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Beth Harmon teaches women to be unapologetically ambitious

Warning: Article might contain spoilers. 

Chess, in hindsight, isn’t the most exciting sport. But “The Queen’s Gambit” collectively changed our minds.

The impactful Netflix period drama about chess gained accolades upon its release. People in the know have called this “The Queen’s Gambit” Effect. Some of the highlights include: 62 million households watched the show, the novel it was based on became part of  the New York Times’ bestsellers list 37 years after its release, and there was a 100% increase in sales of chess boards. 

As for me, “The Queen’s Gambit” effect didn’t strike me like I thought it would. I still refuse to learn anything about chess and I’m not putting the novel in my bookshelf anytime soon. However, the show did validate women like me. Women filled with fiery yet frightening passion.

Beth Harmon didn’t encourage me to love chess like the rest of the show’s viewers did. Instead, she left me with this lesson: If women weren’t forced to kill their ambition, we all can be branded as a marvel—just like her.

Set in the 1960s, “The Queen’s Gambit” is about chess prodigy Beth Harmon, a nine-year-old orphan who fell in love with chess after seeing the orphanage’s janitor play in his quarters. “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame,” she says in the episode, “Double Pawns.”

Beth is not perfect in any way. Although her chess skills are immaculate, she has a tendency to push people away, has an unhealthy relationship with tranquilizers and has her own personal demons to wrestle with. Of course, falling in love with a game where women were (still are) underrepresented didn’t help at all.

The show isn’t perfect either. The New Yorker’s review claims there weren’t any real stakes in Netflix’s adaptation. Instead of sticking to the book’s portrayal of Beth as an ordinary girl, she was turned into the Ann-Margaret of chess, which The New Yorker’s Sarah Miller thought was the series’ fatal flaw. 

With that in mind, the depiction of her downward spiral looked more picturesque than it should’ve been. It looked like the missing music video for The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.” Our mental episodes differ from one another, but I’m pretty sure none of them looked that cinematic. 

“Watching the show, I kept thinking, This might be an interesting, dicey, and potentially moving situation for an orphaned drug addict obsessed with chess—and then [Anya] Taylor-Joy would pout a little or balance her face seductively on her hands, or employ those enormous eyes as lizards employ neck frills,” writes Miller. “There’s not a single moment when I thought, Please let this work out; please let this go well; please let Beth thrive.”

I shouldn’t have the gall to disagree with someone from The New Yorker. However, I’ll shoot my shot and see where it goes.

“Please let Beth thrive” was exactly what I was thinking throughout the mini-series. Why? Simple. Her wins and triumphs would validate women all over the world who question or sacrifice their ambition to satisfy a societal mold.

In hindsight, my argument sounds like a “girlboss, white capitalist feminist” take on this period drama. That depends on how a reader will take this perspective. I still believe the fight for female ambition is ongoing. And in the Philippines where traditional and conservative values are still upheld, there are women out there who still kill their dreams to fit into what the general public expects of them.

Since watching the show, I imagined what it would be like if what happened to Beth came true for me.

I brand myself as an ambitious, intersectional feminist but I must admit I still have fears about following my dreams. What if my gender hinders what I want to achieve? Would my idols or peers respect what I do for my skills alone? Would people always call me a bitch for wanting success in my chosen field?

Beth’s arc in “The Queen’s Gambit” dares to explore what happens when the answer to my questions is “no.” Gender politics can choke. 

“The Queen’s Gambit” is all about chess. However, it also tackled the relationship of genius and madness, the importance of found families and the empowering strength of female ambition. In this show, The Mary Sue’s Chelsea Steiner points out how the show didn’t dwell on gender politics for too long—and that’s what made the show powerful.

“Once her fellow players witness her genius in action, they are quick to welcome her into the fold. Beth develops friendships and romances with a few of her fellow players, like state champ Harry Beltik and fellow prodigy Benny Watts,” explains Steiner. “In a welcome change, the men in Beth’s orbit aren’t jealous or threatened, but fully supportive of her talent. They play the ‘girlfriend’ role to Beth’s relentless chess warrior.”

Beth is what a lot of ambitious women wanted to achieve. We all want to learn that our genius doesn’t need madness to be fueled, to be respected by our peers who at first questioned us then eventually prayed for our success, and to gain the admiration of grandmasters in our fields instead of questioning our youth and our gender. She is, without a doubt, what we dream the world could be.

Since watching the show, I imagined what it would be like if what happened to Beth came true for me.

What if my circle of friends collaborated and pushed my ambitions with me, similar to Benny and Beth’s circle of guy friends working in New York in order to beat the Russian chessmaster Vasily Borgov? What if a veteran I idolized in my field respected my craft like what Beth experienced with chess veteran Luchenko in Moscow? The possibilities never occured to me until this show. 

If women weren’t forced to kill their ambition, we all can be branded as a marvel—just like her.

Not everyone is a chess prodigy like Beth. However, there are a lot of women like her. Women who feel the need to apologize for dreaming to be bigger than who they are, bigger than the opportunities they are given.

We still see older women who gave up their ambition since the glass ceilings weren’t broken when they were younger. In an age when feminism is no longer taboo, some young women still think they need to fit an idealized mold of what a woman should be. We are given more opportunities compared to before. Still, the pains of how ambitious women were treated in the past remains.

The popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit” has inspired a lot of us to consider taking chess. As for me, it pushed me to dream what an ambitious woman like Beth had—respect.

Read more:
According to Princess Carolyn, a strong woman is also a fragile one
How body positivity can objectify fat people like me
Honest, unfiltered advice on passion and practicality

Still from “The Queen’s Gambit”

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Rogin Losa
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