The Queen’s Gambit: Challenging Emphasized Femininity

By: Evie Shaw and Ethan Tran

Emphasized femininity, described by scholar CW Connell is the theory that ideal femininity in media is passive, small, and in need of protection. It is the “compliance with this subordination and […] oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men” (Press & Connell, 1987). Throughout this century, mainstream media has portrayed women largely through the lens of emphasized femininity. But, these portrayals are simply not reality; recent films have been working towards dismantling this myth. The Queen’s Gambit is a 2020 Netflix drama centered around Beth Harmon, an orphaned female chess prodigy with the goal of being the greatest chess player in the world. The show follows Beth and her journey navigating through the male dominated chess world, and finding her own self confidence and worth. Set during the Cold War Era, the show offers a refreshing perspective in a time when the Second Wave of feminism was emerging. The Queen’s Gambit challenges emphasized femininity through Beth’s relationships, the cinematography, and the game of chess itself.

Relationships

The show’s rejection of emphasized femininity can be analyzed through Beth’s relationships with men, female peers, mother, and life-long friend Jolene.

The biggest example of Beth’s defiance of emphasized femininity is shown through her relationships with the men in her life. Throughout the first half of the series, Beth is shown mostly dominating the men she has relationships with. For instance, when she finally has sex with Harry Beltik, she is indifferent afterwards and resumes reading her chess novel and smoking a cigarette. Beltik is left confused and shown in the background of the frame as Beth dominates the foreground of the scene.

Image: Netflix

She was also the one to initiate the casual relationship with Benny, and the only man she ever claimed to be in love with, Townes, was gay. In episode six, it is implied that Beth had a sexual relationship with Cleo, a woman. This further showcases rejection of emphasized femininity, traditionally heterosexual characters, while bringing in representation for the LGBTQ+ community. Regardless, Beth was never “passive” with the men she was with and never settled down with a man as female characters often do in the media. Beth consistently relied on herself to do things that she wanted to do – without accommodating the interests of men.

Beth’s femininity can further be examined through her relationship with other women, specifically the popular girls from school. Ronda Rousey, another trailblazing female in a male dominated space of the UFC describes a term called the “do-nothing-bitch.” Rousey describes these women as “the kind of chick that just tries to be pretty and to be taken care of by someone else.” The popular girls from school are the perfect embodiment of Rousey’s termed DNBs and the epitome of emphasized femininity.

Image: Netflix

In the above scene, Beth is shown in stark contrast to her female peers. While the girls laugh and dance, Beth sits very uncomfortably. Beth finally leaves when the girls start singing “oh, you’re so tender, I must surrender” from the song You’re The One, a song that suggests reliance on men and the fantasy of love as the meaning of life. The popular girls largely gravitate towards feminine performativity, or actions traditionally associated with the female gender. They talk about boys, wear headpieces, and wear colorful clothing. It is later revealed that the “main” girl married early right after school and became a housewife with her sole purpose being to care for her husband and children. On the other hand, Beth does not embody feminine performativity as she wears black clothing, does not care about boys, and takes care of herself through playing chess – her passion. Beth’s rejection of emphasized femininity is clear when compared to the meaningless lives of the other girls during a time when the “do-nothing-bitch” was the norm. 

Beth’s relationships with her mothers (biological and adopted) offers an even deeper understanding of the roots of her empowered identity. First, it is important to understand Beth’s intersecting identities of being an orphan and female. She is already at a disadvantage being the only woman in a male dominated sport. However, she also faced the lack of opportunities to learn chess properly because she was raised in an orphanage. Nevertheless, Beth was brought up with strong individualistic ideals. Her biological mother taught her that “men are going to come along and want to teach you things. Doesn’t make them any smarter…you go on ahead and do just what the hell you feel like.” Ironically both Beth’s biological and adopted mothers fell into the traps of society’s ideals even though they constantly urged Beth to not rely on men. They both married husbands, representing hegemonic masculinity, being harsh, working men who would never take care of their child. In the end, Beth’s biological mother committed suicide and her adopted mother died of alcoholism. This shows the dark consequences of society’s ideals. Beth is trying to escape from this lifestyle, but she also spirals into alcoholism.

Image: Netflix

In the end, despite all the men that consume Beth’s life, Jolene is the only one that truly understands Beth and is the one that never ran away from her. Beth met Jolene at the orphanage and was her closest friend. However, when Beth was adopted she never saw Jolene until later in her life. It is understood that Jolene was never adopted because of her identities, even more intersectional than Beth’s. As described by Kimberle Crenshaw, “Black women-the class of employees which, because of its intersectionality, is best able to challenge all forms of discrimination-are essentially isolated and often required to fend for themselves” (Crenshaw, 1989). Being Black, female, and an older orphan made it hard to be adopted especially during this time period.

Image: Entertainment Tonight

In the last episode Beth was addicted to drugs and in a depressive state. Beth was constantly called and visited by men Beltik and Benny, but Jolene was the only one that she let in. Through Jolene’s companionship she was able to finally trust someone in her life after her mom passed. This drives the narrative that Beth did not need to be saved by a man like most films portray. It also furthers the representation of women of color. Lastly, Jolene talks about her scholarship grant for college and how eager she was to continue saving up for law school. During this time there was a shortage for female lawyers and even more female black lawyers. These ideals seen as radical during the time promote popular feminism through media and break the mold for specific time periods.

Cinematography

Although this film doesn’t seek to change the narrative of an all white America during this time period, it does however challenge emphasized femininity through the way the gaze is portrayed. “The male gaze” is a term conceptualized by Laura Mulvey to describe how in media, women are “simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact” (Mulvey, 1989). Rather than objectifying Beth to the pleasures of the male gaze, Scott Frank, the director, chooses to draw attention to the eyes of both Beth and her male counterparts. The narrative of the series feels less of a battle between Beth as a female in a male dominated world of chess and more of a battle between Beth and her equal opponents. Beth is more than just an object to be looked at. She is a smart and talented woman capable of playing chess as an equal to her male competitors. Additionally, the fashion choices in this film pursue a sheik and non-revealing wardrobe for Beth to focus on the evolution of her character rather than her body.

Image: Netflix

Camera angles also play a key role in portraying the defiance of emphasized femininity. Beth is shown as dominant on the chess board when the camera points upwards at her. In this instance, her opponent, Beltik, arrived late and she had a time advantage as he was running down his own clock. Not only is she dominant on the chess board but also in the chess community as is portrayed by the large amount of crowds she draws during her tournament matches. Beth also looks confident and posed in this scene due to her body language and facial expressions.

Image: Netflix

A common misconception is that representation is only about the number of diverse people represented. However, the discrepancy in screen-time is even more important. A study in 2015 showed that Male characters received two times the amount of screen time as female characters (28.5% compared to 16.0%) in top grossing films (Davis, 2015). However, in The Queen’s Gambit, equal screen time is shown between Beth and her male opponents. In the below image, Beth is shown side by side with her main competitor, Benny, playing their chess matches. This split-screen sequence is a direct example of portraying Beth as an equal to her male counterpart. This crushes the ideals of emphasized femininity in media because Beth gets her fair share of screen time unlike many women in media – she is the main character un-reliant on men.

Image: Netflix

Symbolism Through Chess

Although chess is not the main focus of the show, it also symbolizes the rejection of emphasized femininity in many ways. Ironically enough, the queen in chess has more freedom and power to move across the board than the king. In Beth’s first tournament final against Beltik, the director chooses to show this pivotal checkmate of the queen right beside the king. Although this makes it easy for the audience to understand that Beth has won the game, there is also a deeper meaning to the frame when analyzed through a feminist lens. In several of her other games, winning is just shown through the expressions of the opponents and movements of the king falling down. The queen right beside the king represents Beth’s defiance by finally winning her first official tournament as a female after constantly being told she could never win against men growing up. Beth has a newfound sense of notoriety, self-confidence, and mental willpower. This is in contrast to the traditionally portrayed soft and bubbly performativities that women in media encompass.

Image: Netflix

Over Beth’s years of playing at top level chess tournaments, she has always been scared of Russian players, specifically Borgov, an unbeatable chess player. Borgov was only 13 when he was at the top of his game and during the series he was in his 30s. Prior to the match seen below, Beth relapsed into alcoholism before her match against Borgov and lost quickly. This final match, however, had a completely different tone as Beth was sober and confident in her own ability to win.

Image: Netflix

The picture depicts a white pawn being promoted to a queen towards the end of the game against Borgov. This movement utilizes the queen but in a slightly different manner. To promote a pawn to a queen, the pawn has to move a minimum of five squares which is a lot in terms of the pace of chess. Beth has finally reinvented herself as a bold, driven, and sober character; she has thus transformed into a new queen.

Overall, The Queen’s Gambit is a wonderful mini-series on Netflix that challenges emphasized femininity through Beth’s relationships, cinematography, and the chess game itself. Beth is a true embodiment of female empowerment especially given the time period she was in. Although the show is fictional and based on a book, Beth’s story is told beautifully and is one that will continue to inspire generations of young girls breaking societal gender norms.

References

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8/

Davis, G. (2018, January 22). Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://seejane.org/research-informs-empowers/data/

Mulvey L. (1989) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In: Visual and Other Pleasures. Language, Discourse, Society. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-19798-9_3

Press, S. (1987). Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics: R. W. Connell. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=2532

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