WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
To round out 2020, Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit a show about a young woman and the beauty of chess. The show rivaled Tiger King, who held the number one spot for Netflix in 2020. However, one of the reasons Queen’s Gambit is so phenomenal is that it shows the power and rise of the genius woman in a man’s world.
Anya Taylor-Joy takes on the role of Beth Harmon; an orphan who despite all odds, becomes insanely good at chess as a child. She goes on to challenge the men of the chess world; redefining what it means to be a woman playing a man’s game, and dismantling the idea only men can compete. All the while, Beth is battling an intense drug and alcohol addiction, one that she credits her abilities to and is figuring out her sexuality as well.
On episode 6 of the show, we finally see what Beth’s sexuality is (so spoilers if you haven’t gotten that far) and how it plays into her genius.
Honestly, Beth’s relationship with another woman is over faster than you can snap your fingers. Rather, the focus is on Beth’s experience as she takes on the men of the world, all while being young and bisexual. Pretty dope. However, it is worth noting Beth’s time discovering her bisexuality, even for just a fleeting moment.
In episode 6, Beth’s somewhat lover Benny invites her to come play chess with a group of his friends, bragging that she will beat them all (she will.) However, throughout the games it is evident that Beth is being pulled towards Cleo. Cleo is a French model, who also gazes back at Beth and later on invites her out for drinks. *screams in lesbian*
Cleo is straightforward with Beth and comes on to her pretty directly. They joke about the men across the room who are interested in Beth, yet Beth only has eyes for Cleo at this point, wanting to stay. It is evident that Beth and Cleo sleep together as the next morning Beth is late for a match and glances across the bed to find Cleo asleep next to her; and as quickly as Cleo arrived, she’s gone in that fleeting moment.
So, why is this moment in all of its quickness, so important? Because that night with Cleo is a turning point for Beth.
There’s the idea that being gay, during this time period, leads women astray from their goals. In Beth’s case this seems accurate, as she’s late for her chess match that she actually loses in. Beth is overwhelmed, late, and distraught. Chess, for Beth, is her entire life and if she loses, a part of her will drift away. Beth has always been confident in her abilities, but after one night with a woman suddenly her world is shaken. However, Beth’s world doesn’t begin to crumble because of her tryst with Cleo. Rather, Beth’s affair was because she has finally started to hit rock bottom; she’s distracted, and leaving her chess dreams in her dust. By hooking up with Cleo, Beth has found another fix to soothe her like her alcoholism and drug problem.
Beth loses the match the next day, and it seems like all is lost as she starts to self destruct… all because she was attracted to a woman? At the time, women being gay was see as their downfall, denying them opportunities or worse. But is this something that Beth thinks as well? As Cleo is one of Beth’s new vices, she could be seen to Beth as the beginning of her downward spiral, despite no one knowing of the affair but the two of them.
If you look at it more closely, you find that Beth’s bisexuality (and discovering it) is actually part of what empowers her genius.
Beth losing the match the day after her night with Cleo reignites the fire inside her to keep going. Beth begins to self destruct, but doesn’t let anything phase her as she’s on to the next match. It is almost as if Beth’s self discovery made her even more intelligent, even more powerful. She is able to compartmentalize her relationships and keep fighting, because she has always had to live life in a state of fight or flight; often choosing fight. Beth leverages her loss and her newfound sexual experiences to fuel her fire, and ultimately that skill puts her back on top. Exploring her sexual desires is a mirror for exploring those inner parts of herself, which gave her the confidence to keep fighting for her place in this world.
The idea of a genius woman was already something men feared — she’s in a class of people that they thought they could write off completely. But Beth challenges the idea that women are submissive to men and that they can’t be competitors. She does not play by the rules set out for women and girls in society. Beth stumbles many times trying to find her way — but she gives herself the freedom to get back up again.
What’s almost groundbreaking about Queen’s Gambit is their utilization of unapologetic gay characters like D.L. Townes, the only man Beth ever loved, and who turned out to be gay, and Beth. Placed in a time where they “couldn’t” be gay, or at least not openly so, and yet both lived their lives unapologetically so anyway. While the show could have written Cleo as yet another vice for Beth to distract her from chess, Beth does not apologize or feel shame about her sexuality.
Beth has never for a second questioned her truth, and when the world knocks her down and tells her to stay down, she doesn’t. Instead, she shakes it off, and embraces who she is which leads to her wild success. While Cleo’s time in the show is brief, their tryst is a turning point for Beth finding her strength and taking things to the next level. We love to see it.
You can stream The Queen’s Gambit now on Netflix.