Melléklet 8. –Záró munka (The Queen’s Gambit, B gyerek munkája)

The Queen’s Gambit: feminist or misogynistic?

By: Student QG 2021/04/09

The critically acclaimed Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit is based on a book by the same name, written by Walter Tevis, published in 1983. It follows an orphaned girl’s life, as she experiences the trials of pursuing a career in chess as a woman. Themes of the novel include topics like, romance, addiction, (to drugs, alcohol, winning) grief, coming of age, tension, pursuit of victory/success, mental illness, chasing control, karma, and sexism. The latter inevitably becomes a topic, when a show has a female main character, which is one the reason why I would like to analyze the Queen’s Gambit: is it really a significant piece of feminist art? Is it another example of performative activism for the sake of profit and acclaim? Or does it lie… somewhere in the middle? The fact that the Queen’s Gambit has an independent female main character might make the show seem like the pinnacle of diversity on the surface. However, this fact does not supplement for other shortcomings of the show, not in terms of plot or production quality, but in terms of diversity, and ultimately its characteristics of its storytelling.

First, I would like to discuss what the Queen’s Gambit does right. It meticulously exhibits how addiction has hugely detrimental effects, many times coincides with childhood neglect, and is not restricted to substances. The show also depicts women in positions of power and influence, achieving success, accomplishing feats. Gender disparities are brought up, however, the focus is on victory instead of suffering. These are all positive aspects of the show (that are exaggerated by the remarkable cast and noteworthy set-design); however, they all have their own respective shortcomings.

For example, many have critiqued the way Beth’s (the main character’s) lowest point is brought to life. In the scenes that are supposed to demonstrate the consequences of her unhealthy behaviour, instead of, or besides, witnessing her humanly suffering, her character is sexualized, glamourized. To capture the lowest point in a woman’s life, the camera decides to closely trace her half naked body, while she smokes and seductively stares at the ceiling. Why exactly is this problematic?

This occasion is simply another exhibition of the male gaze: when a piece of cinema, instead of highlighting women’s experiences, for women, is made for men, to be palatable for them, attractive in their eyes. What is particularly unsettling, in my opinion, about the aforementioned set of scenes, is that the large majority of the production crew were men. I am not saying they took advantage of the actress, or formulated the show for their own amusement; however, men were in charge of depicting women’s experiences. So they applied their own view onto it, and influenced following generations of men to expect sex-appeal from women at their low, and enforced the idea that the worthy perspectives of women are attractive ones.

They did this, not only through cinematography, but also with the plot itself. Beth is presented to be an independent character; however, she is constantly tied to men: their acceptance, approval, support, reciprocation of her affection, etc. And most prevalently: 

she does not antagonize them. Despite the countless barriers that men have placed in her life she restrains from ever speaking seriously negatively about men. In fact, men are credited for her accomplishments. Her learning chess, officially getting adopted, getting introduced to competitions, even winning the most relevant match of her life, at the climax of the show. And why? So that men who watch the show feel satisfied with themselves, and comfortable.

Another major issue with the show is it’s lack of racial diversity. Historical accuracy can not be brought up in defense, since BIPOC people have always existed, not highlighting them is not accuracy. There are two black speaking roles, one of which, Jolene, only exists as saviour to the main character (the magical n—- and modern mammy tropes), and in my personal opinion, to tick the diversity box (the other role is even less pertinent to the plot). (It is worthy to mention that there definitely could lie more errors with the show in terms of racial representation, but I feel I am more qualified and it is more appropriate of me to talk about gender issues as a white woman. Further resources and more elaborate explanations by people of color, are available below.)

Ultimately, what the queen’s gambit tries to do is tick all of the categories that are required for a show to be celebrated and publicly/socially acclaimed: have a token person of color among the cast, have female characters who are necessary to advance the plot, mention sexism, etc.

My objective with this essay is not to prove that The Queen’s Gambit is inherently a bad show or that it cannot/should not be enjoyed. It is not wrong to have a white main character, it also not wrong to have few characters of color on its own. However, sexism and racism are systems and structures. And a piece of media cannot stay disconnected from these systems: either plays into them, or actively defies them. 

Therefore the value of a plot, a story cannot stay disconnected from the manner in which it is presented. The queen’s gambit does not tell the wrong story. However, the story it tells is formulated to be just diverse enough for social congratulation, but holds back enough to be relatable and palatable for privileged audiences, and these factors are intrinsically part of the story as a whole; the value and “righteousness” of a plot cannot be severed from these aspects.  In short: the show is not necessarily a step backward; however it is not nearly as progressive as it advertised to be.

Breakdown scene:


Further explanations on race: