The queen’s bet: feminist triumph or flop?
Written by Becca Brown
Anyone who has a friend’s stolen Netflix password (thanks Charlie for mine) has heard of The Queen’s Gambit (A. Scott Frank, 2020). In the months since its release, chess sales have increased by 125% and much of the Netflix binging world has been overtaken by the chess mania (I never thought I would say this). The Queen’s Gambit is an elegant miniseries that gives chess a fashionable alluring appearance. I loved every second: the characterization; feminist nuances; cinematography; the impeccable staging. She helped break down the boundaries between feature film and television, in the same way that The OA (2016, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij) could have done with some decent good publicity. But, over time, issues have arisen with what is apparently a cinematic triumph, from reviews to court cases. This brings me to the question: is this The Queen’s Gambit a suave new feminist approach, or is it a matter of style rather than substance?
It is indisputable that The Queen’s Gambit is stylistically a triumph. It’s set in the 50s and 60s, and cinematographer Steven Meizler, set designer Uli Hanisch, and costume designer Gabriele Binder do an amazing job of encapsulating these eras in a way that feels fresh, avoiding the cliché. Back to the future– esque production design (I’m not saying a classic, mind you). The color palettes are beautifully crafted with an arthouse feel to meet Hollywood, clearly guiding audiences on what they’re supposed to feel but still maintaining a very artistic undertone (for reference, check out Beth’s expression and the colors echoing in the frame published by @colourpalette .cinéma on Instagram). The general impression that the color palette and the scenography will give you is elegant, mirroring Beth’s unusual Bildungsroman (or coming of age) from a clumsy teenage girl to a chess grandmaster.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth herself is always meticulously styled, in checkered aprons, “the contrast of the checkered print also reflects the nuances of the game itself – it’s decisive, it’s win or lose” , in the white dress and desaturated gray tones at the end of the show, “to convey that she is now the queen on the chessboard and that the chessboard itself is the world”. In her character, they made chess – for lack of a better word – sexy. She is attractive, intelligent and competent, and both male and female audiences can fall in love with her completely. Anya Taylor-Joy herself is captivating, supported in her performance by another very impressive cast; it’s no wonder she won several awards for the role. It would therefore seem difficult to find fault with a show that appeals to all audiences.
However, The Queen’s Gambit has not escaped criticism. @thatconniechin took to Twitter – in a tweet with nearly 400,000 likes – to illustrate “male authors trying to show a woman at the bottom”, accompanied by this image:
The tweet has sparked debate about what an “accurate” portrayal of a woman struggling with depression, addiction and grief looks like. Several argued that it didn’t look like a skinny top and underwear, perfect hair and freshly shaved legs, with a beer (A woman? Drinking beer? She must be hysterical) and a cigarette. Others have argued that depression is different for every individual and that a TV show deserves an artistic license. However, oil has been added to the fire of feminist criticism for The Queen’s Gambit when Georgian Grandmaster Nona Gaprindashvili filed a lawsuit against Netflix for invasion of privacy and defamation by false lighting in September 2021.
The show mentioned Gaprindashvili in an episode set in 1968 while talking about Beth, saying “the only thing unusual about her [Beth], really, it’s his gender. And even this is not unique to Russia. – Gaprindashvili being actually from Georgia, not Russia – ‘There is Nona Gaprindashvili, but she is the female world champion and she has never faced men.’ In fact, by 1968 she had actually faced at least 59 male players – 28 simultaneously in one match – including at least 10 Grandmasters of the time, according to the lawsuit filed. This slight inaccuracy may seem insignificant, but as the lawsuit states, “Netflix brazenly and deliberately lied about Gaprindashvili’s accomplishments for the cheap and cynical purpose of ‘heightening the drama’ …”, thus undermining a real pioneer chess player to idolize their fictitious. Netflix further proved its misogyny by stating that the lawsuit had “no merit” – implying the classic “female hysteria” in the grandmaster’s argument.
In short, there is no doubt that The Queen’s Gambit is masterful cinema. It is captivating, beautiful and tackles an interesting and unique subject never seen before. But it is the struggle of art which is the only creative work on a subject; it should not be presented as a gospel but is often seen as such. While The Queen’s Gambit can be enjoyed as a quasi-feminist film piece (perhaps the closest a male director can get?), it should also be understood as a work of fiction. Beth’s fantastic victories should being eclipsed by Nona Gaprindashvili’s reals, but society’s tendency to prioritize fictionalized art over history means they aren’t. For me, this lack of self-awareness on Netflix’s part and their blatantly sexist response to genuine feminist grievances somewhat diminishes my overall love for the show itself. That said, it is definitely a must-have; maybe just with a little historical background first.
Written by Becca Brown
Fruzsina Vida is editor-in-chief of arts and culture at Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at [email protected]