Life Isn’t to be Won, It’s to be Loved

Anya Taylor Joy as Beth Harmon in Netflix Queen's Gambit on Christian Movie Podcast Cinematic Doctrine
The Queen’s Gambit – Peak Feminist Cinema

I have this habit of seeing what’s popular and going, “Wow, I’m sure that’s great!” and then watching something else. I totally miss the pop-culture bus (or, I’m months/years ahead of it) and am often last in line to share their thoughts. Case in point: in the Christian community everyone’s talking about The Chosen, which I’m just sleeping on for several reasons other than just, “I’m sure it’s great.” and people keep asking me my opinion of it. No doubt people keep asking me since I have a movie podcast targeted toward the Christian demographic. To save some time: no, I haven’t watched it yet. No, I barely have an opinion of it (and people often don’t care for the opinion I have of it right now, anyway). Please stop asking me about it, I’ll get around to it eventually (possibly soon).

Now, The Queen’s Gambit? That’s a show I have an opinion about, and it’s all positive. A lot of what I have to say is likely already said elsewhere, and in a much better fashion. Great sense of imagery, amazing soundtrack that’s expertly placed throughout the show, performances we’ll be talking about for years, brilliant balance of subject matter and subtext, and a downright slick and sexy show altogether. The Queen’s Gambit is the coolest kid at the Netflix table and nobody can tell me otherwise.

It’s depiction of negative coping mechanisms is, simultaneously, blunt and gentle. It expresses the depths of sorrow and misery that can be embraced by mindless self-indulgence, either through sexual encounters or substance abuse. It never shies away from how grimey and moldy such a lifestyle can be, whilst never glamorizing or daring to say there’s even one good thing about it. At the same time Beth Harmon is downing her tenth beer and dancing in her lonely home, the television has a singer who looks like a mannequin covered in make-up, perhaps someone who feels the same as Beth does in that exact moment: blitzed beyond immediate repair. There’s no glitz or glamor to shame, misery, or sadness no matter how many pints you can handle. No matter how much money you can make. No matter how successful you are, whether on the cover of a magazine or MTV. It all sucks.

Even so, like I said, the show is very gentle. With kind, soft lines like, “Be careful.”, or meditations on “What will you do after you’re a champion?”. Contemplations of change amidst a need to control. Meditations on relationships and the tender balance between, “I need you,” and, “I want you.”. The Queen’s Gambit is as much about the complexity of competition as it is about finding the way to “win” life. Protip: there is no victory. Life isn’t a game, and that’s why we can’t win it. Life is a beautiful, organic, fascinating experience. It’s not the checkered board that begs for strategy and order. It’s complicated, exciting, and out of our control. If there is any logic system to be had, then it’s a joy to endure, and despair to be ignored. Perhaps you can decide which is victory in that sense, but I’m less concerned about winning than I am enjoying my time while I have it. Through all its deliberation, aspects of The Queen’s Gambit assert this similar notion, that Beth Harmon’s pursuit of “winning” life like a game of chess is fundamentally incompatible with life itself.

Anya Taylor Joy as Beth Harmon reading in The Queen's Gambit on Netflix
At times, life feels more like a book: character entrances and exits, closing and opening chapters, deeply experiential.

One can’t talk about The Queen’s Gambit without mentioning it’s overt feminist overtones, and even those I thoroughly enjoyed. Living in a “man’s world” is tiresome, even for this man who often finds himself at odds with other men. Men are often in constant competition, a perpetual one-upmanship. It’s as though there’s an inherent lack of self-confidence and self-love over the card’s a man is dealt, yet alongside this character flaw, there’s a simultaneous need to say, “But they’re the best cards in the game!”

I don’t need to request you look two paragraphs above to read me saying, “Life isn’t a game.” again. I’m not sure what produces this quality in men, this ever-present one-upmanship I’m often enduring beside similar gendered folk. Is it compensation for their faults? A need to be better because of a pervasive sense of being worse? I find this more frustrating in Christian circles where I often witness men sharing more and more about what they know about Christ. In the same sentence they’ll posture their knowledge of a real man on real Earth, while also saying, “Yet, the Lord sanctifies us and reveals things to us within His precise timing, and thus we are all in different stages of becoming like Christ.” Oh the irony to compete with ones fellow Christian brother as though they were in control of their own spiritual, physical, and emotional development.

Am I participating in this same posturing? At my worst times, I am. I’ve been visiting the gym because it teaches me a new sense of discipline, as well as perseverance against suffering. Yet, at other times, I find myself meditating on the decision to exercise so that I can become an intimidation to other men. The words are at the forefront of my mind right now: “Sure, you know more than me about our savior, but I could best you in a fight.” Such nonsense to compete. Needless and mindless. Even if it is momentarily exciting. Thrilling to imagine. But, ultimately pointless. A participation in the exact thing I despise.

Harry Beltik warns Beth Harmon of this philosophy. To grind oneself so heavily in competition that they end up dying at a young age. The brightest start burns fastest. Is this self induced or merely a natural, inevitable result of success? Maybe both. Maybe those who compensate so heavily in a single pursuit are vying for attention and love because they never had it. Perhaps the last words they heard from a loved one were, “Close your eyes.” or “I’ll be back tomorrow.” only to never return. Thus, the mind never rests. “If only I were better,” it may think, “if I weren’t such a difficult person to live with, maybe then they would still be in my life.”

Harry Melling as Harry Beltik in The Queen's Gambit on Netflix on Christian Podcast Cinematic Doctrine
But even those who are bitter and rude can grow to become mindful of others.

Why do we convince ourselves that we are at fault for the sins of someone else when, often times, the sins of another are the fault of their own? The Queen’s Gambit is steeped in this, as Alma Wheatley shrieks when her husband Allston returns home unexpected. Running upstairs, she changes from her cigarette-smoking nightgown outfit into something beautiful. In 1973, ten years after the fictional events of The Queen’s Gambit, a book titled The Total Woman would release to cultural success in Christian book stores, as the book sources itself logically from Christian fundamentalism. Becoming the #1 best-seller in the non-fiction category, the book would claim that the chauvinism and lack-of-interest a husband shows his wife is because the wife wasn’t trying hard enough to keep the husband’s interest. If the husband is sleeping around, visiting strip clubs, or engaging pornography, it’s because the wife was not sexually pleasing enough, not adoring their husband, and not putting their husband’s needs before their own. The husband’s sins are not his own. They are the wife’s fault.

Imagine believing this. What toll it must bear upon the heart of one who wants to be loved.

This same mentality continues within evangelical circles. A friend of mine had a traumatic experience several years ago in which her pastor said, roughly, her husband’s affairs were due to her not sexually satisfying him. Around that time, infamous evangelical figure Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill was preaching a similar ideology of women. Men were to be satisfied by their wives. He even preached that if a wife is to keep her husband engaged, or even to bring him to church, she should satisfy him orally despite her discomfort with that particular sexual act.

Even now, NPR reports an increase in “drinking to cope” among young women. Often, negative coping mechanisms are to compensate for traumatic events, or even trauma (a belief system that is incompatible with reality). What often draws society toward period pieces is the fact that, despite several decades between the setting of The Queen’s Gambit and modern day, not much has changed. Even recently, my wife shared with me her continued frustration with a repeat author of the Christian publication Desiring God. Author Greg Morse often includes a somewhat reductionist view of womanhood, or perhaps an olden view of womanhood that never existed in the first place (that isn’t even touching on several other problematic issues within the particular article she mentions. Read here at your own peril). Often, authors who ponder the “old days” of the 50’s are discussing a reality that never existed.

Why is this? Because women would shriek when their husbands returned home too early, and before the man stepped in the doorway, the woman would disguise the reality of her substance abuse and self-hatred because that’s what she was told to do. You want to have a happy marriage? Never be unhappy.

Marielle Heller and Anya Taylor Joy as Alma Wheatley and Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit
There is an intense freedom in honesty, especially among spouses. Why squander the opportunity to experience this kind of love?

If we hide our sorrow and misery, we never get rid of it. If we reveal and endure what we despise, we can overcome it. Honesty among those who love us will provide the opportunity to grow. Otherwise, we waste away, drowning in 151 and covered in nicotine patches, moving from one venue to another covering our face with copious levels of make-up, and forcing a smile we’ve never really offered in sincerity. One day at a time, the cracks will fall, and the phrase, “Be careful” will be muttered to us in a time we’ve never felt more hatred and shame before. After we drunkenly spiral and hit our heads against the table we experience grace if we’re capable of getting back up to chug water and take a Tylenol. Don’t miss the chance to enjoy that grace by downing another bottle. Endure and appreciate the gift of friendship, find confidence to overcome the shame that clouds the eyes and self-hate that permeates the mind.

Ultimately, this concept is gender-neutral, just as being good at Chess is less concerned with your genitalia and more concerned with your ability to run strategic algorithms. But, when it comes to The Queen’s Gambit, the portrayal of this kind of suffering is expressed through the unique experience of women. The unfortunate reality that many men look at women as lesser beings, using words like “gentle and soft” outside of mere compliment or kindness.

It’s probably why the last episode of the show is so sweet, and the relationships in the story themselves so compelling. Despite the unique way in which each man, at times, treats Beth Harmon poorly purely because she’s a woman, there are moments when each male character treats her with the dignity she deserves as a woman (and, more importantly, as a human being). There doesn’t have to be the fear that, every now and then, a man visits Denver. It may creep and crawl within the mind, and at times it may convince someone that a bottle is more satisfying than the comfort of vulnerability, but love is often best experienced through the endurance it has over hardship.

Beth Harmon, despite our sympathy for her trials and tribulations, is not necessarily a nice person, either. In fact, it’s more appropriate to describe her as cold. So heavily guarded behind her pawns, everyone in her life is a piece of the board. Better to swoop in quick and use them as needed before the end-game when she finds herself lost and confused. There is no, “What will we do after?”. What matters is the early game, and the mid-game only matters insofar as how well the early game is preformed. As such, Beth is not innocent, but her culpability doesn’t remove our ability to care, sympathize, and root for her to overcome her faults and failings. We’re just as mad as Benny Watts on that phone call because Benny isn’t a chess piece, he’s a human being deserving of love and respect. An image-bearer, fearfully and wonderfully made, knitted within his mother’s womb by the Lord above, the same value God imbued to Beth Harmon, and thus deserves respect despite his failings.

Anya Taylor Joy as Beth Harmon sick in Netflix The Queen's Gambit
When we’re at our lowest, blinded by shame and guilt, we hardly see the good we’ve done.

Yet, love endures. It permits us to be angry when we’re mistreated. It permits us to come back together. Being angry isn’t wrong. What we do with our anger is. And even after we’ve acted poorly, treated each other like objects in our anger and frustration, it is love that overcomes all. Love to forgive and endure with one another. To mutter the words, “Be careful” as an eternal extension of affection and compassion. “Be careful,” because I want what’s best for you. “Be careful,” because you are valuable. “Be careful,” because you matter even if your mother considered you a problem to solve.

I wish people knew they were loved. In spite of whatever experience may attempt to convince them otherwise. If you’re reading this, please know you’re loved. Please know that love is out there. You can find it if you haven’t experienced it yet. The Lord loves you intensely and intimately. It’s true. And I really want you to know it. He loved you so much that, in that you were a sinner, in that you were committing the worst of your sins, in that exact moment, he sent Jesus to die for you and pay for that horrible thing you did. It was likely on Christ’s mind when the nail was pegged into his wrist, that thing you’re thinking of right now that brings such pain to your heart. He also died to prove the lies wrong; that you’re worthless and a problem to others. To deny those who would strip you of your humanity, of your inherent God-given value.

How many I know that are filled with such massive, palpable, heavy guilt over their sin. How many I know that are filled with such devastating, poisonous, life-destructing shame over what they’ve been called. How much they repeat those events and bite off more than they can chew. Yet, even in those moments, there is love to be experienced in what God has done. Tears are good, and suffering is reasonable. Anger about what we’ve done, and what’s been done to us is completely rational. Guilt and shame are equally as sensible. Yet, we are loved greatly. Love can be tasted like the bitter, rooting texture of dark chocolate melting between your teeth. An overpowering substance that cleanses the pallet. How rejuvenating, how enlightening, how comfortable the love poured out for you. Precious from conception, cherished every day, adored with countless thoughts of love and admiration. There’s no need to cope, only the need to love.

If only we were more careful to ponder the thoughts of love that are had for us. To sit in silence and think of those who’ve shared their smile, a soft touch, a book, a game of chess.

Be careful, my friends.

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Melvin Benson Cinematic Doctrine Christian Movie Podcast Host

Melvin Benson is the Founder, Editor-In-Chief, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!

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