This review contains spoilers.
While I was writing this review, my laptop malfunctioned. I took it to the Apple store’s Genius Bar – staffed by (mostly male) technicians called “Geniuses” – to be repaired. When it became clear that my laptop was unfixable, a Genius jovially informed me that it was probably not working “because of its colour”.
My laptop is pink. I wish this anecdote were a fabrication, but this actually happened.
Netflix’s miniseries The Queen’s Gambit is about a fictional female chess genius. It raises questions about the nature of genius and, in particular, who gets to claim it. From The Queen’s Gambit, we learn that a woman is a genius if she is hot and achieves international success in a field usually dominated by men. If her pursuits lie in more stereotypically feminine fields, she is merely a muse, a manic pixie dream girl, a mad wife.
The “tortured genius” narrative is hardly new ground in Western culture. The genius is almost always male. He comes in two flavours: STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or the humanities. He is a mathematician whose brilliant brain frequently dances him close to the edge of insanity (Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, or Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting). Or he is an artist whose creative brilliance is modulated by alcohol- or drug-induced breakdowns and dramas (think Ernest Hemingway, Jackson Pollock, or every male rock-star biopic you’ve ever seen). The genius usually has an empathetic normie girlfriend who lives to support him, and his addiction and bad behaviour are excused by his talent (“He didn’t mean to hit you, he’s so absorbed in his work!”).
When popular culture has pushed against this representation, it has often applied these tired tropes to women. In Alex Ross Perry’s 2018 film Her Smell, for example, Elisabeth Moss plays the fictional rock star Becky Something, a drug-addicted musical “genius” who terrorises everyone around her, consistently ruining shows and breaking promises. The post-feminist message seems to be that in 2018 women can be anything men can be, including arseholes.
The Queen’s Gambit avoids this reductive trope, but it does fall into others. The series follows American chess prodigy orphan Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she rises through the ranks of the competitive chess world during the early years of the Cold War. Over seven episodes, Beth pirouettes between pill and alcohol addiction, sartorial self-actualisation and international chess mastery. She becomes an unwitting symbol of the United States’ exceptionalism as the atypicality of her gender in the chess world is championed by the government and media as a demonstration of the superiority of US democracy to the Soviet state.
In most male-tortured-genius narratives, the almost inevitable addiction is treated as symbolic as well as real. As the genius relapses again and again, drugs become a symbol of the wrong way, the bad path, the unproductive alternative. Drugs are a distraction from the real work of genius. And it’s the drugs that make male geniuses treat others – usually the women who support them – poorly.
For Beth Harmon the delineation is not so clear cut. Beth’s drug addictions don’t make her inflict terrible harm on those closest to her. Sure, she could be kinder to the gormless Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), but apart from that Beth is generally kind to those who are kind to her, including her alcoholic adoptive mother. When she gets drunk or high, her instinct is to erase herself. Might it be that male geniuses are arseholes to the women in their lives primarily because of their masculine sense of entitlement?
Moralism aside, Beth’s reliance on drugs is not totally unproductive. She first becomes addicted to benzodiazepines as a child in an orphanage, where they are handed out like lollies. As an adult, she also becomes addicted to alcohol. Benzos transform Beth’s lonely orphanage bed into a dramatically rendered dream world, where huge chess pieces glide across the ceiling like an inverted version of the wizard’s chess challenge in Harry Potter. Alcohol allows her, even if only temporarily, to abate the boredom of living, turning numbness into feeling.
Her other addiction, chess, opens up a world in which she is on an even playing field with her competitors. Her status as a woman or an orphan is immaterial. In chess, if you learn the rules really well you can see further into the future than your opponent: as with drinking and drug-taking, you can make choices based on your ability to access hypothetical dream worlds.
Why is Beth’s success in chess rewarded while her aptitude at drug-taking and imagining is not? Let us consider, for a moment, that chess is an invented game with no inherent benefit to society. It provides players with a demarcated arena in which to hone and perform their critical thinking.
Many other amateur activities allow critical thinking to be learnt and performed: pattern-making, sewing, knitting and baking, for example, are all mathematical or scientific pursuits. However, those who have these skills are rarely lauded as “geniuses” because these are discursively feminised realms. The theoretical relationship between knitting and coding is profound, but guess how many knitters are deemed “geniuses”? Could it be that chess has cultural prestige precisely because it has no practical domestic application, and historically has been played at the highest levels by white men who have the time to sit on chairs for hours?
By the series’ end, the prevailing critical diagnosis seems to be that Beth’s drug dependency is a useless, self-destructive symptom of childhood trauma. According to this logic, it’s when Beth realises that her chess genius is not contingent on her drug use – rather, her two habits merely originated about the same time – that she is able to ascend into “pure” genius and beat the Russians.
This puritanical construal is clear in the heavy-handed symbolism of the final episode – the big reveal is that, even after Beth flushes her meds down the toilet, she can still see the giant chessboard on the ceiling. Now that she has her supportive troupe of male chess groupies on the phone and her one Black friend’s tuition money, it turns out Beth never needed drugs! She had what it took inside her all along.
This ending seems weak to me for two reasons. First, I reckon the drugs did have something to do with Beth’s chess hallucinations and her related talent. Even if she were inherently brilliant at chess, it seems weirdly naive to suggest that her development is not tied to her drug use. This is not to say that drugs transform Beth into a genius: rather, Beth’s relationship to drugs tethers her to a mental landscape of infinite possibility, in which the alienation she feels in everyday life can be transmuted into the exercise of her own agency.
Second, despite what most critics have pinpointed as the series’ eventual nod to the superiority of the collective over the lone victor, this isn’t really a show about the US embracing Communist modes of intellectual solidarity. In the final episode, Beth gives up literal drugs and realises that the best drug of all is nationalist solidarity: she agrees to the help of her male compatriot brains trust.
However, Beth has spent the entire series without consistent support from American men. They help her from time to time, only to abandon her repeatedly when she is too “messy”, or when she won’t marry them. Beth’s most loyal supporter has been her adoptive mother, who by this point in the show is dead.
The premise sold to us in this episode is that the female genius does not need drugs; she just needs the support of a band of male geniuses. But if I learnt anything from my visit to the Apple store, it’s that I don’t need the “help” of male “geniuses”. And neither does Beth Harmon.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 12, 2020 as "The gender of genius".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription