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.
I remember several years ago having a discussion with my Israeli neighbor. She had just moved to the United States and told me she didn’t understand why we Americans are "so fake." She said she found it weird that when asked how we are doing, we always say, “I’m fine, how are you?” I’d never really thought about it, and I inquired how things were different in Israel. “Oh,” she said, “we’re honest with each other. If someone is having a terrible day, you hear about it."
It was the first time I realized that saying “I’m pretty good” is an automatic response, like breathing, for myself and so many of us.
One of the silver linings I’m seeing all around me is that people are being more vulnerable and candid with one another since the pandemic started. Some friends now answer “how are you?” with a straightforward, “not well” or “this is hard.” Others admit they’re not sure how they’re doing. Still others declare, “I’m good,” then pause, and confess “actually, that’s not true.” One friend called me back several minutes after we hung up the phone to say, “You know how I told you I’m fine? I’m kind of not.”
It’s absurd to think the majority of us would be doing “just fine” during this most unstable, confusing (crazy making?), and emotionally souped-up time of our lives. A pandemic we can’t get a handle on? The country finally waking up in a widespread way to the racial and class inequities we managed to normalize? An election that, no matter what, will leave half the country scared?
I don’t even ask “How are you?” anymore. I’ve adjusted it to, “How are you doing in this moment?” That’s about all I myself can answer. Even in this very moment, I can tell you that I’m scared and hopeful and freaked out and optimistic and peaceful and anxious and sad and delighted. I don’t know how those feelings can all coexist, but they just do.
While all the structures and systems are crumbling beneath us, maybe we can learn to open up to each other a little more and show our humanity. If we’re doing well, we should certainly feel free to share. But maybe we can stop making it an autopilot experience. Perhaps we can put aside our egos and habits to show up with authenticity.
Another gift we can give each other is how we respond when others share they’re not doing well. We can stop trying to fix it by giving advice, which basically no one wants to hear anyway. What we all mostly want is to be seen and heard. The best gift is helping someone hold their feelings so they can be less alone. It's enough usually to offer a listening ear and, “that sounds hard.” It will be heaven when we can get back to the power of hugs.
All around us, the foundation is breaking, and many are imagining ways to rebuild that are sustainable, smarter, and more humane. We will need energy, inspiration and connection. It will help deeply to allow people to show up as we are, be real, and give one another a soft place to land.
I’m certainly in good company when it comes to jobseekers: There are 7.2 million Americans who don't have a job and are looking for one. I am fortunate in that I did not get furloughed or laid off (it was a choice I made), and I know millions of others are suffering far more substantially, trying to figure out how to make rent and/or buy groceries. While we are not all in the same boat, we all do need support because we are not in the driver’s seat during a time packed with uncertainty. What's the best way to support us? Certainly it depends on our personalities and, even then, our needs might fluctuate. But I thought it might be helpful to create a list of some of the best and worst things I’m hearing from loved ones, all who have good intentions, to get the conversation started.
Note: I'd love to hear from others what you find helpful and not helpful so please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.
4 things NOT to say to someone looking for a job:
4 things to say to someone looking for a job:
For us jobhunters: It is up to us to stay in touch with our feelings and needs, and make sure we’re expressing them to our friends and loved ones. They are not mind readers. It doesn’t mean you’re committing to only one type of conversation; we can always tell our family/friends, “So today, I could use _______” or “I’d love to talk about anything except jobhunting right now,” or whatever else feels right. Like all the emotional biggies—pregnancy, illness, divorce, pandemics, etc.—we should not test people on whether they guess correctly how to show up for us. What matters is that when we relay our hopes and needs, they do their best to listen and meet us where we are. We are for the most part all doing our best!
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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