The Illusion of Equality
Like most people, I really enjoyed the recent Netflix mini-series, “The Queen’s Gambit.” It was a fun fiction, a guilty pleasure, and entertaining as hell. But as captivating and charming as it was, I was not able to fully immerse myself in the story — without making a conscious decision to suspend my disbelief.
Because the underlying truth just wasn’t there.
“Queen’s Gambit” is about a brilliant orphaned chess prodigy named Beth Harmon, who rises through the ranks of competitive chess in the 1950’s and early 60’s. She has her demons, but is so good at what she does — and has such innate ability — that she is quickly accepted into the male dominated world of competitive chess.
And……that’s where they lost me for a bit.
In reality, the world of competitive chess (like most) has not been kind to women players, never mind a brilliant one. In fact Bobby Fischer — the real American grandmaster during the same era “Gambit’ is set in, is famous for spewing this nugget of wisdom:
‘They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess. They’re like beginners…’
By the way, it was Fischer’s sister who taught him to play the game in the first place. And it was all the more delicious when 15-year-old Hungarian woman, Judit Polgár, became the youngest grandmaster in the world, beating the record Fischer himself had set almost three decades earlier.
You could be forgiven for thinking that such an attitude might be Fischer’s own personal prejudice. (Maybe his sister bullied him as a kid and he was still bitter.)
But the myth that women are inferior to men is not a new one, and it can be easily argued that it is one which remains prevalent worldwide to this day.
With respect to chess for example. as recently as 2015 the English grandmaster, Nigel Short, stated: ‘Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess.’
So evidently, this is not the one-off bias or dated reference we all hoped it might be.
Nope. Not by a long shot.
This is the world our ‘Beth’ is dropped into. This is the mentality of the men she really would have played against.
Odds are they would not have been as gracious in defeat as the fictional male characters in the series. In fact most would undoubtedly have viewed such a loss as humiliating, or even emasculating – depending on their own emotional baggage.
The reality of a woman entering what was — and pretty much still remains — a male dominated world is barely addressed in the series. That part of the story is quickly subdued.
Oh sure, Beth gets the odd sneer, raised eyebrow, and head shake of recrimination at the start of her journey, but that quickly disappears when her male counterparts see how gifted she is, and she quickly earns their respect.
And that’s all there is to that.
Except that it wouldn’t be.
Unless she were male.
So it is here that the entire tale moves from fiction, into fantasy. And that fantasy continues throughout.
There are no angry men in Beth’s world. No men who resent her for her beauty or intelligence. None that are deeply threatened by her sexuality, never mind her genius. None who manage to demean her. None who go out of their way to make her feel unwelcome or intimidated. None who bully.
Even when she turns the tables on them in the bedroom — becoming the one who takes and rarely gives, the one who rolls over bored and unsatisfied — there are no recriminations. No slurs or judgement, no demeaning remarks, no sly sabotage or dismissal. And no overt attempts at dominance, except for Beth’s own efforts.
The sting never lingers.
I mean, its refreshing.
It could be the show creators purposefully chose not to address the elephant in the room, feeling that this dynamic has already been explored to death and we’re all sick of dealing with it.
(We are, and yet….)
They might have decided that it would detract from the rest of the narrative, the aspects of the story and character development they wanted to focus on. I mean, it goes without saying Beth that would meet some resistance. Why dwell?
Perhaps it was assumed that Beth’s skill and drive for the game would be all she needed to win the respect and acknowledgement of her competitors. That her talent and force of personality would be enough to pull her through the maze of masculinity around her.
Which is in itself, a very male perspective.
Or maybe the writer simply had no personal experience of just how deeply insidious male bias is, and how relentlessly it manifests when gifted women lay claim to a male-dominated field.
Maybe, but no.
The writing is just too clever and self-aware for that.
So it was a conscious choice; and it is one that viewers are also offered. Decide to go along for the ride, and you will find that “Queen’s Gambit”is a satisfying and addictive binge-worthy series.
But don’t spend too much time thinking about it.
Because eventually it ends, and we have to go back to the real world…all the poorer for having glimpsed an unrealised alternative.
(Author’s note: If you’re interested in this subject, check this out! A great piece by writer Hana Schank — https://aeon.co/essays/why-are-only-two-of-the-world-s-top-100-chess-players-women)