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The Queen’s Gambit: Triumph or Feminist Flop?

Written by Becca Brown

Anyone with a friend’s stolen Netflix password (thank you Charlie for mine) has heard of The Queen’s Gambit (A. Scott Frank, 2020). In the months after its release, chess sales rose 125 percent and much of the Netflix-binging world was overtaken with chess mania (I never thought I’d say that). The Queen’s Gambit is a stylish miniseries that makes chess appear seductively fashionable. I loved every second of it: the characterisation; the feminist undertones; the cinematography; the flawless mise-en-scène. It has contributed to the breaking of boundaries between feature film and television, in a similar way that The OA (2016, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij) might have done with decent good advertising. But, as time has passed, problems have arisen with what is seemingly a cinematic triumph, from criticism to court cases. This leads me to the question: is The Queen’s Gambit a suave new feminist take, or is it a case of style over substance?

It is indisputable that The Queen’s Gambit is stylistically a triumph. It is set across the ‘50s and ‘60s, and cinematographer Steven Meizler, production designer Uli Hanisch and costume designer Gabriele Binder do an astounding job of encapsulating these eras in a way that feels fresh, avoiding the cliché Back to the Future-esque production design (I’m not dissing a classic, mind you). The colour palettes are beautifully designed in an arthouse-meets-Hollywood way, clearly guiding the audience on how they are supposed to feel but retaining a very artistic nuance (for reference, look at Beth’s expression and echoing colours in the frame posted by @colourpalette.cinema on Instagram). The overall impression the colour palette and set design will give you is stylish, mirroring the unusual Bildungsroman (or coming-of-age) of Beth from a gawky adolescent into chess Grandmaster.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth herself is always meticulously styled, from the checked pinafores, ‘the contrast of the check print also mirrors the nuances of the game itself — it’s decisive, it’s win or lose’, to the white dress and desaturated grey tones at the end of the show, ‘to convey that she is now the queen on the chessboard and the chessboard itself is the world.’. In her character, they have made chess – for want of a better word – sexy. She is seductive, intelligent, and competent, and both male and female audiences can fall utterly in love with her. Anya Taylor-Joy herself is captivating, supported in her performance by a very impressive fellow cast; it is no wonder she has won multiple awards for the role. It would seem, then, a challenge 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 rock bottom’, accompanied by this image:

Picture Credit: IMDB

The tweet sparked debate over what an ‘accurate’ depiction of a woman struggling with depression, addiction, and bereavement looks like. Several argued that it does not look like a skimpy top and underwear, perfect hair, and freshly shaved legs, with a beer (A woman? Drinking beer? She must be hysterical) and a cigarette. Others argued that depression looks different to each individual, and a TV show is merited artistic licence. However, fuel was added to the fire of feminist criticism for The Queen’s Gambit when Georgian Grandmaster Nona Gaprindashvili filed a lawsuit against Netflix for false light invasion of privacy and defamation in September 2021.

The show mentioned Gaprindashvili in one episode set in 1968 whilst talking about Beth, saying ‘the only unusual thing about her [Beth], really, is her sex. And even that’s not unique in Russia.’ – Gaprindashvili in fact being from Georgia, not Russia – ‘There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.’ In fact, by 1968, she had in fact faced at least 59 male players – 28 simultaneously in one game – 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 achievements for the cheap and cynical purpose of “heightening the drama”…’, undermining an actual pioneering female chess player in order to idolise their fictional one. Netflix further proved their 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 topic not seen before. But that is the struggle of art that is the sole piece of creative work on a topic; it should not be heralded as gospel but is often taken as such. Whilst The Queen’s Gambit can be appreciated as a quasi-feminist piece of cinema (Perhaps the closest a male director can get?), it should also be understood as a work of fiction. Beth’s fantasy victories should be overshadowed by Nona Gaprindashvili’s real ones, but society’s tendency to prioritise romanticised art over history means they are not. 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 of the show itself. Having said that, it does undoubtedly remain a must-see; perhaps just with a bit of historical context first. 

Written by Becca Brown