Netflix’s new limited series on a female chess marvel is an exquisite look into what is possible when women can exist and thrive in equal terms in a man’s world. Our aesthete gaze was also dazzled by the costume design and the interiors. A lavish delight.
In the early 1960s a lot of things were not yet possible for women. In Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s recently released seven-part miniseries, (created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, and based on the 1983, not widely known novel by the same name written by Walter Tevis), Elizabeth Harmon is a subversion to everything that is expected of her time’s femininity. An orphaned girl, she begins her passion for an unlikely habit, chess, as she watches the orphanage’s janitor play and feels mesmerized by the possibility to learn. He teaches her and finds himself in front of a prodigy. From anonymity and adversity, she rises into unexpected international chess prestige.
The narrative bears the mark of a classic and heart-touching coming-of-age story as Harmon is adopted and finds in her new, melancholic, mother an ally to pursue her prodigal abilities. It is also the story of a personal fever, of an individual so consumed by the topic she adores that she oscillates between spurs of lucid marvel and her own vices and darkness.
Above all, and in spite of any imperfection, even in its fictional quality, the story is a glimpse into what would have been possible for so much more women if they were granted the possibilities to pursue their skills in a manly world. Harmon’s competitiveness and fierce drive are also a reflection of how certain attributes have been historically, culturally and socially codified as “masculine”.
What is so wonderful about the character is that she is an unapologetically complicated woman. Her sense of self does not derive from the men she meets and encounters. She is an utter and fascinating subversion of any sort of male gaze. Her sense of identity does not in any way come from them, her opponents, lovers, friends, teachers, and ultimately, equals. It’s one of the most beautiful things about the story, the way her sense of self, sometimes dark, at others hesitant and intoxicated, never makes them the source of its solidity.
And then, there’s the aesthetics. The way Harmon also sophisticates her sense of self and ambition through the clothes she choses to wear, the glamorous female presence she becomes, the ways in which the show renders the spirit of Midcentury Modern with polished geometric shapes and dazzling colors. A visual delight, an inspiring individual travesty, a beautiful narration on what it means to subvert a man’s world by being a mesmerizing prodigy and the brightness and shadows that come with possessing a talent and polishing it through persistence, study, and the clarity of desiring victory. A visual and narrative pleasure for pajama-clad poets, for evenings sipping wine, staying in, and letting inspiration come in through the senses.