‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review: How To Own Your Genius Like Elizabeth Harmon

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‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review: A Refreshing Portrayal Of A ‘Mad Genius’
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review
10 min read

“Creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand. Or, for that matter, genius and madness.”
Are you obsessed with The Queen’s Gambit? Us too!

The term ‘mad genius’, for the longest time, has been associated with men. This is why they are easy to depict in popular culture – it’s not only that most mad geniuses we know are men; many men have been able to realise their potential because they are not burdened with social and familial responsibilities in the same capacity as women. Men are allowed to be detached from their families, have a temper, and focus on nothing but their passion. Men are allowed to be ‘mad’ to drive their point home.

That is, until an Elizabeth Harmon comes by.

The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix mini-series based on a 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis, is the story of Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon, a young orphan with an uncanny knack for chess. Set in the period of the Cold War, Beth’s mother’s death leads the 9-year-old to spend a part of her childhood and adolescence in a Christian orphanage. During her time there, she discovers the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, playing chess and develops a fascination for it. Over the course of her life, her fascination turns into a passion, one fuelled by Mr. Shaibel.

But, being a girl with a troubled childhood, she also develops an unhealthy dependency on tranquilizers from a young age.

Played phenomenally by Anya Taylor-Joy, known for her roles in popular series such as Peaky Blinders, The Miniaturist, and Glass, the story revolves around Beth’s rise as a chess prodigy, struggling with addiction as she battles to become the most accomplished young chess player in the world.

As I watched the series, I couldn’t help but notice how every important moment in her career trajectory would make for a wonderful lesson in every woman’s career journey. 

Here are 4 important things you need to know to move forward in your career journey, as shown by Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit.

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review: How To Own Your Genius, As Shown By Beth Harmon
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review

The title of the ‘mad genius’ isn’t reserved exclusively for men, so own your intelligence

Because women are conditioned to believe that other things should take precedence over their work – be it family, marriage, or child-rearing – many women tend to have little faith in their intelligence and potential. Elizabeth Harmon is a reminder that there’s a bit of a genius hidden in all of us.

The Queen’s Gambit provides a refreshing take on the archetype of the ‘mad genius’. Beth, a reserved and introverted girl grew up poor and with an unstable mother; she moved into an orphanage at the age of 9 and didn’t have many friends, and didn’t have much of a life outside of the confines of the orphanage.

Her love for chess becomes a way of gaining confidence and control over her life, which is why she devotes herself to it.

Often, a female character’s ‘un-feminine’ behaviour – being loud and visible, unsympathetic and unfeeling, detached from family and friends – is shown to be a product of sexual violence that has ‘robbed’ the woman of her passivity. The Queen’s Gambit is a delight to watch because Beth’s character development does not depend on this tired trope at all.

Beth’s difficult childhood is attributed to her emotionally unstable mother whose death she witnessed first-hand, whom she continues to think about in moments of utter loneliness.

Her genius is not a result of sexual violence; it is just who she is. 

To have a successful career trajectory, it’s important for women to believe in their intelligence.

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review: How To Own Your Genius, As Shown By Beth Harmon
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review

Don’t let your work be the only thing that defines you

Beth’s relationship with chess forms the central theme of the series. From state championships to the US championship right up to the world championship, one can see Beth transform from a shy, awkward girl into a confident, ambitious go-getter. 

Beth’s confidence dwindles and strengthens with each match she loses or wins; her battle with addiction – first with tranquilizers and then also with alcohol – gets worse as her ambitions soar. Beth takes every win in her stride, but every loss pushes her deeper into despair.

Beth feels a sense of control when she is playing chess – something that had been missing from her life when she was growing up – which is why she becomes obsessed with winning and being the best.

These moments are a reminder that our work mustn’t be the only thing we tie our personalities to. Our personal lives should be as fulfilling as our professional lives, and we should work towards the things that are amiss in our relationships in order to live a full life. As Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma says to her – “I think there’s more to life than chess.”

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review: How To Own Your Genius, As Shown By Beth Harmon
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review

Do not underestimate the importance of a support system

Beth’s career would have been non-existent without Mr. Shaibel, who introduced her to the world of chess. This, along with several moments in the series, tells us to never forget those who supported our dreams and propelled us forward. 

9-year-old Beth’s relationship with Mr. Shaibel didn’t involve a lot of communication and meaningful conversation, but its deep impact on her is a constant reminder as she grows older over the course of the series.

Beth may have been coping with her trauma alone, and she was comfortable with it – but she had supportive friends and family who helped her be the best version of herself and, eventually, a world champion. 

Alma, her adoptive mother, gradually takes up the space left empty by Beth’s late mother. Their blossoming relationship is one of the highlights of the series. Alma, a trapped and unhappy housewife lives vicariously through Beth as she wins tournament after tournament, taking Alma around the world with her. Alma becomes Beth’s best friend – listening to her obsess over each game after it was over and giving her the push she needs to have a social life and look beyond chess.

Both mother and daughter lift each other up and help each other live their best lives.

Beth ends up befriending her fiercest rivals as she beats them and moves ahead in her career, and they help her win against her arch-nemesis, Russian world champion Vasily Borgov. Her friends and supporters – all of whom she beat at chess at some point in her life – become her biggest cheerleaders.

When Beth makes some questionable mistakes owing to her addictions, her friends show her the mirror and urge her to get out of the mess.

The ending of the series is Bollywood-esque, but it fits perfectly well with the ethos of the show’s development.

It’s important for us to attribute our success to those who have helped us get there.

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review: How To Own Your Genius, As Shown By Beth Harmon
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Review

Your femininity is not a weakness

At a press conference, a journalist asks an elusive Beth to respond to the opinion that she gave her appearance way too much importance. Beth responds, 

“I would say it is much easier to play chess without the burden of an Adam’s Apple.”

This is one of the best dialogues in the series. It depicts the casual sexism Beth had to deal with as a young woman in a male-dominated industry. What stands out is that the story does not make Beth’s fight against the patriarchy the central theme. 

With many female-oriented series, patriarchy and misogyny form dominant narratives, and women come out as heroes who fight against it.

In The Queen’s Gambit, the patriarchy is looming in Beth’s story, but it does not become the whole story.

Beth recognises sexism when she is clubbed against the only other woman player in the state championship; she complains to Alma about her cover story focusing only on her sex and not on her prowess; she instructs the reporters to write about Mr. Shaibel’s impact on her life. But the story does not turn into Beth’s fight against discrimination. She continues to be the way she is and carves her way.

This is a reminder for us not to look at our feminine energy as weak or irrelevant – in fact, we must revel in it and project these values in the workplace.

Beth Harmon’s dressing sense transforms as she bags more wins. Her shy, antisocial nature is symbolised with off-white shirts, sweaters, and muted colours. However the closet gradually turns colourful and flamboyant, full of headbands, hats, scarves, and gloves. The bold choice in clothing reflects her coming out of her shell, which is attributed to her career trajectory. 

Dressing up gives Beth confidence; we must look at power dressing as a source of confidence as well.

The key is to dress to impress no one but yourself. Wearing what you’re most comfortable in can have a positive effect on your confidence and your performance at work. How we dress is an important aspect of our personality and an expression of what we’re feeling within.

Beth Harmon’s MBTI personality: INTJ!

Speaking of the ‘mad genius’, many have actually wondered about Beth Harmon’s MBTI personality. Well, experts say that she is an INTJ – extroverted thinking and introverted feeling. People with an INTJ personality are cerebral and intuitive, and often analyse their mistakes to never repeat them. Beth Harmon’s character sparks everybody’s intrigue with her genius; not just while playing chess, but also by dealing with people in a unique way.

Aside from its wonderful plot, what makes The Queen’s Gambit stand out is its visual and aural appeal. The picturisation of chess as an intense sport is commendable; as is the accuracy with which the time period has been portrayed. The main characters are full of depth and complexity. Some aspects of the series could be a little more nuanced – the development of the supporting characters, for instance. The series overall is an incredible watch that can make a feminist’s heart sing with joy. 

Have you watched it yet? Do tell us how it was!

You’re invited! Join the Kool Kanya women-only career community where you can network, ask questions, share your opinions, collaborate on projects, and discover new opportunities. Join now.

Three words Kanksha would associate with herself are: food, feminism, and entertainment. A gender studies major, Kanksha enjoys juggling academic knowledge with practical application. When she’s not busy modifying popular recipes to her liking, she can be found reading two books at a time (because there are just so many) or watching films and TV series. Her personal nightmares include imagining a world without dogs, running out of good tea, and word limits.

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