Imagining a feminist utopia

Updated: 13 November, 2020 07:39 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

Male characters in The Queen's Gambit nurturing the female lead's innate genius instead of upholding patriarchal notions is a breath of fresh air that makes one question our culture of feeding self-doubt.

A still from The Queen's Gambit. PIC/NETFLIX
A still from The Queen's Gambit. PIC/NETFLIX

picMaybe because I learned about the series shortly after I fumed over the inherent male bias that marked a headline story in a leading newspaper's weekend edition about why women sucked at chess, I relished watching The Queen's Gambit. Were it not for my partner's discipline, I would perhaps have binge-watched it.

Each time an episode ended, he had the wisdom to close the Netflix app on my laptop, and that small gesture enhanced our viewing experience. We got to spread the seven episodes over a little longer than a week. As a European, my partner made abundantly clear his irritation over the characterisation of non-Americans in the series, and couldn't resist pointing out various implausibilities in the plotline.

He was a bit surprised that I was able to overlook some of them, considering I'm not often so forgiving of such flaws. In all honesty, I enjoyed watching The Queen's Gambit. I found that despite its limitations, there was enough substance to have me completely hooked.

I'm no chess nerd. I enjoy playing the game now and then, but I'm more of an impulsive and spontaneous player. I cannot wrap my head around some players' ability to anticipate their opponent's moves. I am not diabolical, even though I wish I could be. I love being able to visualise or perceive patterns. It might be why I enjoy undertaking complex crochet patterns.

What I loved most about The Queen's Gambit was witnessing the lead protagonist, Beth Harmon, wrestle with the fact of her own genius and arrive at the understanding that it lay nestled within her and wasn't attached to external stimuli, like drugs. The whole premise was wildly speculative.

Even though one would like to believe the show is inspired by a female chess player, knowing it isn't, knowing that the book from which it is adapted, written by Walter Tevis, dared to imagine a female chess-playing genius at a time when it was unheard of and while it remains a rarity, made it more satisfying to watch. There was an experimental quality to the plotline, and I was drawn to the idea of men actually nurturing Harmon's talent instead of stifling or discouraging it.

I loved that her mentor was a janitor. And while I genuinely feared in the beginning that their relationship would be marked by abuse, I loved that it wasn't, that he always maintained boundaries, that he did whatever was in his power to encourage her skills, and, as we learn later, he took pride in her successes.

I was also genuinely moved by the relationship shared between Beth and her adoptive mother, just as I was by the fact that the men in her life are presciently nurturing and not total assholes. I began to think quite critically about how men are often characterised in television shows, and how rare it is to find ethically grounded cis-het men who are not just there to advocate patriarchal notions of masculinity.

I thought back to one evening during our Delhi lockdown, when I had just begun to learn German. My partner had seemed impressed by my ability to pick up some of the grammar he was teaching me. I was surprised too.

I wouldn't say that I have special skills with languages. Or Mathematics. Honestly, in school, I was always relieved when I did well in any subject. I internalised that I was good at English and social sciences, but that I didn't have a great aptitude for Algebra or Geometry or languages.

When I did an Aptitude test at the age of 15, and the counsellor surveyed my results and told me I could consider a career in Accounting, I was astonished. She said I had a feel for numbers. I secretly questioned her judgement.

But that evening, some months ago, I found I was unable to sleep. I kept wondering if it might be possible that I had a higher IQ than I was led to believe. What if I had been conditioned to believe I possessed intelligence instead of being told to focus on my talents? I struggled with Maths and Marathi and I still have nightmares about failing both subjects. I always blamed myself for not being smart enough. But what if the problem was really that I was in a class with 80 other students, and what if I'd had teachers who could have catered to my weaknesses and helped me overcome them?

The only thing I felt certain of when I was in school was my talent for writing. Every English teacher I'd ever had nourished this aptitude. And I remain grateful. But I wonder how many women like me have grown up believing they were inadequate, not the system. For almost 30 years I have had to carry the debilitating weight of self-doubt. I have only recently exorcised it, through therapy. There are women who feel fated to carry it to their death beds.

Sometimes I speculate about my own life. I imagine wild implausibilities that could possibly have altered its trajectory. What if I had been trained to hold myself more securely instead of being conditioned to seek validation outside of me? I know it's not worthwhile to dwell in hypothetical thinking, but it helps me outline my version of feminist utopia — one in which children are raised to transcend gender binaries and to make decisions from a space of empowered consciousness, not from lack, or fear, or self-doubt.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 13 November, 2020 06:31 IST

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