It is astonishing that this pandemic will likely be a catalyst for creating a more just and equitable world while simultaneously causing mass death, heartbreak, and further fracture to the Divided States of America. How can it produce so much good and evil? At a time when our collective thinking is categorized into black-or-white responses—about the pandemic, politics, social media, the state of the world—the best chance of us finding our way is to recognize and hold multiple, often competing, perspectives. It's how we cultivate empathy and understanding. One way to go about it: watch more content like the Netflix hit shows “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Crown.”
Admittedly, I did not watch these shows to try and better myself. I hit "play" because they have brilliant writing, gorgeous cinematography, and top-notch acting. Add in high-stakes drama and women with serious public power...I'm in. What most captivated me, however, are the female leads who are both likable and unlikeable, rare pearls in Hollywood entertainment. We root for these women while often wondering if they are good people.
Enjoying aloof female leads takes work
In “The Queen’s Gambit,” lead character Beth Harmon is an orphaned chess prodigy who is not only brilliant at the game, but a focused, ambitious champion busting gender roles. An obvious heroine, right? She is also, however, quirky as hell in a way that is not endearing. Beth is not plucky or a fun-loving goofball that audiences are usually served up. If anything, she is aloof, unpleasant and even bratty. There is no rounding-the-corner moment where Beth transforms into a warm softy either. What makes us more forgiving of her behavior perhaps is knowing she was raised in an orphanage and then a highly dysfunctional home once adopted. Can we truly fault her? She is who she is, and the audience has to hold all of her sides, respecting her even while being repelled by her coldness.
I was notably late to “The Crown.” But now that I’m half-way through season four, I can’t get enough of the Queen Mum, showcased as bright and determined and doing her best to learn an almost impossible role starting at such a young age. (I think of my derelict choices in my 20s and how absurd it would have been for me to assess the well-being of my country.) Unlike Beth from "The Queen's Gambit," she never chose her role of power; she had to find peace with it. The Queen is also viewed as cold, out of touch, and sometimes cruel (I am thinking, in particular, of how emotionally withholding she is with her children, especially Prince Charles, while being self-aware enough to know it). It is practically criminal in our culture to be non-maternal but The Queen had her own (royal) culture with an entirely different set of values. Our feelings for her change from scene to scene; and it surprising how much we can respect someone so infuriating.
How shows like these change us
"The Queen's Gambit" and "The Crown" remind us that most people are not good or bad, superheroes or villains. We are all susceptible to inflicting pain on ourselves and others when we feel wounded. We are capable of being our most generous when we feel nourished emotionally. Content like this inspires us to dig deeper and appreciate that most of us are truly doing our best while making complicated decisions in real time and when we are exhausted. When we watch these leads from the comfort of our couches, we know we could do better; we also know we probably wouldn't. The beauty of these shows is that they make this medicine of complexity go down with heaping spoons of high-drama competitions, complex script writing, and sparkly dresses.
I hope the enormous popularity of both shows prove yet again that there is a huge appetite for complicated female leads. I also hope the "water cooler" discussions we engage in about them help open our minds, expose us to new perspectives, and make us hit pause before so quickly labeling others “unlikeable” or “likeable.” Both can be true, are true. If we can explore what conditions contribute to the way people think and behave, we can improve the way we interact with one another and more selectively choose our battles. Escapist superhero movies and joyful rom-coms certainly have their entertainment place, but shows like "The Crown" and "The Queen's Gambit" can forever change us if we let them.
Michelle Cove is a journalist, filmmaker, author, and founder of the nonprofit MEDIAGIRLS. She uses storytelling and media to encourage, challenge, empower and inspire others and is seeking a job that allows her to put these skills to use; check out her resume if you may know the right fit. Michelle's favorite stories involve resilience, a blend of soft humility and sharp humor, and a belief that the universe is conspiring to help us all grow. Find her at LinkedIn.
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