The Queen’s Gambit may not be a commentary on neurodiversity after all, and why that’s okay

A lot has been said about how a surprise TV hit during a pandemic was a story about a board game that can be played indoors. Maybe the 1950s/60s setting and the rebellious hard-drinking protagonist with a drug problem have somehow managed to make a sedate and cerebral game look almost…rock and roll?

There’s another angle that I caught onto, which oddly doesn’t seem to be as widely discussed. While it’s generally accepted that our heroine is an unconventional and misunderstood genius, I have a strong suspicion that she’s also on the autistic spectrum. As far as I’m aware, the cast and crew of the TV show haven’t mentioned this, although some other viewers have picked up on it.

If it’s not in the novel (which I’m sorry to say I’ve not yet read, so can’t confirm) it’s understandable that the writers of the screen adaption didn’t include it either, even if they had the same suspicions about the protagonist. What was the author’s original intention, aside from portraying an intelligent woman in a place and time where intelligent women were side-lined? I also ought to mention that an interviewing journalist in one episode mentions the concept of apophenia, which in reality has a slightly different definition: that of mistakenly perceiving patterns in random things. Basically, the human brain has a knack for spotting patterns that can trick you into thinking you’re seeing something that isn’t really there. Am I making that mistake here?

The issue for me is, I just don’t think that Beth’s idiosyncrasies can be explained purely through her substance misuse or her childhood trauma. She’s clearly someone who thinks differently to most other people, which affects every major decision of her life. If you’re tuned into spotting this or have even experienced it yourself, there are a lot of tell-tale signs in her mannerisms, speech patterns and thought processes that bear an uncanny resemblance to the signs of ASD, especially in childhood. There are the hyperfixations; the awkwardness around other people and misinterpretation of social cues; the sensitivity to sights, sounds, tastes and smells; the unusual and even harmful coping mechanisms for certain situations; and difficulties in forming and maintaining connections with other people.

Did the cast and crew of the TV adaptation, or the book’s author, identify the psychological reasons for this? If they did, why have they not said anything about it? Another question is: does it matter? In some ways, it really does: representation certainly matters to those who are marginalised or misunderstood. It’s great when someone who is just like you is portrayed in a realistic and well-rounded way, especially when you don’t see people like you being shown accurately in fiction very often.

What I thought initially is that this wasn’t widely understood or discussed during the years when the story is set, so it wouldn’t have seemed appropriate to draw attention to it in the context of the TV show either. Mental health and neurodiversity have a higher profile now, but this change is relatively recent; especially so for women and girls. If we assume that Beth is indeed on the spectrum, it’s highly unlikely that she’d be diagnosed, so the fact that it’s not raised in the show itself is very much in line with the reality of life for autistic people of the time. Furthermore: when Tevis was writing the novel (in the early 1980s, I believe), he may not have known the terminology even if he was aware of real people like her and incorporated aspects of them into his fictional heroine. Or as one viewer astutely put it: she was written as “accidentally autistic.”

If the screenwriters joined the dots that the book’s own author didn’t, perhaps they chose to convey it more subtly. What we’re seeing here could just be a good example of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, where a convincing performance is enough to say something without needing to state it out loud. At least some of us have our suspicions, after all. Perhaps they’re giving us the option of putting the pieces together ourselves?

In outwardly showing a fictional character to be autistic on screen, there’s also the danger of reinforcing existing stereotypes and misconceptions, such as the “savant syndrome sufferer” like the hero of Rain Man. Perhaps there was a conscious decision to not show Beth in that way: I would have been bitterly disappointed had she been defined simply as “an autistic girl” when there is so much more to her and her lived experience.

There is after all so much other stuff going on: the period setting, a sport being presented to a wider audience, drug addiction and alcoholism, growing up/coming-of-age, and confronting gender stereotypes during an era when issues such as feminism and civil rights were becoming increasingly topical. Throwing in the question, “is the heroine autistic?” might itself overshadow the other things that the series is trying to do.

The occasional snarky comments about Anya Taylor-Joy’s appearance bother me as well, incidentally. Aside from the fact that she’s hardly unattractive – maybe my taste in women is a bit strange, or is it just some people judging her by Hollywood standards? – a significant takeaway from the whole thing is that the character she’s portraying isn’t supposed to be judged on her looks alone anyway. This story is fundamentally about a woman growing up, seeking independence and finding her place in the world by using her personality and intellect. The question of whether she’s conventionally attractive is deliberately beside the point.

I think it’s wonderful to see a fictional portrayal of someone overcoming unusual, specific issues yet opening out to encompass larger ones that are more likely to mirror the audience’s own. The fact that so many viewers – including those of us who don’t play chess ourselves – became completely absorbed is proof of that. It’s also wonderful to see a female protagonist presented as more than just a pretty face, although there’s something enchanting about that fierce, determined stare aimed straight at the camera…it’s just refreshing to know that there’s thoughtful characterisation behind those eyes.

If you consider Beth to be autistic-coded despite nothing being overtly shown or said on screen to say so, I don’t think that’s unhealthy or unreasonable. Perhaps it might have been beneficial to make this more obvious if it is indeed true, although I now suspect that there are some pretty good reasons why it wasn’t. Frustrating as it may be for some, a nuanced approach where ideas are conveyed indirectly may be more effective. The overall message of her story is after all to not let anyone, or any one thing, control or define you.

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