The Queen’s Gambit and the Beautifully Messy Future of Autism on TV

We need more impulsive, substance-addicted Autistics like Beth Harmon on screen

Image of chess pieces and a glass of wine by Randy Fath courtesy of Unsplash

I’ve been slowly working my way through the Netflix series Queen’s Gambit, and have become smitten with the show’s protagonist, Beth Harmon. She’s such a richly rendered, desperately needed portrait of Autism, particularly of how Autism can look among women, people who “mask” their symptoms, and people who were never diagnosed. She’s also a rare media depiction of an Autistic with a drinking problem. And a prescription pill addiction. And a penchant for shoplifting. And trouble managing her money. And maybe some compulsions around sex.

Like so many media portrayal of Autistics, Beth Harmon is shown to be singularly focused on her special interest, competitive chess. She pursues her craft relentlessly, doing anything and sacrificing everything to identify new competitors, amass books on chess moves, shore up her skills, and enter highly-billed competitions. Beth faces down her opponents with a cold-blooded stare, and delivers verbal postmortems on her games in a rapid-fire monotone. She’s blunt and emotionally withdrawn, unable to understand other people’s feelings, or so lost in her obsession as to not care.

All of these traits are pretty common among Autistic characters on TV. We all know the media trope of the rude, emotionally inept genius who is Autistic-coded; we’ve seen him on The Good Doctor and Sherlock and Big Bang Theory and Community and dozens of other shows. It’s still fairly rare to see these traits ascribed to women, so in that way Beth Harmon is a breath of fresh air.

But what’s really unique and enchanting about Beth is that she is so much messier than the “hyper-focused genius with Autism” stereotype. She loves blowing her tournament winnings on beautiful dresses and lavish makeup. She overdoses into a stupor and shows up to high-stakes chess matches hung over. She hooks up with guys she doesn’t even really like, and then breaks their hearts, simply because she’s bored or wants to entice them into helping her train for games. She doesn’t believe society’s rules apply to her, and to an extent they don’t, because she is so removed from the rest of humanity by virtue of her talent and neurotype.

Beth is an impressive, self-destructive asshole, and I’ve rarely related to an Autistic character so much. In many ways, 21-year-old Beth is 21-year-old me, an achievement-oriented young person with a big head and no meaningful social connections, whose poor impulse control and self-destructive impulses are hidden under a beautiful facade. Not all Autistics are well-behaved, khaki-wearing nerds who never leave the house, you know. Some of us are shoplifting, hard-living hellions in pretty dresses.

Last week, a Tweet went viral that criticized how glamorous Beth Harmon’s downward spiral into addiction and isolation looks on the show. The tweet rightly observed that on television, depressed and alcoholic women rarely get to decline in an unsexy way.

Tweet with a screencap of Beth Harmon drinking and smoking in her underwear. Caption by thatconnieshin reads, “Male authors trying to show a woman at rock bottom.”

It’s true, you don’t get to see Beth with snarls of unbrushed hair or vomit in the corners of her mouth. Contrast her alcoholism with the alcoholism of, let’s say, Rick Sanchez of Rick and Morty (another Autistic character) and you can see the disparity. Rick perpetually has puke on his face. He burps and wears stained clothing and has unbecoming outbursts. Beth, in contrast… dances around in her panties and puts on some thick eyeliner and is cold to her friends.

This sexist pattern in how mental illness gets illustrated onscreen is a problem, there’s no denying it. However, we can’t fully contemplate how Beth’s addiction manifests without also considering the fact she is an undiagnosed Autistic woman living in the mid twentieth century. That is exactly the type of person who would burn out extravagantly, and look damn good while doing it.

You see, Beth has all the trappings of someone who would mask her Autism symptoms out of necessity. She grew up in an orphanage, neglected and not given access to mental health services. She is later adopted by a well-meaning but alcoholic mother; Beth essentially has to raise herself, and her chess winnings soon become the household’s primary income. Beth is seen as odd and cold by the people around her. When she first tries to socialize with peers, they tear her down for dressing too prudishly and not having any boyfriends.

In order to succeed in the world, Beth has to put on some armor. She learns to flirt and charm people to get what she wants. She starts dressing in a modern, sexy way, which helps her seem more “cool” and socially connected than she actually is. She hooks up with boys on impulse. She begins doing interviews and media appearances, and develops a sense of how to present herself to the world in an appealing way.

Beth’s one pressure valve is substances. Like so many Autistics, she copes with social anxiety and sensory overwhelm by dulling her senses. Yet even when she gets blotto, she looks stunning. For a character who is clearly Autistic but doesn’t even know it, this makes complete sense. Us heavy maskers don’t necessarily fall apart in a visible way, even when we’re dying inside. The social consequences would be too extreme. And we’re so used to inhibiting ourselves and hiding behind a robotic, yet presentable “mask,” that we wouldn’t even know how to get sloppy if we wanted to.

When I was Beth’s age, I was in graduate school, on track to complete my PhD by 25. I was career driven, with few friends. I was also eating disordered, secretly addicted to nicotine, and taking a variety of physical and sexual risks in order to self-harm. Like Beth, I had a history of shoplifting and underage drinking. I didn’t know I was Autistic; I just hated myself for being a “freak.” I wore cute, kicky dresses and kept my hair long and blonde. I was poised and measured and adhered to very rigid rules about how often I needed to exercise and how to comport myself and what I had to look like. I wanted to die.

When masked Autistics look put-together and conform rigidly to social expectations, that can be a sign things are deeply wrong with them. So yes, it makes sense that Beth Harmon could hit “rock bottom” and still look so appealing on screen. She may look “good,” but her life is clearly a mess.

Beth loses games, destroys relationships, and wastes away months of her life in a slowly falling-apart house because she is so unable to tame her addictions. The fact that she also blows her money on mod clothes and Twiggy-style eyeliner doesn’t contradict the fact she is spiraling. It’s an illustration of it. There’s a scene in the show that makes it clear that Beth’s new, stylish look is a sign of just how badly she’s fallen apart. An old friend of hers is visibly creeped out by her new look and disaffected, boozy cool girl air. I’m certain that when my mental health was at its worst, my attempts at looking “polished” and “hot” were creepy and rang false, too.

All in all, I adore what a multifaceted, genuine-seeming Autistic character Beth Harmon is, and how perfectly she inhabits her time period and social context. An Autistic woman in Beth’s era would have needed to mask her symptoms, and that act of masking would have required a trunk full of clothes as well as a boatload of drugs.

We almost never get see Autistic characters who are brazen bad girls on TV. For all her glamour, Beth Harmon is a certifiable car wreck, and that is deeply refreshing. I hope that the popularity of Queen’s Gambit means we get to see more Autistic people (especially Autistic women) shown in these ways. It’s high time people recognize that the Autistic community is far more diverse — and often far messier — than the tired old Rain Man / Good Doctor stereotype.

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