Binging is the devil, the instant gratification characteristic of streaming services and particularly satisfying in the age of COVID19. By suggestion, I started The Queen’s Gambit Friday on a Friday night. By 4:30 am Saturday, I was spent, sleepy, and thoroughly satisfied. Hurting and at war with the desire to sleep, I could not sleep until I got these ideas out of my head and strung into sentences.
Laser focus, ambition, drive – The Queen’s Gambit – in the 1950s and ’60s, The Queen’s Gambit is Rocky for nerds, chess geeks, and ambitious women, and I’m here for it. Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon is an orphan who combats abandonment and her sudden orphan status when she learns about chess and prescription tranquilizers. The daughter of a mentally ill mother who rejected attempts to help her and father who – the flashbacks suggest – was a mathematical genius, Beth has the ingredients for both greatness and madness She hones her mind and her chess skills with a laser focus and capacity to see chess moves. Her story of becoming a chess champion is equal parts a Rocky story for chess nerds and ambitious women alike. There was even a not-so-subtle nod to Apollo Creed coming back to train Rocky for his next fight against a seemingly insurmountable opponent. Was it just a coincidence that in both stories, the Big Bad was Russian? Beth’s laser focuses on chess, her ambition to improve remained constant through years institutionalized in an arcane orphanage system, adoption into the home of a loveless married couple, peer pressure, and attempts by everyone around her to conform to what was expected of a young woman in the 1950’s and 60’s. Beth was always the smartest one in the room, and quick to realize it she did not attempt to dumb herself down.
That was so refreshing. She’d try it on for size (high school girl’s social club, relationships, intimacy) but was quick to walk away without regrets. She is a character who was not condemned for being exactly who she is. Beth found her tribe by being entirely herself.
Pieces already exist on the disdain for the formulaic, predictable Hallmark romance stories. It goes like this: Successful woman gives up career, location, and ambition because she finds that what she really wanted but didn’t know was love and she gives it all away because she must make a choice. That’s my sentiment on this story trope. I love love, but I’ve had enough.
I gleefully hail the entry of stories featuring women as central characters, women as multifaceted, complex, wanting something in life, and unapologetic for wanting it. Best of all, they aren’t chucking their ambition for the love of a Good Man once they see they have the attention of said Good Man, and “Gee, I’m going to drop my goal of using my wheelhouse of talents, use my brain, and achieve my goals, because its either realize my potential or a partner. And said a woman cannot have both or face the intonation as being flawed if she chooses to pursue a said goal. Bravo for this growing body of storytelling. Women don’t have to choose the binary love/relationship or personal success in order to fill one’s role as a woman. Interestingly, the stories highlighted are period pieces.
This is what I would have wanted to see as a kid, pre-teen, and young woman. I yearned to see these kinds of characters without the intonation that a woman’s choices are so binary.
Rail Against the System – Bridgerton. Hurray, Shonda Rhimes! Set in late 1800’s Regency-era London, the central female character Daphne Bridgerton is the oldest female in the household. The story framework is the social politics and trappings of the “ton”, the social setting where the main goal is a whirlwind lottery of marriage among the well-heeled elite. It was delicious watching a diverse cast – I was feeling Queen Charlotte’s hair wardrobe changes – and that pompadour ‘fro, baby!
My girl, however, is Eloise Bridgerton, second daughter and next in line for marriage. Eloise rails against the notion that securing the optimal marriage for one’s household is the best for which a woman can hope. Burying her head in books and stealing away to her family’s backyard to smoke, she dreams of escaping the social requirements to freedom and attending university to develop the asset that is her intellect. She lives vicariously through the writings of Lady Whistledown, the anonymous author of the local gossip sheet. Pursuing the goal of uncovering Lady Whistledown’s identity, she cheers and becomes Whistledown’s champion to remain free to live by her own agency. Lady Whistledown represents to Eloise the autonomy and freedom from the convention she desires for herself.
Name Yourself – Lovecraft Country, set in the 1950’s American South Jim Crow era, Lovecraft Country positions life in the Jim Crow South as a genre of horror.
The entire production is breathtaking this piece highlights the I Am episode. Every character carries a banner of the African American experience, here, I focus on Hyppolyta Freeman, the wife/helpmate, mother, and adventurer in her mind.
Hyppolita’s daughter patterns her intergalactic adventurer Corinthia Blue after her father’s real-life treks across the south in search of safe havens for the Negro traveler. In reality, her mother Hippolyta truly comes to embody the comic book character. Applying her mathematical and problem-solving skills, Hyppolite opens a portal to a multidimensional universe, meets a futuristic entity who fits her with devices, and challenges her to Name Herself. Empowered and untethered by social constraints, Hyppolite is finally free to be anything she wanted and to live entirely and fully as herself.
At the end of her arc, she’s lived many lifetimes of her choosing. Weighing the return to her life in her present time, she asks her benefactor if she would keep her powers in her time. I mentally braced myself for the inevitable story trope of choose your wildest dream, or duty/family and responsibility and give up your superpower. The episode was singularly one of the most exciting installments in a stellar production, but my joy was unparalleled when she found out her change and power were permanent. I cannot be the only person who felt that sense of celebration to find out that Hippolyta’s choice was in fact a choice without a price that inhibits her agency.
These are not the only stories, honorable mentions include Always Be My Maybe and Nappily Ever After. Each character expresses her discontent living with limitations on their capacity to be fully themselves. Each articulates what she sees as the impediments to a full existence. Each finds a way to live as she wants. It’s refreshing to see a growing body of stories featuring women with intellect, ambition, and drive – like Eloise, I’m cheering “Run! Go! Be free!”
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