How Female Protagonists in ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ ‘Unorthodox’ Carved Out Space Amid a Man’s World

Will Thorne
·5-min read

Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) faces doubt and disdain from her male counterparts at every step of her journey to become a chess world champion, yet each time, without fail, she proves them wrong.

The protagonist of Netflix’s breakthrough hit “The Queen’s Gambit” is one of several central characters in this year’s crop of Golden Globes limited series contenders, including “Unorthodox,” “Normal People” and “Mrs. America,” who face an uphill fight against a patriarchal society or traditional forces to get what they want. Each one makes a fair share of mistakes, but ultimately achieves some degree of success in being heard and in changing their lives for the better.

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Despite some help from her elderly chess teacher, her adoptive mother and a couple of chess friends here and there, Beth’s relentless drive to be the best propels her to the top. Her obsession and her passion are what make her such a compelling character, says “Queen’s Gambit” executive producer William Horberg, and is the main reason that audiences around the world have connected with her story.

“There’s this incredibly satisfying sports narrative, but the real point of ‘Queen’s Gambit’ is Beth’s emotional journey and all of the adversity that she overcomes as a person completely alone in the world, with no relationships and no support, as a person who’s struggling with addiction, and as a woman in that time and place, confronting a patriarchal world and a game that is not friendly towards her,” Horberg says.

By the end of the series, Beth has defeated her biggest chess rival and has transformed from a shy, orphaned pawn into a powerful queen. The look on her face in the finale reflects just how much she has
changed and has had to overcome, Horberg says.

“Ultimately, she’s her own person and she’s got to find her own way. To me, the whole show is that smile that is so earned when she’s walking to the park in Moscow at the end. It’s the first time you really feel like she’s OK in her own skin, OK with who she is,” he says.

As Beth manages to will herself into becoming a chess grandmaster, so too is Esty, the protagonist of “Unorthodox,” played by Shira Haas, able forge her own path away from the Satmar community in which she grew up.

Esty escapes to Berlin where she is suddenly exposed to the “full spectrum of Jewish experience and female experience,” as executive producer Anna Winger puts it.

However, Winger says she and the producers discussed making sure the conflict between where Esty came from and where she’s going wasn’t “entirely black and white.”

“If you speak to most women who live in that community, they like it. I also think they wouldn’t describe it as patriarchal because the sexes live separately,” Winger explains. “Women live in a part that’s really run by women. If anything, they would say they’re oppressed by the older women telling them what to do.”

While Esty chooses to leave that claustrophobic community behind, her husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), is forced to follow, at least temporarily, if he wants to bring her back.

Winger says “Unorthodox” isn’t just the story of women’s experiences in that community, it is also about the pressures and restrictions that men face. Both characters learn “a lot about themselves” and how different their lives could be outside the only system they know.

“I feel like the ending is hopeful in some ways for both of them, even though they don’t end up together. It was really important to us to approach the story with that hope,” Winger says.

Similarly, in Hulu’s “Normal People,” it is not just its female lead Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) who feels the weight of social and societal pressure. Connell (Paul Mescal) starts off as the most popular kid in high school and gives in to the pressures of maintaining his status by refusing to acknowledge his love for Marianne.

It’s a decision that haunts him throughout the series and that reflects his internal battle between conforming to traditional perceptions of masculinity and showing his more vulnerable side, says executive producer Lenny Abrahamson.

“The trope of the guy who has that power, yet is ultimately damaged, can be done so badly, but I think in Paul’s case, he plays it with such conviction and subtlety,” Abrahamson says. “It feels like a fresh account of that kind of tension that men can feel because of their environment and their world.”

Whereas “Normal People” relied on the simplicity of one central relationship to bring power to the screen, FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America” showrunner Dahvi Waller faced the dauntingly complex task of bringing to life a host of famous leaders on both sides of the Equal Rights Amendment and their fight for women’s rights in a male-dominated society.

Waller and the other writers set out to “humanize” the figures on both sides of the debate and ensure that the mythic ERA figures weren’t “saintly, perfect heroes.” For instance, in reading the memoir of Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Waller found that she was never being able to stick to her diet and was “stuffing her face” when a vote didn’t go her way in Congress.

“Here’s this amazingly brilliant lawyer-turned-congresswoman fighting for women’s rights and she’s worrying about her diet and not fitting into her clothes. It struck me as human and so relatable and I thought, ‘This is what I want to put on the show,’” Waller says. “These are the sides of these women that when I’m watching a documentary about the feminist movement, I never get to see.”

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