‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Creates an Empowering Tale of Women in the 1960s

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Elmer Geissler from Pixabay

The Queen’s Gambit is one of the most common chess openings, involving the sacrifice of a white queen-side pawn to procure the center.

 In the patriarchal society of 1950s USA, Anya Taylor-Joy has brought chess-genius, Beth Harmon, to life during her journey filming The Queen’s Gambit

   After its release in October of 2020, the critically acclaimed TV series is one of the top contenders of the Best Television Motion Picture category at the 2021 Golden Globe Awards, with leading actress Anya Taylor-Joy being nominated for Best Actress. 

   So what prompted the raving reviews and the numerous award nominations? The answer simply lies within Anya Taylor-Joy and her pawns, within her domain that is the chessboard. 

   Set in the Cold War era, the story features nine year-old Elizabeth Harmon, who became an orphan after the sudden death of her mother, and the disappearance of her father. Upon arriving at the orphanage, Beth stunned adults as a young chess prodigy, but also suffered under the influence of tranquilizing drugs that were given to her on the daily. 

   Each day, every girl in the orphanage would be given two “vitamin” pills: one red, one green. The audience later learned the green pill was indeed a form of tranquilizing drug, bearing striking similarities to the notorious Librium drug of the 1960s. 

   During the period between 1958 to 1960, Librium pills were made available to the general public, where they were prescribed to ease anxiety or insomnia symptoms. As such, tiny bottles of these pills could likely be found in any household, which doesn’t stray far from the “vitamin” facade that the orphanage has created. 

   The portrayal of drug usage in this show reveals how common drug misuse was 60 years ago, but these tranquilizing pills also played a crucial role in Beth’s success as a chess prodigy. 

   As we’ve seen in the first few episodes, Beth was only able to picture her past chess games on the ceiling due to the effects of the drug. 

   This leads to the million-dollar question: would Beth Harmon have been a renowned name in chess if she hadn’t been introduced to the pills in the first place? 

   It’s already been confirmed that Beth had a very strong addiction to the pills, despite warnings from her more experienced friend, and she was also seen experiencing heavy withdrawal symptoms when she was prevented from ingesting the pills. 

   If it weren’t for the hallucinations of the tranquilizing pills, perhaps Beth would have never garnered up the extreme interest in this game. 

   However, the opposite also holds true. While the pills might have played a crucial role in Beth’s success, her true victories came from her undeniable work ethic. 

   Society in the late 1950s was undoubtedly discriminatory against women, especially against their role in sports and activities that were predominantly played by men. Chess was no different, as numerous adults frowned upon Beth’s sudden interest in this activity. 

   With numerous other girls engaging in normal “feminine” activities in her everyday life, Beth certainly had several chances to give this life up. Her perseverance, however, and her love for this game allowed for her to surpass state champions within their first encounter. 

   In Beth Harmon’s situation, the introduction of tranquilizing pills could almost be described as an inevitable catalyst toward her future success. While her journey may have begun with her eyes fixated on an imaginary chessboard, those figments of her imagination gradually grew into something real. 

   Beth was not only vying for recognition, but also for a stable financial life for her and her adoptive mother. A pill for a dollar was certainly not a bad trade within a society filled to its brim with tranquilizing euphoria.