On the Queen’s Gambit and its lack of sexual violence

Novelist Elisabeth de Mariaffi looks at why The Queen’s Gambit was different from other shows of its kind. Girl descends basement steps in orphanage to meet up with a surly janitor and, instead of getting molested, goes on to become a chess prodigy. Why is this surprising? Because that’s not how things typically go, narratively speaking. And what does this lack of violence do to the experience of watching the show? Makes for better story and characters. Smart piece outlining the feelings many viewers didn’t even know they were having. (Full disclosure: the author of this piece is currently sitting one room away from me.)

As a writer, I think about the “woman in peril” question a lot—and as a writer of thrillers in particular, a genre in which the trope is pervasive, I often find myself trying to walk a line. I admit I don’t create violence-free worlds for my own female characters, and I’ve questioned the impetus to do so. While I certainly understand Lawless’s point of view, I am still not sure I can embrace it. I’ve questioned the Staunch Prize from its inception. Isn’t it ultimately damaging to negate this most real and prevalent part of women’s lives? Why pretend?

I’m not alone in this. Crime novelist Val McDermid was one of several writers who spoke out against the prize in the Guardian, commenting,“As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed.”

And yet it was fascinating to see how the absence of sexual violence shaped The Queen’s Gambit. Beth Harmon, the prodigy, still faces myriad challenges: orphaned at eight when her mother commits suicide, Beth is startlingly alone; she battles both a lifelong addiction and the basic misogyny of the time, both in and out of the world of chess. That basic misogyny is important. Men in The Queen’s Gambit are always standing around in groups, passing judgment: from the cops who attend the car crash where Beth is orphaned, to the boys at the high school chess club, to the men looming over her as she plays in her first big State tournament. It’s a strong, repeated image.

But these men are dismissive, rather than overtly threatening. What we see in The Queen’s Gambit is by no means a non-sexist utopia, but the series does remove this one piece of the puzzle—just the sexual assault, just the physical-safety question—and it allows us to see what this shift means for characters on both sides of the equation.

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