Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. It’s almost like there’s been a pandemic or something, although I am hoping to get back into it the moment things stop being so completely fucking terrible everywhere all the time.
Anyway. I’ve roused myself from my blogging slumber to deliver a lukewarm-at-best take on something that everybody’s already talked about. Which, now I think about it, is very on brand for me.
So yes. The Queen’s Gambit. It’s good. Tune in next month for more amazing insights from Alexis Hall.
To say very slightly more than “it’s good”, The Queen’s Gambit is one of those shows that seems to have caught people’s imaginations in a slightly unusual way. It’s about chess which, let’s face it, is not a sexy subject—nor one most people understand or have much interest in. But, somehow, for the space of seven hours it makes you completely forget this fact and believe instead that you actually have a deep and abiding love of the game of kings.
Although perhaps the weirdest thing about The Queen’s Gambit is that it isn’t based on a true story.
Of course, that’s not actually weird at all. But what’s weird is that it seems that quite a lot of people went through the exact process I did when I started watching the show, which was to hear the name of the main character, assume she was an actual chess grandmaster I’d just never heard of, Google her, and find that the top three hits are articles called something along the lines of “for some reason lots of people seem to think Beth Harmon was a real person, but she wasn’t.”
And it was shortly after reading these articles that I started thinking about gender shit and so the rest of this post will be me talking about stuff that’s totally out of my lane as usual. Because I don’t know if it’s more sexist to expect The Queen’s Gambit to be true story or not to. Or if I’m just getting stuck in my own head and it doesn’t matter in the slightest.
On the “not sexist” side of the scale, I do wonder if it’s just that people who pay attention to that kind of thing are quite aware of the fact that highly successful female pioneers tend to get a bit ignored by history so the notion that there could be a female grandmaster who was big in chess in the 1960s and yet completely passed you by isn’t totally outlandish. Although, when you think about it, it is a bit outlandish because there are some really big names in chess from that era and it’s not like people were ignoring the women’s movement in the sixties. So if there had been a female world chess champion that would probably be something that got referenced somewhere. Like at the very least she’d be in that bit in that song in Chess where they do the reprise of the song about Budapest and they list all the world chess champions since Steinitz.
On the “actually probably sexist” side of the scale I also wonder if part of the reason it seems so likely to be a true story is just that, well, people don’t make up stories about women succeeding at high levels in competitive fields that often. Or rather, when they are it’s normally to tell quite a different story. I mean, Ally McBeal is about a woman succeeding at a high level in a competitive field but it’s sort not really about that, is it? And usually when you get that very kind of spotlighty drama that’s specifically about the details of someone’s life and career, and that person is a woman, there’s almost an unconscious expectation that its An Inspirational True Story For Girls. What you very seldom get, even in things that aren’t based on books from the 1980s, is the very masculine maverick genius archetype just straight up re-imagined with a female protagonist for its own sake.
So. Yes. Potted summary. The Queen’s Gambit is about a fictional chess player called Beth Harmon who is very talented from a young age, has a complex and difficult life, and beats a lot of people at chess. Which, I know, doesn’t make it sound great but it’s actually really compelling when you watch it. And I think part of what makes it compelling is the notable omission from that admittedly glib summary. Which is to say, Beth Harmon spends a lot of time dealing with being an orphan, having a serious drug problem, being Just Too Genius For This Fragile World, and being unable to relate to people / allow herself to be loved by them because she is Just Too Genius. And very very little time dealing with overt sexism.
And, obviously, I cannot speak to the realism of this. Nor I can speak to what women want to see in stories about competitive chess. But I did find it really refreshing that she was allowed arcs that weren’t just the You Can’t Do That Because You’re A Girl arc that is kind of the only story fictional woman in traditionally masculine fields (or for that matter fictional men in traditionally feminine fields—see Billy Elliott) are allowed to have. I’m not saying there’s no sexism in the show, or that it presents a weird utopia of perfect gender equality, but it’s mostly subtle. While people react to Beth differently because she’s a woman, the chess is always just about the chess, and when she beats people at chess they genuinely respect her for it. Instead of having a crisis because they can’t cope with the idea of a world in which a woman is better than them at something. Or standing up and going “I will do misogyny at you now because it is the past.”
Of course, this is difficult. Because you don’t have to look very far for evidence that we still don’t live in a world where men are just generally okay for women to be better than them at stuff. But the more we tell that story, the more normalised it becomes. About halfway through the series I realised I was subconsciously waiting for the point where of the quite large number of men who she beats and who afterwards become supportive of her career flipped out and was all “how dare you be better than me, womanz” and it never happened. Which I personally thought was cool. Because it freed up the narrative to be about other stuff.
That other stuff being mostly chess. A little bit about emotional development. But mostly chess.
And it’s worth taking a moment to talk about how good the chess is in this because not only is it good it is—and this is the highest standard to which anything should be held—better than it needs to be. Disclaimer: everything I’m going to talk about for the next two and a bit paragraphs I have culled from third parties sources because I don’t actually know anything about chess at all. It’s just watching The Queen’s Gambit made me forget that so I’m acting like I do. It’s basically like watching Bake Off and being all “oh, that custard’ll never set in time” when I’ve never made a custard in my fucking life.
So anyway. The chess. Most of it is based on real historical games, although not actually from the period the show is set in. A lot of them are from the 80s and early 2000s. What’s really interesting is that, according to people who know way more about this shit than me, is that not only do the chess games roughly match the level of skill that Beth and her opponents should be at in the episode she’s in but some of them have actually been modified in order to have Beth play them better than they were originally played. As far as I can tell, actual chess people seem to feel that towards the end she plays genuinely mind-blowingly beautiful chess.
In case you’re wondering how a bunch of Netflix writers achieved this, they … um … hired Kasparov? Which is still pretty serious commitment to getting the details right.
As well as the actual matches being based on historical games, Beth Harmon is kind of based on a historical figure. It’s just that the historical figure she’s based on is a dude. And, again, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider (and I do think this can be called either way) how subversive this is. Because it should be completely fine for fictional women to be based on real men and the only reason you wouldn’t do that is if it was genuinely totally impossible or if you, on some level, thought that the only arc women were allowed was the overcoming sexism arc.
So Beth is actually inspired in large part by Bobby Fischer, who is notable for a couple of things. Partly, and this is a bit awkward, for having a massive falling out with the USA, going into exile I think possibly in Russia and (here comes the awkward bit) I think actively celebrating 9/11 and denying the Holocaust (he was one of the arsehole geniuses). And partly, of course, he’s famous for being the guy The American is based on in the musical Chess. And it is really fascinating to compare those arcs with each other. By which I mean, the arc in Chess and the arc in The Queen’s Gambit. I’m not going to say any more about the real life arc of Bobby Fischer because that just got really, really bad.
Time for another yet another potted summary—this time of Chess the Musical (which I’m very fond of because I’ve seen a couple of surprisingly good amateur productions). American chess player is an arsehole. Russian chess player is sort of less of an arsehole. They are rivals. How it ends depends on which country you’re watching it in. And for the purposes of this discussion who wins doesn’t really matter and, actually, which of the two chess players you’re talking about doesn’t really matter either because The American (who goes by the now somewhat connotation-laden name of Trumper), The Russian (Sergievsky) and Beth Harmon all have variants on the traditionally masculine genius arc of “I am torn between my obsessive desire to pursue the thing I’m a genius at” versus “I kind of want my life to not be shit and to have some people in it.”
And this is where I get back to talking about gender stuff, but also where I do sort of have some experience insofar as writing a book in which you consciously flip a gendered archetype and apply it to the opposite sex is something I’ve done a fair amount. And a tiny detail I found really interesting in The Queen’s Gambit is that it actually broke one of the rules I tend to stick by when I’m doing that kind of thing. That being the “don’t reverse too many things at once” rule.
To unpack. The “don’t reverse too many things at once” rule (which probably really needs a snazzier name) basically says that if you’re going re-gender a traditional archetype you probably shouldn’t also challenge commonly accepted features of that traditional archetype. This is because usually the commonly accepted features of an archetype involve over-looking things about it that would actually suck. And if you take a masculine archetype that would suck in real life but is usually presented in a positive and try to subvert that archetype by simultaneously highlighting how much it would suck and also making the character a woman you end up huge issues.
I know bringing everything back to your own work is kind of wanky (or rather I feel it is, although I suppose maybe some people come to an author’s blog expecting them to talk about their books more than never) but since I’m already talking about my own rules here I thought I’d give an illustration. People who’ve read the Kate Kane series (if you haven’t, then you can buy it from links available on this website, and also probably like, share and subscribe if you want to) will know that all of Kate’s romantic interests are women except for the dickhead vampire that she dated when she was seventeen. And the reason he’s a dude is, well, the “don’t reverse too many things at once” rule. I really wanted Kate to have had the “teen girl has a relationship with a vampire” backstory but I also really wanted to highlight how fucked up the “teen girl has a relationship with a vampire” backstory would actually be by the time you were looking back at it from your thirties (I think there’s a reason teen girls in relationships with vampires die or become immortal very quickly – they literally can’t be allowed to grow up). But because that relationship is not normally portrayed critically I didn’t really want Kate’s first lesbian experience to have been with a creepy abusive bloodsucker. That just had really bad LGBTQ+ rep vibes for me.
But I think The Queen’s Gambit is a rare example of the “don’t reverse too many things at once” rule not applying.
The things being reversed here are a) the genius character is a man and b) the genius character’s genius is in tension with the genius character’s ability to live a happy and fulfilling life. And this is complex on all its axes. Because from a certain perspective, gender flipping the genius and also defying the “genius is the opposite of happiness” convention problematically plays into the “having it all” trope that … again I’m not super well placed to comment on. Except actually I think I am sort of at least okay placed to comment on it precisely because it’s more bilaterally gendered than I think people realise. Obviously the notion that women cannot be emotionally fulfilled unless they have something that broadly fits the patterns of a conventional family life, even if they also have a successful career is toxic horseshit. But, to an extent, the notion that men can’t find fulfilment in balancing those things and sort of have to just go all career all the time or else become feminised beta male cuck is kind of toxic horseshit as well. And I think what I found interesting about the ending (sort of spoilers if you consider the protagonist winds up in an emotionally healthy space to be a spoiler) of The Queen’s Gambit is that it felt to me that by giving the story a female protagonist it permitted the otherwise unquestionable dichotomy between genius and happiness to be questioned.
The American and The Russian in Chess both have to choose between chess and the people they care about. Which they choose varies from production to production but the choice itself is taken as axiomatic. In The Queen’s Gambit, by contrast, Beth is allowed to build a network of friends, supporters and lovers through the thing she’s good at. And, yes, it’s sort of difficult in that—from a very meta level—maybe the only reason she can do that is because the problematic double-standards to which we still hold female protagonists mean that she can’t choose chess over people without becoming an unsympathetic, overambitious harridan in the eyes of the assumed audience. But she can’t choose people over chess without becoming an anti-feminist gender traitor in the eyes of the same audience.
Except, for once, this does actually give her a stronger and more meaningful ending. And, again, I have zero standing to say what gender tropes are harmful and when they are effectively subverted and when they do or do not apply. But, to me, from my very flawed perspective, the reason “having it all” trope is so harmful (apart from the fact it excludes people who don’t want one or the other) is that it puts pressure on women to essentially excel in two completely distinct fields both of which are intensely time-consuming and therefore, even if they aren’t in conflict, at least draw on the same resource pool. By contrast, the happiness/genius dichotomy is just … wrong? There is absolutely no reason why anybody, male or female, cannot be a world leader in their field and also have meaningful relationships anywhere within the 3D graph space of sex, friendship and romance that are actively supported by their talents. It is, when you think about it, completely absurd that we so often convince ourselves that “being really really good at / into something lots of other people really care about” makes it harder to connect with people, rather than the reverse.
If nothing else, we should probably stop telling stories about how being a genius makes you an arsehole. Because it leads so many people to think being an arsehole makes them a genius.
Anyway: The Queen’s Gambit. Very good show. Surprisingly accurate chess. You’ve probably already watched it.