Scene it: Beth Harmon’s attack on obliging femininity in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

A red-haired woman sits on a couch playing piano.
Characters like Beth Harmon help complicate the idea that femininity and unfriendliness are not mutually exclusive, adding variety to women’s roles in TV. (Courtesy: Netflix)

There is nothing wrong with being likable. An agreeable, uncontroversial character is much easier to sell in the film industry. However, the cast of overly likable leading characters in Hollywood is composed almost entirely of women. 

It’s true that women are starting to assume stronger roles on the silver screen, but powerful leads like those from “Hidden Figures” and “Wonder Woman” share a common thread in that they are funny, charming and likable.

Enter Beth Harmon — cold, ambitious and utterly unwelcoming.  

I can’t be the only one who developed a soul-crushing online chess addiction to fill the hole left by the conclusion of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” From the depths of an orphanage emerges unmistakable talent, fiery motivation and struggle with addiction; Beth makes quite the convincing underdog.

You barely have to try when coming up with a list of “unlikable” leading men in film and TV — think Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort and half the men in “Game of Thrones.”

And that’s only the list of intentionally unlikable leading men. The list of intentionally unlikable leading women? Far shorter. 

Again, there’s nothing wrong with a likable woman, but whenever there is a whiff of inequality, you have to wonder what is amiss. Does the audience find it hard to stomach disagreeable women, especially successful ones?

Not only does Beth not downplay her victories to soothe her opponents’ egos, but she relishes in each win. She beats almost every man she’s put against in chess, but on the rare occasion that she loses, she grows visibly and terrifically irritated.

Beth is also incredibly intelligent — she excels in math, learns Russian specifically to understand her greatest challenger and is, of course, a chess prodigy. In a refreshing turn of events, Beth’s intelligence does not mysteriously hamper her innate sense of style; the woman knows how to dress. 

Nothing can dissuade Beth from her first, and arguably only, true love. Her monastic dedication to the game dominates her life. Romantic interests do not stand a chance against the allure of the black and white battlefield: Beth is undoubtedly the most valuable player on her own board.

It is this unapologetic ambition that is so delightful to watch, that distinguishes Beth from a readily likable protagonist — and viewers like her because of it. She has her faults, but pride is not one of them: Really, it is her greatest asset. 

We need more characters like Beth in TV and film. Not every woman is blunt and typically unfriendly, just as not every woman is charming and affectionate. I love Jessica Day from “New Girl” almost as much as I love Cersei Lannister from “Game of Thrones,” yet some days, instead of an adorable but frankly one-dimensional oddball, I want to see a woman who will burn down a city out of sheer stubbornness. Beth adds a welcome shade of variety to the existing lineup.

We accept this variety of personality for men’s roles, but we need to present this same variety for women’s roles.

And, though you cannot learn chess from watching “The Queen’s Gambit,” Beth gives viewers a better lesson. It’s important to disconnect from the idea that femininity and friendliness are one and the same; feminine-presenting people do not owe the world a smile.

Beth smiles when she wins.

Rorye Jones PO ’23 is one of TSL’s TV and film columnists and is currently residing in San Diego, California.

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