Beth Harmon is an unconventional lead in The Queen’s Gambit, which initially characterizes its strong female lead as a typical “manic pixie dream girl” (of MPDG) trope — only to tear it down by the finale. The seven-episode miniseries shows viewers the fascinating world of the competitive chess circuit, circa the 1960s. Boasting a gorgeous period-accurate aesthetic and an impressive performance by star Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit is not just a love letter to a specific moment in American history — it’s a condemnation of the cultural tendency to romanticize — or worse, normalize — mental illness and substance abuse among brilliant female characters.
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The Queen’s Gambit is an acclaimed miniseries based on the 1983 novel of the same name, written by Walter Tevis. Like the novel, the Netflix show focuses on orphan Beth Harmon as she develops into a world-renown chess player. The story begins with her introduction to the sport and ends with her climactic showdown in Russian, inspired by the true story of the American-Russian chess rivalry during the Cold War. In real life, the young American upstart Bobby Fischer defeated the standing world champion, Russian Boris Spassky, in the 1972 World Chess Championship.
Fischer serves as the primary inspiration for Beth Harmon; however, The Queen’s Gambit wisely avoids various controversial aspects of the real life chess prodigy’s personality (such as his anti-semitism). Like Fischer, Beth is a young prodigy but has difficulty relating to her peers. Instead of exploring the global anxiety that fuelled the tension between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., The Queen’s Gambit instead focuses on Beth’s experience as a woman in the 1960s; the series juxtaposes Beth’s feelings of isolation and loneliness to those of the other women around her, who, when relegated to the insular roles of being homemakers, often descend into alcoholism, depression, and boredom. Yet, the show offers a glimmer of hope: rather than suggest this is the pattern women are doomed to repeat, the show shines a light on the conditions that created these problems in the first place, and — most important — allows Beth to overcome her issues on her own terms.
The Queen’s Gambit Challenges The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope
The Queen’s Gambit initially sets up Beth as a typical manic pixie dream girl stock character (albeit minus the whimsy): she is immature, unstable, and has an almost-mystical relationship with chess. Most importantly, however, she is repeatedly shown as the object of men’s sexual desire. The men in equal parts dismiss and lust after her, even as she trounces others in the sport again and again. This is shown most clearly with her short-lived relationship with Harry Beltik, who willingly ignores various red flags because he’s clearly in awe of her: he even moves into her home, seemingly on a whim, despite her being a young woman whose mother just passed away. Beth, for her part, becomes a vacuum whereby men’s likes, wants, and sexual desires can be projected on to her — even by Townes, the homosexual reporter. Lacking any motivations of her own, rather than to win at chess and stave off her own feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, Beth assumes the role willingly — or at least, she initially appears to.
Harry’s relationship with Beth is also where the The Queen’s Gambit subverts the MPDG trope — Harry comes to the realization that he’s in love with a fantasy, and perhaps even recognizes that by staying with Beth, he is ultimately exploiting her vulnerability and allowing her to continue her self-destructive path. Beth later enters a sexual relationship with the former American champion Benny Watts (her third in total), but this time Beth makes the choice to leave. Although it’s never fully explained, the implication is that she recognizes Benny’s obsession with chess (illustrated with his comments about her chess playing immediately following intercourse) is not conducive to a healthy relationship. She may even suspect that he’s only romantically interested in her because she bested him in the game, rather than being interested in her as a person.
In the end, the male characters in The Queen’s Gambit stop seeing Beth as a misunderstood, intriguing sexual object, and instead view her as a peer and a friend. Townes, her unrequited love interest, acknowledges that he was “under her spell” — alluding to her MPDG qualities — but is able to move beyond that, and the two get closure through forming a friendship. Beth recognizes that she doesn’t need a man in her life for the sake of validation — nor does she need to maintain an aura of mystery — and she lets down her walls; one of the most heartwarming scenes in the series is her phone call with her friends, the American chess players, who help her strategize for her upcoming game. Instead of Beth being the MPDG who teaches men to live in the moment and pursue happiness, she is a fully-realized character who is helped by the men in her life to pursue her own happiness — through sobriety and community.
The Queen’s Gambit Proves Genius Does Not Require Madness
A reporter told Beth, when the latter was on the cusp of womanhood, that with genius often comes madness; while the reporter was clearly just looking for a juicy angle for her piece on the young chess prodigy, the message stuck with the impressionable, vulnerable Beth, and may have led to her substance addiction issues later in life. A key aspect of Beth’s character arc in The Queen’s Gambit is how her mother’s suicide haunted her into adulthood. Her mother, Alice, had a PhD in math and was clearly very intelligent, but also struggled with mental health, which culminated in her attempt to end not just her own life but also Beth’s. Beth’s adoptive mother Alma Wheatley is also a troubled genius: she is a brilliant pianist but struggles with substance abuse and anxiety. While Alma is a wonderfully supportive presence in Beth’s life, she is also a problematic role model for the young woman because Alma’s struggles further illustrate that women can’t be exceptionally talented without also being “crazy.”
Far too often in fiction, strong female characters are given dramatic narrative arcs with tragic ends: their strength is tied to their ability to persevere and overcome adversity — or worse, simply endure suffering. Like with the MPDG trope, The Queen’s Gambit sets up this expectation only to destroy it. Beth gets to be celebrated for her accomplishments in the male-dominated sport, despite how hostile her initial reception was. Furthermore, she is not defined by her instability. By the end of The Queen’s Gambit, Beth realizes that her alcoholism and struggles with mental health are not a key part of her inescapable future, nor are they required for her to be a champion chess player. The true climax occurs not when she is victorious against the Russian champion Vasily Borgov, but when she is victorious against her addictions and self-doubt — illustrated by the moment she is able to visualize the chess pieces without the aid of tranquilizers. Beth gets to come to this realization with the help of another strong female character: Jolene (played by Moses Ingram), her friend from the orphanage who also defies expectations — both within and outside of the narrative.
The Netflix miniseries ends hopefully with its heroine making the choice to forge ahead on her own path, doing not what others (like the U.S. government) tell her to do, but what she wants to do. While the ending itself is ambiguous, and it being unlikely that the story will be continued with The Queen’s Gambit season 2, audiences are left with the impression that Beth is on the right path, and has a bright — and happy — future ahead of her.
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