, Benny Watts, one of Harmon’s fellow chess prodigies, who often appears a little caricatured. Perhaps this is because of Brodie-Sangster’s Hollywood fame not allowing a suspense in belief, or his strange cowboy-esque costuming, but he was the only character I had a hard time investing in. His American accent, along with British actor Harry Melling’s (who you may recognise as Dudley Durlsey from the Harry Potter Films) as Harry Beltik are both pleasantly convincing however.

The series is well paced, the seven hours of viewing time allowing for well-structured and contained plot arcs following Beth’s overarching journey into the fierce world of competitive chess, and lacks the aimlessness and set piece stuffing that many other Netflix originals fall prey to in order to sustain audience engagement. Receiving praise from the chess community for the accurate and meticulous depiction of gameplay, the central focus on the game never loses its allure, with each match feeling like we’re witnessing a new vicious battle.

We watch Beth grow up, we wince at her choices and feel our hearts in our mouths as we witness her win match after match whilst simultaneously spiralling further into substance abuse and self-destruction. Though often terse, arrogant and heedless, we remain invested in Miss Harmon and her quest for greatness in the patriarchal America of the 1960s.

She is undoubtedly a strong female character, standing her ground and fighting her way to the top of her game as one of the lone females in a man’s world. But how feminist is The Queen’s Gambit?

Harmon never sacrifices her femininity for the sake of her prowess, remaining beautifully turned out as she climbs the ranks of the chess championship. But is her beauty something that elevates her in the professional world? Had she been less of a visual spectacle, would she have provided such a fearless protagonist and caused such a spike of attention? I believe the beauty of Beth perhaps undermines her strength as a female; not that beauty and brains cannot co-exist, but I think had she been a far plainer looking girl, her chess success would appear even more skill based than her role as the mysterious, attractive and uniquely talented newcomer. She also engages in sexual relationships with many of her male peers; though empowering to watch her conquer her male contemporaries on the board, does the shift into the realm of sexual conquest impair the power behind her victory?

Is this an emancipating move as she triumphs over her peers both on and off the board? Or, is it reductive seeing our heroine fall into bed, succumbing to the men she has sworn to defeat?

On the other hand, should we celebrate Beth as an all-consuming force of nature who is able to annihilate her adversaries with logic and allure?

I personally wished that Beth had not been seen to lustily entangle herself with her peers; I felt that the brilliance of her role as a female chess genius becomes slightly weakened when complex sexual politics become involved. I would have liked to have seen her remain fiercely defiant against them and for her contemporaries to view her simply as a revered rival, rather than a female body to vanquish. There was a sense that Beth could be victorious in chess, but they would always hold a carnal defeat over her.

Instead, perhaps, we should view Beth’s sexual subjugation of Harry and Benny as her weapon of ultimate female power; she allows herself to use them and further extends her dominance, drawing in sex, lust, obsession, dependence and abuse into the coldly logical game of chess. The sharpness of her seemingly nonchalant enchantment is only second to her razor-like mind.

After all, the queen is the most powerful piece.

Emily Finan

Image Credit: The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix

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