Over the weekend, a representative from Goliath Games went on NPR and announced that sales of chessboards were up one thousand percent from last holiday season. Some of the credit went to the pandemic and all of its forced family time. The rest was due to “The Queen’s Gambit.” Americans everywhere had flipped on Netflix, watched the seven-episode fictional transformation of a prickly orphan into an unstoppable grandmaster and decided, yes, it was finally time to learn to play chess. On Monday, Netflix announced that “Gambit” had become its most-watched limited series ever; 62 million accounts streamed the show in the 28 days after its release.
With “Mad Men”-esque costumes (the show spans the 1950s and 1960s), Russian nemeses, a kicky soundtrack and a triumphant battle against addiction — protagonist Beth struggles with barbiturates and alcohol — this show has everything. Except one thing. And the thing that it lacks is what makes it truly escapist.
“The Queen’s Gambit” has no women in peril, and no skeezy men.
The female main character spends the show navigating a masculine subculture in a misogynistic era, frequently while drunk or high. As such, her encounters with men first seem — via camera work, ominous lighting and the fact that we’ve all seen television before — incredibly dangerous. Every episode brings at least one moment of Girl, watch out! But the danger never materializes; the trope is upended. Beth didn’t need to watch out for the men. The men, refreshingly, were looking out for her.
Young Beth meets an odd, reclusive janitor in her orphanage’s basement. An experienced viewer wonders if he’s about to molest her; instead he introduces her to the chessboard. Teenage Beth follows a competitor she barely knows to his sketchy subterranean apartment and finds that the spare bed he’d promised her doesn’t seem to exist. Girl, watch out — but wait! He just needs to drag the air mattress out of storage. A former foe, whom she’d publicly humiliated by taking his title in her first-ever tournament, shows up at her door in the dark, but he only wants to loan her some strategy books.
A montage of Beth winning floats across the screen. Nobody calls her the b-word, nobody huffs away to nurse wounded pride. A female reporter writes a profile that Beth hates because it’s too girly, but her path to domination is otherwise uninterrupted by sexism. When she’s lured out of bed at a sleepaway tournament one night, it’s only because some fellas want a few rounds of speed chess. She mentions she needs coffee; a less talented young man is sent to fetch some for her.
Much of this is almost certainly ahistorical. “They were too nice to her,” Judit Polgar, the only female chess player to have been ranked in the top 10, told the New York Times of the show. Polgar — who became a grandmaster at age 15 in 1991, 30 years after Beth’s fictional rise — says her male competitors would disparage or mock her. Even now, women are allowed to compete in tournaments with men, but there are so few high-ranking women in the game that they still hold their own tournaments, in the hopes that women-only spaces will draw in more female players.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. It’s possible the gender of the author has something to do with Beth’s uncluttered path to success. Not having experienced sexism himself, he might not have thought to subject his heroine to it. He wouldn’t have realized it would be integral to her daily life. He wouldn’t know that women do not blithely follow strange men into basements. He writes Beth as a classic Greek hero, which is to say, he writes her like a man: Her biggest obstacles are her inherent flaws. And when she drinks too much, her punishment is a hangover, not an unwanted pregnancy.
Regardless of whether Beth’s sexism-less ascent was born of intention or oblivion, it was jarring and thrilling to watch a woman move through her world and just be so . . . safe.
I can’t help but think of all the other esteemed period pieces, with all their other period sexism. Joan in “Mad Men” endured harassment every day. And while that was probably true to life, it still meant that we viewers had to watch a woman’s humiliation repeatedly played out as plot. “Game of Thrones,” set in an alternate Medieval English reality, relied heavily on rape and then argued that because rape was a part of historical violence, it was accurate to depict it on the show. Which, fine. But you would think that a show that featured dragons and ice-walking zombies might also be able to envision a world in which sexual violence isn’t a thing.
This is the fantastical world “The Queen’s Gambit” gives us. And it’s at least some of why — even if viewers haven’t put their fingers on it — the show is so dang satisfying. Partly because it depicts a brilliant woman. And partly because it depicts decent men. Beth is able to get where she does because they see her as an equal instead of as a threat.
It’s revisionist history. It would be a wonderful future.
(Correction: An earlier version of this column reported there are six episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit,” instead of seven. This version has been updated.)
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.