“The Queen’s Gambit” sheds light upon female experiences with addiction that media has lacked for too long

Udita Jonnala

“The Queen’s Gambit” shines light on addiction from a female lens, bringing refreshing perspective to media and film.

Jade Wang and Nihal Singh

Please be advised this review discusses sensitive topics such as substance abuse and suicide.

“Magic vitamins.” This is how tranquilizer pills are introduced in the first episode of “The Queen’s Gambit.” The childish innocence of this phrase quickly takes on a darker meaning as these “vitamins” begin eight-year-old orphan Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) grueling battle with addiction.

Released on Oct. 23, Netflix mini-series “The Queen’s Gambit” is based on the 1983 novel “The Queen’s Gambit” by Walter Tevis (whose own alcohol and drug addiction heavily influences the story). The show follows the tumultuous life of Harmon, a gifted orphan who escapes the onerous conditions of her orphanage by playing chess with the janitor. Young Harmon soon finds herself encapsulated by the world of chess. Tranquilizer-induced hallucinations allow her to visualize three-dimensional chess pieces as she sleeps at night, and before long Harmon grows up to be a world-wide chess sensation. As Harmon attempts to navigate the cutthroat, male-dominated world of chess, her alcohol and drug addiction leaves her perpetually teetering on the edge of mental collapse.

It pushes us to reconsider our implicit sexist assumptions that perpetuate the myth that addiction is solely a men’s problem to suffer and conquer. ”

Even with the record-shattering debut of “The Queen’s Gambit,” it is easily acknowledged that there is a lack of female representation in stories of genius, addiction, or the union of the two in almost all forms of entertainment and media. Countless stories romanticize the image of the male genius who simultaneously battles addiction; Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Freud featuring prominently among them.

Harmon’s characterization as a chess prodigy battling addiction shatters the glass ceiling in media in one main aspect: it portrays the story of a female addict (and the story of a female genius.)

Recently, narratives of female geniuses have been rising through the cracks in popular media in both fiction and nonfiction, with “Hidden Figures” and “Radioactive” coming to mind. However, the narrative of dealing with addiction seems to be reserved solely for male characters. This apparent divide between the ubiquity of female addiction relative to male addiction in the media is largely inaccurate with history, as “The Queen’s Gambit” reveals. 

The “magic vitamins” — sedatives similar to Xanax — that Harmon receives as an orphan were commonly used to subdue orphans (regardless of gender) in the late 20th century. Moreover, in Stephen Kandall’s “Women and Drug Addiction: A Historical Perspective”, he finds that women made up two-thirds of psychoactive prescription drug usage (tranquilizers, sedatives, etc.) in the 60s and 70s (the same time period that “The Queen’s Gambit” is set in.)

And that’s part of what makes “The Queen’s Gambit” so groundbreaking. The show features a female protagonist, whose career is both stimulated and plagued by her addiction to drugs. Harmon’s drug and alcohol dependency is not a background issue that is thrown in for character dimension: it is the root of her struggles in every single episode, which forces the audience to consciously acknowledge that a woman is capable of having addiction consume her life. The show does use its fictional premise to exaggerate Harmon’s addiction with dramatic scenes and actions, but it’s a necessary effort to amplify her problem and ensure viewers recognize it. It pushes us to reconsider our implicit sexist assumptions that perpetuate the myth that addiction is solely a men’s problem to suffer and conquer.

The inclusion of a female protagonist who battles with addiction is already a big step forward. However, “The Queen’s Gambit” goes further by telling the story of a Harmon’s battle with addiction without romanticization, straying away from the traditional portrayal of addiction in the media.

When female experiences with addiction are depicted on screen, they are often normalized, sexualized or used as a character “quirk.” Indeed, Kandall’s research further reveals that “Hollywood found that drug use combined with sexuality made for big business. Hollywood produced more than 200 films dealing with drug themes, many portraying women as the vulnerable targets of drug-involved men.” 

The Hollywood hunger for big business is still just as alive as it was in the ‘20s when the exploitation of sexuality and drug use on screen first became prevalent. The popular show “Skins UK” is a case in point. The teen-comedy drama is centered around the stereotypical, scandalous teenage life of house parties and weekend ragers. One of the show’s main characters, Effy Stonem (Kaya Scodelario) also has a severe drug problem. 

Morphine, MDMA (ecstasy), weed — these are just a few of the substances that the show presents Effy experimenting with. However, the show fails to emphasize the real dangers that came with Effy’s addiction to their teenage audience. Stonem was still characterized as the popular schoolgirl who was able to have casual sex and attract a handsome male savior (Freddie McClair), conflating drug-abuse with being more “sexy” and “badass.”

The impacts of the show’s glamourization of Stonem are still evident 13 years after it’s premiere. Tumblr still has many Effy fanpages (well-alive today thanks to 13-15 year old girls) populated with snapshots from the show of Stonem smoking, cynical character quotes about depression or suicide, and a handful of concerning messages about how one can resemble Stonem’s character. 

For example, one of the posts on the #BeLikeEffyStonem fan page asks, “Do you know where to get weed/cigarettes in general? My sister used to give it to me so I never really had to know but she’s at uni now…”. Another reads “Hi, how can I be manipulative the way Effy was?” 

Steven Rosenberg summarizes the negative impact of romanticizing drug-abuse clearly in his article “It’s cool to be sad: The search to understand online grief and digital melancholy”.

“Subcommunities on Tumblr reframed the instability of Effy’s and other “Skins” characters’ lives into something attractive and exciting through which people can live vicariously.”

By stark contrast, “The Queen’s Gambit” poignantly crafts a compelling narrative of how addiction destroys Harmon’s life. Initially, tranquilizer pills and alcohol help her succeed — she beats Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), the highest-ranked player at the time, after she downs pills in the bathroom mid-game and visualizes her next move against him. But slowly, her addiction becomes more of a hindrance towards her chess abilities (and life) rather than a stimulant.

In the sixth episode, “Adjournment,” Beth goes on a drinking spree the night before her match against Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński) at the Paris Invitational, a Russian chessmaster and the only player Beth struggles to defeat. Harmon is portrayed as a wreck the morning of the match— scrambling to get dressed while downing several more tranquilizers, rushing through the hotel lobby barefoot, sweating profusely and desperately trying to fight her intense hangover during the match, ultimately facing a devastating loss. 

When she returns home after her disappointing match, Harmon spirals into an emotional, alcohol and drug binge-episode. For almost three minutes, the audience watches in disappointment and anxious fear as Harmon dances around her mess of a living room, smoking and puking into chess trophies. Nothing about these scenes is sexualized or perceived as idealistic behavior, and the undesirable outcome of her game as a result of her drug-abuse sends a clear message that a woman taking drugs can benefit in no way. 

“I think that’s what I’m used to,” says Harmon before her final match against Borgov at the end of the show, referring to her dependency on substances to fuel her intellectual abilities. Similar to Harmon, the media struggles to detach itself from a belief so deeply ingrained into its psyche — the notion that women do not struggle with addiction as severely as men do. But Harmon does end up beating Borgov — without alcohol or drugs. Perhaps the media can do the same in overcoming its own misconceived notion and embrace a more candid, non-sexualized portrayal of female addiction on screen.