From Woolf Biopics to ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ – On the Pathologising of Woman Geniuses

Netflix

Netflix’s recent hit miniseries The Queen’s Gambit may revolve around chess, but its players are far from black and white. Critics have already praised the show’s storytelling, with its characters’ complex relationships and emphasis on cooperation proving especially noteworthy. Also notable is the show’s willingness to humanise and redeem antagonists rather than lean into conflict-heavy trauma or drama. Yet there is another way Gambit stands out that has yet to be discussed: namely, through its positive representation of a woman genius.

For those unfamiliar with the show, The Queen’s Gambit is a seven-episode fictional miniseries following the life of an orphan chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). After being taught how to play chess by her orphanage’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), Beth grows in skill and confidence, beginning to play chess professionally following her adoption and eventually playing internationally. The story is ultimately one that celebrates tenacity, kindness, friendship, and mentorship – as well as the sheer joy of watching someone grow and excel.

Beth is a genius. Indeed, while she faces setbacks against more experienced chess opponents, her natural talent for the game is evident from the first episode, which shows her rapidly outstripping experienced players after only limited training. She is also shown imagining a chess board on the ceiling of her room each night and using it to play games against herself. Like an intellectual superpower, the brilliance of her mind is rarely questioned; and if other characters doubt her, they do not do so for long. The Queen’s Gambit stands out for how it chooses to let its heroine’s genius shine. 

Netflix

Such positive representation matters. Woman geniuses onscreen are too often portrayed in ways that purport to celebrate their brilliance, but in fact undermine or diminish it. Indeed, I would argue woman geniuses in film are frequently associated with tragedy, mental illness, heartbreak, and death, or some combination of these themes. While these associations do not necessarily have to be problematic, they become so if they are the primary lens through which directors and audiences understand genius in women. This is especially the case when genius is portrayed as stemming from inflicted trauma rather than being a quality inherent to the character.

Films about woman geniuses are already fewer than films about geniuses who are men. Films about male geniuses include Amadeus (1984), Rain Man (1988), Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), Little Man Tate (1991), Pollock (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Dark Matter (2008), The Imitation Game (2014), The Theory of Everything (2014), and At Eternity’s Gate (2018). While the biopic genre in particular offers a few woman-led counterparts, once has to reach further to find films about woman geniuses. The few that spring to mind are films about Virginia Woolf, such as The Hours (2002) or Vita & Virginia (2018); Sylvia Plath, as with Sylvia (2003); or Frida Kahlo, depicted in Frida (2002). In terms of science, Hidden Figures (2016) and Radioactive (2019) explore the lives and work of mathematician Katherine Johnson and physicist Marie Curie respectively. Depending on one’s definition of genius, one could potentially widen the net to include more films, but pickings remain limited nonetheless.

It is unsettling to consider how often films – particularly biopics – sensationalise and make central geniuses’ worst demons. The rationale from a filmmaking perspective is evident: a character’s struggle means onscreen conflict, heightened stakes, and a more dramatic, engaging film. However, such amplification of struggles can lead to a reinforced association between genius and struggle; genius and mental illness; genius and personal tragedy. 

Vita & Virginia (Mirror Productions)

Take Woolf or Plath, for example. Their fame today is owed as much to the mythology surrounding their tragedies as it is to their genius. Films about both women take care to illustrate their mental illness in voyeuristic detail: their distress is ever-amplified, and their instabilities are portrayed as weaving inextricably into their work. This narrative choice plays into the stereotype that women’s writing is above all personal, domestic, and semi-autobiographical (and therefore limited in scope and supposedly lacking innovation or genius). What’s more, both women’s suicides are either alluded to or depicted in these films in a grave slow motion that feels, frankly, grotesque when one realises this death – or foreshadowing of death – is being drawn out onscreen to titillate audiences. 

I would argue the recurring emphasis on death, mental illness, and tragedy in films centring women (consider also La Vie En Rose (2007); My Week with Marilyn (2011); Judy (2019)) reflects the ease with which women can be linked to reductive and conservative stereotypes. Femininity already has connotations of fragility and vulnerability, not to mention accompanying archetypes of ‘beautiful young martyr’ or ‘tortured madwoman’ that recur so frequently in storytelling. Focusing on women’s pain, pathologising it, and depicting it as integral to their success or genius is a worn and tired storytelling convention, and one that plagues films about women. 

At this point, one could ask: but what about the men? Doesn’t the mathematician in A Beautiful Mind suffer from paranoid schizophrenia? Didn’t Vincent Von Gogh have manic depression? What about the tragedy of Alan Turing?

These are valid points, and they speak to cinema’s intuitive understanding of what makes a good story – in particular, a good biopic. Indeed, the personal tragedies of these men have been commodified for the sake of creating films that feel high-brow owing to their heavy subject matter – and which have merits, granted – but which in fact appeal to a very base level of voyeurism among insatiable, nosy audiences; Plath’s ‘peanut-crunching crowd’. (I include myself in this indictment, by the way. Despite recognising and critiquing biopics’ predictable, often maudlin conventions, I find them thoroughly engrossing). 

The Imitation Game (Black Bear Pictures)

Nevertheless, for all films also pathologise men and mine them for trauma, the depiction of mentally ill or tragic men onscreen remains different to that of their female counterparts. Firstly, the mentally ill male hero is typically depicted as less fragile than the mentally ill woman. He’s rarely as beautiful or sexually available when falling apart, either. Secondly, fragile and tortured female leads differ from the anguished men through often being depicted as innovating and creating in response to external stimuli – love and heartbreak, most frequently. 

Indeed, it is striking how often films that are supposedly about famous women, their lives, and their work manage to make themselves above all about these women’s love lives. This is the case in Iris (2001); Frida (2002); Sylvia (2003); Miss Potter (2006); and Mary Shelley (2017), to name just a few. Even films like Reaching for the Moon (2013) and Vita & Virginia (2018), which at least break new ground in their portrayal of same-sex love, fall into this convention of automatically privileging love’s significance in telling the story of the woman. In Becoming Jane (2007) and Coco Before Chanel (2009), meanwhile, so inconceivable is the prospect of a film without a motivating yet thwarted love story that the directors amplify bit figures from the women’s lives into life-altering love interests. 

This centring of love in stories about women is problematic. Not only is it inherently reductive, but it also suggests that the achievements of these women were provoked, influenced, or inspired by a significant relationship, usually with a man. Such an insinuation is insulting and effectively places the genesis of woman’s genius outside of her own mind. In Sylvia (2003), for example, Plath is forever shown writing her best work in response to her husband: his comings, his goings, his betrayals. In Becoming Jane (2007), meanwhile, the addition of a love interest for Jane Austen serves as an explanation for how she came by her understanding of love – an explanation that undermines the likelier reality that she was simply brilliant, observant, and shrewd. Such storylines figure clever, innovative women as passive receivers whose intellectual strengths are largely sparked as a result of encounters with men and their active influence. Ergo, such narrative liberties do a deep disservice to the woman geniuses they purport to depict, commemorate, and celebrate.  

So, what is different about The Queen’s Gambit?

Firstly, while Beth is portrayed as struggling with trauma and addiction in particular, these aspects of her life do not come to dominate either her character or her storyline. The story makes a point of showing her winning her biggest and most challenging game without the influence of drugs, dispelling any suggestion of her genius or skill being dependent on substance abuse. In this sense, the show allows her to own her own genius.

Ecosse Films and Blueprint Pictures

Secondly, while Beth is given primary and well as secondary love interests, these stories are always kept peripheral to her relationship with chess and her own mind. In this sense, the show’s narrative structure is more reminiscent of stories about male geniuses than woman geniuses – the leads in A Beautiful Mind or The Imitation Game are supported by preternaturally empathetic beauties, for example, but these women never take up too much space. Similarly, Beth is surrounded by men invested in her intellectual success and emotional wellbeing, but these men are never more than supporting acts. Moreover, in the same way The Queen’s Gambit avoids depicting its protagonist’s genius as manifesting in response to trauma or mental illness, it equally avoids depicting it as manifesting in response to love or to men’s romantic acceptance or rejection.

Thirdly, the show leans away from trauma. Rather than depicting a woman’s genius as either stemming from trauma or culminating in trauma, The Queen’s Gambit acknowledges its protagonist’s demons but allows her to be more than them. Beth is permitted to be happy. Indeed, she is allowed to be happy and successful in a way rarely permitted to women in adult film and television. Spritely woman geniuses are far more common among Young Adult fiction and pop feminist films like Enola Holmes (2020), in which the heroines have yet to fully grow up and, by inference, lose their innocence and become a site of trauma. After all, in stories as well as in reality, women are too often acted upon as opposed to being actors in their own right. It is refreshing, therefore, to watch Gambit and see a woman exist and succeed onscreen with a resilience and invincibility matched perhaps only in Hidden Figures (2016) or Wonder Woman (2017). 

The Queen’s Gambit is an example of how it is possible to craft clever, satisfying, and popular shows about women – and specifically woman geniuses – that avoid pathologising their intellect. The show’s positive reception also suggests audiences enjoy and welcome stories in which women are less strongly linked than usual to fragility and to themes of tragedy, heartbreak, and death. 

In short, The Queen’s Gambit reaffirms the fact that women, too, can and should be allowed to exist onscreen with the narrative respect and independence afforded to intelligent, high-achieving men. And it does not take a genius to see this is merely fair play. 

by Rosalind Moran

Rosalind Moran has written for magazines and journals including Prospect MagazineThe Lifted BrowKill Your DarlingsOverland, and Meanjin Quarterly, among others. In 2018, she won an international academic award for her research into biopics. She is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in modern languages at the University of Cambridge. @RosalindCMoran

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