By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 31, 2020)
A friend of mine from graduate school — whose opinions I trusted, particularly when it came to movies and popular culture (for example, he introduced me to South Park)— shocked me one day when he told me he hated The Godfather.
How can someone who loves movies hate The Godfather?! How could someone so well-informed — he is today a recognized expert in the role and social importance of myth-making —be so utterly wrong?
The reality is, thoughtful people can have dramatic differences in opinion, especially when it comes to things as subjective as movies and entertainment. [I love Monty Python and my Stanford PhD wife thinks they are moronic. Both opinions can be correct.]
Still, I’m convinced if you put 100 well-educated movie critics in a room to discuss The Godfather, 95 of them would say the movie is an American classic, and most would probably put one or both of the first two Godfather movies in the Top 20 of all time. The ‘wisdom of the crowd’ represents something real and cannot be ignored.
At the same time, those five Godfather-dismissing critics are no less real and their opinions are no less meritorious —assuming they aren’t pursuing an agenda unrelated to judging the quality of The Godfather.
But that is the problem I fear contaminates too many movie reviews today. Movie critics, by training and platform, are ‘opinion journalists.’ As such, they filter their opinions through a desire to please (impress) an immediate social circle (and bosses), as well as an influence from the mood of the times. We all do that, as it is only human.
But good journalists, including movie critics, fight that tendency — or, at least, I believe they should make the attempt.
In the case of movie criticism, to not do so risks compromising the value of the critiques. At best, it renders the criticism worthless, and at worst, malevolent.
It is fair to ask at this point, what the hell am I talking about?
I am not going to review Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) here. I enjoy reading movie criticisms, but I don’t enjoy writing them. However, if I did review WW84, it might sound something like this review by Alteori:
As much as I thought Gal Gadot raised her game in WW84, I didn’t think anybody else did. But my overall reaction to WW84 was driven, in part, by what I did before I even saw the movie.
My first mistake (besides grudgingly subscribing to HBOMax — whose horrible, wretched parent company I once worked at for a short time) was to read one of the embargo-period reviews. Those are reviews from movie critics pre-selected by Warner Bros. to see the film prior to a wider release.
Normally, for movies I am excited to see, I avoid the corporate hype and eschew the early reviews. I want my opinion to be uncorrupted by other opinions. WW84 was one of those movies because, as this blog can attest, I am a huge fan of the first Wonder Woman movie (2017), particularly Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the superhero and the way director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg avoided turning the film into a platform for some watered-down, partisan political agenda. Wonder Woman (2017) was a film made for everyone.
[By the way, as a complete digression, I don’t care when people mispronounce names, especially when it is a name outside the someone’s native language. But I don’t understand why still 9-out-of-10 movie reviewers pronounce Gal Gadot’s name wrong. It couldn’t be simpler. It is Gal (as in guys and gals) and Guh-dote (as in, ‘my grandmother dotes on me’). Here is Gal to help you with the pronunciation.]
But, for reasons unknown, I decided to read one “Top Critic” review of WW84 before seeing the film myself. I will not reveal the reviewer’s name; yet, after seeing WW84, I have no idea what movie that person saw because it wasn’t the WW84 I saw.
This is the gist of that early review (for which I paraphrase in order to protect the identity and reputation of that clearly conflicted reviewer):
Wonder Woman 1984 is the movie we’ve all been waiting for!
If I had only read the review more closely, I would have seen the red flags. Words and phrases like “largely empty spectacle,” “narratively unwieldy,” “overwrought,” “overdrawn,” and “self-indulgent” were sprinkled throughout, if only I had been open to those hints.
In fact, after reading nearly one hundred WW84 reviews in the last two weeks, I see now that movie critics will often leave a series of breadcrumb clues indicating what they really thought of the movie. At the office they may be shills for the powerful movie industry, but similar to Galen Erso’s design of the Death Star, they will plant the seed of destruction for even the most hyped Hollywood movie. In other words, they may sell their souls to keep their jobs, but they still know a crappy movie when they see one.
It’s not a coincidence that these movie critics are all women. It is clear to me that they have been gifted a special superpower which allows them to see through Hollywood’s faux-wokeness sh*t factory. That male movie critics are too afraid to see it, much less call it out, is further proof that one of the byproducts of the #MeToo movement is that liberal men are increasingly useless in our society. They can’t even review a goddamn movie with any credibility. Why are we keeping them around? What role do they serve?
Alright. Now I’ve gone too far. The vodka martinis are kicking in. I’m going to stop before I type something that generates the FBI’s attention.
I’ll end with this: I still love Gal Gadot and if WW84 had more of her and less of everyone else in the movie, I would have enjoyed the movie more. Hell, if they filmed Gal Gadot eating a Cobb salad for two-and-a-half-hours I would have given the movie two stars out of four.
To conclude, if you get one thing from this essay, it is this: Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote…
By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 27, 2020)
“As in the case of many great films, maybe all of them, we don’t keep going back for the plot.”– Martin Scorsese
“I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.” – Alfred Hitchcock
After over 55-plus years, I can count on two hands and a couple of toes the number of times I’ve cried watching a movie or TV program.
But I can’t remember crying harder than while watching this season’s final episode of Disney’s “The Mandalorian,” when Luke Skywalker rescues Grogu (more popularly known as ‘Baby Yoda’) from the Empire’s indefatigable, post-Return of the Jedi remnants.
Since its December 18th release on Disney+, YouTube has been flooded with “reaction” videos of Star Wars fans as they watched a CGI-version of a young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) remove his hood before Grogu’s caretaker, Din Djarin (a.k.a., The Mandalorian), and offers to train Grogu in the ways of The Force.
The “reaction” videos range from the highly-staged to the very charming and personal — all are illustrative of the deep affection so many people have for the original Star Wars characters, particularly Luke Skywalker.
For me, however, it is hard to detach from this emotional, collective experience the knowledge that it never would have happened if Lucasfilm (i.e., Disney), under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, hadn’t completely botched the Disney sequel movies, starting with “The Force Awakens,” director J. J. Abrams’ visually stunning but soulless attempt at creating a new Star Wars myth, followed by “The Last Jedi,” director Rian Johnson’s inexplicable platform for pissing on the original Star Wars mythos, and ending with “The Rise of Skywalker,” J.J. Abrams’ failed attempt to undo Johnson’s irreparable damage (along with the desecration Abrams himself laid upon the Star Wars brand with “The Force Awakens”).
Though opinions vary among Star Wars fans as to the extent Disney has alienated its core Star Wars audience, almost all agree that Disney’s most unforgivable sin was disrespecting the character of Luke Skywalker, who had been defined during George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy as an incurable optimist with an unbreakable loyalty to his family and friends (Princess Leia Organa and Han Solo).
We cried at Season 2’s end of the “The Mandalorian,” not just for the beauty of the moment, but also because of the depth of Disney and Lucasfilm’s betrayal.
Actor Mark Hamill, himself, as he promoted (!) “The Last Jedi,” perfectly described the cultural vandalism perpetrated by Kennedy, Abrams and Johnson on Luke Skywalker:
“I said to Rian (Johnson), Jedis don’t give up. I mean, even if he had a problem he would maybe take a year to try and regroup, but if he made a mistake he would try and right that wrong. So, right there we had a fundamental difference, but it’s not my story anymore, it’s somebody else’s story and Rian needed me to be a certain way to make the ending effective…This is the next generation of Star Wars, so I almost had to think of Luke as another character — maybe he’s ‘Jake Skywalker.’ He’s not my Luke Skywalker.”
That is not exactly what Johnson wanted to hear from one of his “Last Jedi” actors just as the movie was being released. But Hamill’s words spoke for many long time Star Wars fans.
In fact, many of us believe Disney and Lucasfilm’s Kennedy, with ruthless premeditation, intended to use the Disney sequel movies to malign Lucas’ Star Wars characters (with the exception of Princess Leia) in favor of the Disney-ordained Star Wars cast: Rey Palpatine, Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), Poe Dameron, and Finn.
I’m fairly confident in this prediction: Nobody 10, 20 or 30 years from now is going to care about Rey, Kylo, Poe and Finn. But I’m 99 percent sure we’ll still be talking about Luke Skywalker, if only in recalling how Disney f**ked up one of the most iconic heroes in movies history. Rey inspires no one — including young girls, who apparently were Lucasfilm’s targeted demo with the Disney sequel movies.
Had Disney trusted their own market research, they would have known the only reliable target was the tens of millions of original Star Wars fans (and their children and grandchildren), whose loyalty to Star Wars was proven when they still showed up at theaters for Disney’s three sequel movies, even after their devotion was insulted with the unnecessary diminution of the once dashing and heroic Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and, of course, Luke.
Had Disney treated their core audience with respect, Star Wars fans now might be anticipating Rey’s next cinematic adventure, instead of drowning themselves in the bittersweet giddiness of Luke’s triumphant return on “The Mandalorian.”
To be sure, a lot of Star Wars fans want to put Luke’s return in its proper perspective. We still have to accept that — under the Disney story line — Luke is destined to slump off to a remote island, drinking titty-milk from the teet of a giant alien sea cow while whining that he couldn’t stop his nephew from killing off Luke’s young Jedi pupils (including presumably Grogu).
Despite the joyousness of Luke on “The Mandalorian,” the dark cloud of Abrams and Johnson’s bad storytelling skills still looms large.
But even the biggest Disney critics are allowing themselves to enjoy what Jon Favreau and David Filoni — the creative team behind “The Mandalorian” — are doing for the fans.
One such person is Nerdrotic (Gary Buechler), the bearded crown prince of the amorphous Fandom Menace — a term used to describe a social-media-powered subculture of disgruntled Star Wars fans who particularly aggrieved at how Lucasfilm has dismantled Star Wars canon, allegedly using the Star Wars brand to pursue a “woke” political agenda at the expense of good storytelling.
“For the first time in a long time, the majority of the fans were happy, and the question you have to ask upfront is, ‘Disney, was it really that hard to show respect to the hero of generations, Luke Skywalker?'” says Buechler. “It must have been, because it took them 8 or 9 years to do it, but when they did do it, it sent a clear message that people still want this type of storytelling, and in this specific case, they want Luke Skywalker because he is Star Wars.”
For me, Luke’s return in “The Mandalorian” is a reminder that great moments are what make movies (and TV shows) memorable, not plot or story lines. People love and remember moments.
As someone who camped out in a dirty theater alleyway in Waterloo, Iowa in the Summer of 1977 to see a movie that was then just called “Star Wars,” I am going to enjoy what Favreau and Filoni gave us on “The Mandalorian” — the moment where the Luke Skywalker we love and remember from childhood returned to Star Wars.
Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Postscript: In recent days, Lucasfilm and Disney social media operatives have been posting messages reminding us that Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, is a “fan” of the Disney sequel movies, including Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi.”
Perhaps that is true. But I also believe Hamill has made it clear in the past couple of days where his heart resides — with the George Lucas’ Luke Skywalker:
By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 21, 2020)
Few conversation starters can ruin an otherwise pleasant dinner party (or prevent you from being invited to future ones) than asking: Is the news media biased?
If you ask a Democrat, they will tell you the Fox News Channel is the problem (“They started it!” as if explaining to an elementary school teacher who threw the first punch during a playground fight). Ask a Republican and they will say Fox News is just the natural reaction to the long-standing, pervasive liberal bias of the mainstream media.
This past presidential election has poured gasoline on the two arguments.
When I shared the MRC research with my wife, her reaction was probably representative of many Democrats and media members: “Why wasn’t their coverage 100 percent negative towards Trump?”
The MRC doesn’t need me to defend their research methods, except I will point out that how they measure television news tone has a long history within media research, dating back to groundbreaking research by Michael J. Robinson and Margaret A. Sheehan, summarized in their 1981 book, “Over the Wire and on TV: CBS and UPI in Campaign ‘80.”
Here is MRC’s description of their news tone measurement method:
“MRC analysts reviewed every mention of President Trump and former Vice President Biden from July 29 through October 20, 2020, including weekends, on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. To determine the spin of news coverage, our analysts tallied all explicitly evaluative statements about Trump or Biden from either reporters, anchors or non-partisan sources such as experts or voters. Evaluations from partisan sources, as well as neutral statements, were not included.
As we did in 2016, we also separated personal evaluations of each candidate from statements about their prospects in the campaign horse race (i.e., standings in the polls, chances to win, etc.). While such comments can have an effect on voters (creating a bandwagon effect for those seen as winning, or demoralizing the supports of those portrayed as losing), they are not “good press” or “bad press” as understood by media scholars.”
Besides the MRC, there is another data resource on news coverage tone. It is called the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) Project and was inspired by the automated event-coding work of Georgetown University’s Kalev Leetaru and political scientist Philip Schrodt (formerly of Penn State University).
The GDELT Project is described as “an initiative to construct a catalog of human societal-scale behavior and beliefs across all countries of the world, connecting every person, organization, location, count, theme, news source, and event across the planet into a single massive network that captures what’s happening around the world, what its context is and who’s involved, and how the world is feeling about it, every single day.”
[For a description of the many datasets available through GDELT, you can go here.]
The GDELT Project’s goals are ambitious to say the least, but perhaps may shed some light on the tone of news coverage during this past presidential election.
It is worth a look-see.
A Comparison of US Online News Coverage of Biden and Trump
For the following analysis, I queried GDELT’s Global Online News Coverage database, filtering it down to US-only daily news articles that mention either Joe Biden or Donald Trump (but not both) from January 15, 2017 to November 22, 2020.
[The APIs used to query the GDELT database are available in this article’s appendix.]
Resulting from these queries were two metrics for each candidate: The first was the daily volume of online news coverage (measured as the percent of monitored articles), and the second was the average daily tone of online news coverage.
The second metric deserves some additional explanation.
GDELT uses Google’s Natural Language API to inspect a given text and identify the prevailing emotional opinion within the text, especially to determine a writer’s attitude as positive, negative or neutral. A text with a summary score over zero indicates that it was positive in overall tone. The higher a score, the more positive the text’s tone. Similarly, negative values indicate an overall negative tone. Values near zero indicate a text that is either neutral (i.e., no clear tone) or contains mixed tones (i.e., both positive and negative emotions).
For each news article, tone is calculated at the level of the entire article, not the tone of the sentence(s) mentioning Biden or Trump, so a negative article with a positive mention of Biden or Trump will still be scored negative. Finally, online news articles that mentioned both Biden and Trump were excluded from the analysis (83% of Biden articles mentioned both candidates, while only 9% of Trump articles did). In total, 4,593 online news articles were analyzed.
The resulting time-series data set contained five variables: (1) Date, (2) Daily Volume of Biden-focused Online News Coverage, (3) Average Daily Tone of Biden-focused Online News Coverage, (4) Daily Volume of Trump-focused Online News Coverage, and (5) Average Daily Tone of Trump-focused Online News Coverage.
From this data, I computed Biden’s net advantage in online news coverage tone by multiplying, for each candidate, the day’s news volume by the average news coverage tone. Trump’s volume-weighted news coverage tone was then subtracted from Biden’s.
Figure 1 (below) shows Biden’s net advantage in online news coverage tone from January 15, 2017 (near the beginning of Trump’s presidential term) to November 22, 2020.
Figure 1: Biden’s Tone Advantage over Trump in US Online News Coverage
According to the GDELT data, the tone of Biden-focused US online news coverage was far more positive than Trump-focused news coverage. In fact, online news coverage never favored Trump — not for one single day!
While there has been significant variation in Biden’s tone advantage since 2017— most notably since August 2020 when Biden has seen his tone index advantage decrease from 8.9 to 1.3 by late November 2020 — it is remarkable that even when the U.S. economy was booming in late 2019, well before the the coronavirus pandemic had impacted the US, Biden was enjoying a significant advantage in online news tone.
Supporting the validity of the GDELT tone data, variation in Biden’s tone advantage fluctuates predictably with known events that occurred during the 2020 campaign.
In a March 25, 2020, interview with Katie Halper, former Biden staff member Tara Reade alleged that Biden had pushed her against a wall, kissed her, put his hand under her skirt, penetrated her with his fingers, and asked, “Do you want to go somewhere else?”
Beyond this allegation, there is only circumstantial evidence supporting Reade’s charge against Biden. Still, the impact of this allegation manifests itself in how Biden’s tonality advantage varied over time.
On March 25, 2020, Biden enjoyed a 7.7 tonality advantage over Trump. That advantage, however, immediately fell in the weeks following Halper’s Reade interview, reaching a relative low of 5.4 on May 11th.
Soon after, Biden’s tonality advantage began to recover rapidly, likely due to two major news stories in May. The first, on May 8th, marked the release of U.S. unemployment data showing the highest unemployment rate (14.7%) since the Great Depression, mainly due to job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. These new economic numbers put the Trump administration in a clear defensive position, despite the fact that similar pandemic-fueled economic declines were occurring in almost every major economy in the world.
On May 25th, the second event — the death of George Floyd while being physically immobilized by a Minneapolis police officer — sparked a national outcry against police violence against African-Americans. Whether this outrage should have been directed at Trump (as it was by many news outlets) will be a judgment left to historians. What can be said is that Biden’s tone advantage over Trump trended upwards into the summer, reaching an 2020 peak of 9.0 on July 25th.
In the post-convention media environment, which included intermittent media coverage of the Hunter Biden controversy, Biden’s tone advantage declined for the remainder of the time covered in this analysis.
Admittedly, the GDELT data is imperfect in that it does not allow analysis at a sentence- or paragraph-level. Still, the finding in Figure 1 that Biden-focused news articles have been far more positive than Trump-focused news articles is consistent with the overall finding in the MRC tonal analysis of the 2020 presidential election.
Is this conclusive evidence of the news media’s anti-Trump bias? No. But it should inspire a further inquiry into this question, and to do that will require some methodological finesse. That is, it will require far more than just measuring the tone of news coverage.
How would we know if the news coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign was biased?
In a country where President Trump’s approval rating has hovered between 40 and 46 percent through most of his presidency, the fact that — at a critical time in the election — the network TV news programs were over 90 percent negative towards Trump offers some face validity to the anti-Trump media bias argument.
But my wife’s gut reaction to the MRC research contains a profound point: What if Trump deserved the overwhelming negative coverage? After all, is it the job of the news media to reflect public opinion? To the contrary, by definition, an objective news media should be exclusively anchored to reality, not ofttimes fickle variations in public sentiment.
Subsequently, the central problem in measuring media bias is finding a measure of objective reality by which to assess a president’s performance. Most everything we hold a president accountable for — the economy, foreign policy, personal character, etc. — is subject to interpretations and opinions that are commonly filtered by the news media through layers of oversimplifications, distortions and other perceptual biases.
Perhaps we can use a set of proxy measures? The unemployment rate. Gross domestic product growth. Stock prices. A president’s likability score. But to what extent does a president have an impact on those metrics? Far less than we may want to believe.
And now add to the equation a global pandemic for which Trump’s culpability, though widely asserted in the national news media, is highly debatable but reckless to dismiss out-of-hand.
How can the U.S. news media possibly be equipped to judge a president’s performance by any objective, unbiased standard?
According to political scientist Dr. Regina Lawrence, associate dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication and research director for the Agora Journalism Center, selection bias is consciously and unconsciously driving news consumers towards news outlets that share similar partisan and ideological points of view — and, in the process, increases our country’s political divide:
“Selective exposure is the tendency many of us have to seek out news sources that don’t fundamentally challenge what we believe about the world. We know there’s a relationship between selective exposure and the growing divide in political attitudes in this country. And that gap is clearly related to the rise of more partisan media sources.”
The implication of this dynamic on how journalists do their jobs is significant. There is little motivation across all levels of the news-gathering process — from the corporate board room down to the beat reporter — to put an absolute premium on covering news stories from an objective point of view.
Instead, journalists and media celebrities are motivated by the same psychological and economic forces as the rest of us: career advancement, prestige and money. And to succeed in the news business today, a journalist’s output must fit within the dominant (frequently partisan) narratives of his or her news organization.
In a trailblazing data-mining-based study by the Rand Corporation on how U.S. journalism has changed since the rise of cable news networks and social media, researchers found “U.S.-based journalism has gradually shifted away from objective news and offers more opinion-based content that appeals to emotion and relies heavily on argumentation and advocacy.”
And the result of this shift? Viewership, newsroom investments and profits at the three major cable news networks have significantly increased in the past two decades, at the same time that news consumers have shifted their daily news sources away from traditional media (newspapers and TV network news) towards new media outlets (online publications, news aggregators [e.g., Drudge Report], blogs, and social media). In 2019, the major U.S. media companies — which include assets and revenue streams far beyond those generated from their news operations — had a total market capitalization exceeding $930 billion.
Why then should we be surprised that today’s broadcast and print journalists are not held to a high objectivity or accuracy standard? Their news organizations are prospering for other reasons.
During the peak of the Russiagate furor, as many journalists were hiding behind anonymous government sources, few journalists and producers at CNN, MSBNC, The New York Times or Washington Post openly challenged the basic assumptions of that conspiracy theory which asserted that Trump had colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election — a charge that, in the end, proved baseless.
On the other side of the coin, there are certainly conservative news outlets where effusive Trump coverage is encouraged, but those cases are in the minority compared to the rest of the mainstream media (a term I despise as I believe the average national news outlet actively restricts the range of mainstream ideas presented to the news consuming public — and, furthermore, there is nothing ‘mainstream’ about the people who populate our national news outlets).
Americans mostly witness presidential campaigns through the media — which gives the media more power than they’ve earned
Being from Iowa, I’ve been spoiled by the number of times I’ve met presidential candidates in person. That, however, is not how most Americans experience a presidential election.
Americans generally experience presidential elections via the media, either through direct exposure or indirect exposure through friends, family and acquaintances; consequently, this potentially gives the news media tremendous influence over election outcomes.
According to Dr. Lawrence, the most significant way the news media impacts elections is through who and what they cover (and who and what they don’t cover). “The biggest thing that drives elections is simple name recognition.”
If journalists refuse to cover a candidate, their candidacy is typically toast. But that is far from the only way the news media can influence elections. How news organizations frame an election — which drives the dominant media narratives for that election — can have a significant impact.
The most common frame is that of the horse race in which the news media — often through polling and judging the size and enthusiasm of crowds —can, in effect, tell the voting public who is leading and who has the best chance of winning.
“We know from decades of research that the mainstream media tend to see elections through the prism of competition,” according to Lawrence. “Campaigns get covered a lot like sports events, with an emphasis on who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s up, who’s down, how they are moving ahead or behind in the polls.”
There are other narratives, however, that can be equally impactful — such as narratives centered on a candidate’s character (e.g., honesty, empathy) or intellectual capacity.
Was Al Gore as stiff and humorless as often portrayed in the 2000 campaign? Was George W. Bush as intellectually lazy or privileged as implied in much of the coverage from that same campaign?
Even journalists with good intentions can distort reality when motivated to fit their stories into these premeditated story lines.
More ominous, however, is that possibility that news organizations with strong biases against a particular candidate or political party, as they can manipulate their campaign coverage in such a way that even objective facts can be framed to systematically favor the voter impressions formed for one candidate over another.
Did that happen in the 2020 presidential election? My inclination is to say yes, but I go back to the original question posed in this essay: Did Donald Trump deserve the overwhelming negative coverage he received across large segments of the national news media?
Without clearly defining and validly measuring the objective, unbiased metrics by which to answer that question, there is no possible way to give a substantive response.
[Headline photo: Judit Polgár, a chess super grandmaster and generally considered the greatest female chess player ever (Photo by Tímea Jaksa)]
By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 8, 2020)
One the greatest joys I’ve had as a parent is teaching my children how to play chess.
And the most bittersweet moment in that effort is the day (and match) when they beat you and you didn’t let them.
I had that moment during the Thanksgiving weekend with my teenage son when, in a contest where early on I sacrificed a knight to take his queen (and maintained that advantage for the remainder of the contest), I became too aggressive and left my king vulnerable. As I realized the mistake, it was two moves too late. He pounced and mercilessly ended the match.
He didn’t brag. No teasing. Not even a firm handshake. He checkmated me, grabbed a bowl of blueberries out of the fridge, and coolly went to the family room to play Call of Duty with his friends on his Xbox.
I was left with an odd feeling, common among parents and teachers, I suspect. A feeling of immense pride, even as my ego was genuinely bruised.
That is the nature of chess — a game that is both simple and infinitely complex, and offers no prospect of luck for the casual or out-of-practice player. With every move there are only three possibilities: You can make a good decision, a bad decision, or maintain the status quo.
For this, I love and hate chess.
Saying ‘Chess has a gender problem’ is an understatement
My father taught me chess, as his father taught him.
Growing up in the 70s, I had a picture of grandmaster legend Bobby Fischer pasted on my bedroom door, whose defeat of Boris Spassky for the 1972 world chess title ranks with the U.S. hockey team’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” as one of this country’s defining Cold War “sports” victories over the Soviet Union. That is not an exaggeration.
In part because of Fischer’s triumph, I played chess with my childhood friends more often than any other game, save perhaps basketball and touch football.
But despite chess being prominent in my youth, I have no memories of playing chess with members of the opposite sex. My mom? Bridge was her game of choice. The girls in my neighborhood and school? I cannot recall even one match with them. Granted, between the 5th and 11th grades, I didn’t interact with girls much for any reason. And when I did later in high school, by then my chess playing was mostly on hold until graduate school, except for the occasional holiday matches with my father and brothers.
Any study on the sociohistorical determinants of gender-based selection bias should consider chess an archetype of this phenomenon.
The aforementioned chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer, infamously said of women: “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man.”
Any pretense that grandmaster chess players must, by means of their chessboard skills, also be smart about everything else, is easily dispensed by referencing the words that would frequently come out of Fischer’s mouth when he was alive.
Radio personality Howard Stern once observed that many of the most talented musicians he’s interviewed often lack the ability (or confidence) to talk about anything else except music (and perhaps sex and drugs): “You can’t become that good at something without sacrificing your knowledge in other things.”
That may be one of the great sacrifices grandmaster chess players also make. As evidenced by his known comments on women and chess, Fischer is ill-informed on gender science. Even some contemporary chess greats, such as Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short, have uttered verbal nonsense on the topic.
Writer Katerina Bryant recently reflected on the persistent ignorance within the chess world about gender: “Many of us mistake chess players for the world’s best thinkers, but laying out a champion’s words on the table make the picture seem much more fractured. It’s a fallacy that someone can’t be both informed and ignorant.”
Why we are watching the “The Queen’s Gambit”
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the intersection in time of losing to my son at chess and the release of Netflix’ new series, The Queen’s Gambit, seemed like an act of providence. The two events reignited my interest in chess and launched a personal investigation into the game’s persistent and overwhelming gender bias.
That ain’t random chance. Something is fundamentally wrong with how the game recruits and develops young talent. The Queen’s Gambit, a fictional account of a young American woman’s rise in the chess world during the 1950s and 60s, speaks directly to that malfunction. While the show mostly focuses on drug addiction, dependency, and emotional alienation, I believe its core appeal is in how it addresses endemic sexism — in this case, the gender bias of competitive chess.
For those that don’t know, The Queen’s Gambit is a 7-part series (currently streaming on Netflix) about Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy from Kentucky who rises to become one of the world’s greatest chess player while struggling with emotional problems and drug and alcohol dependency. Beth is a brilliant, intuitive chess player…and a total mess.
The Queen’s Gambit is more fun to watch than it sounds. My favorite scene is in Episode 1 when, as a young girl, she plays a simultaneous exhibition against an entire high school chess club and beats them — all boys, of course — easily.
The TV series not only perfectly aligns with the current political mood, its gender bias message is not heavy-handed and is easily digestible. It is fast food feminism for today’s cable news feminists.
Aside from the touching characterization of Mr. Shaibel, the janitor at Beth’s orphanage who introduces her to chess, almost every other man in The Queen’s Gambit is either sexist, a substance abuser, arrogant, or emotionally stunted. What saves The Queen’s Gambit’s cookie-cutter politics from becoming overly turgid and preachy, however, is that Beth isn’t much better, or at least not until the end. Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress who plays Beth, is brilliant throughout the series and alone makes the show’s seven hours running time worth the personal investment.
But beyond the show’s high-end acting and production values, its hard not to enjoy a television show about a goodhearted but dysfunctional protagonist (i.e., substance addicted) who must interact with other dysfunctional people in an equally dysfunctional time?
The audience gets all of that from The Queen’s Gambit, along with a thankfully minor but clunky anti-evangelical Christian, anti-anti-Communism side story.
It is the perfect formula for getting love from the critics and attracting an audience, and the reviews and ratings for The Queen’s Gambit prove the point:
“(The Queen’s Gambit) is the sort of delicate prestige television that Netflix should be producing more often.” – Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair
“Just as you feel a familiar dynamic forming, in which a talented woman ends up intimidating her suitors, The Queen’s Gambit swerves; it’s probably no coincidence that a story about chess thrives on confounding audience expectations.” – Judy Berman, TIME Magazine
The audiences have lined up accordingly. In its first three weeks after release (from October 23 to November 8), Nielsen estimates that The Queen’s Gambit garnered almost 3.8 billion viewing minutes in the U.S. alone.
As the streaming TV ratings methodologies are still in their relative infancy, I prefer to look at Google search trends when comparing media programs and properties. In my own research, I have found that Google searches are highly correlated with Nielsen’s streaming TV ratings (ranging between a Pearson correlation of 0.7 and 0.9 from week-to-week).
Figure 1 shows a selection of the most popular streaming TV shows in 2020 and their relative number of Google searches (in the U.S.) from July to early December [The Queen’s Gambit is the dashed black line.]. While The Queen’s Gambit hasn’t had the peak number of searches as some other shows (The Umbrella Academy, Schitt’s Creek, and The Mandalorian), it has sustained a high level of searching over a longer period of time. Over a 5-week period, only The Mandalorian has had a cumulative Google Trends Index higher than The Queen’s Gambit (1,231 versus 1,150, respectively). The next highest is The Umbrella Academy at 1,030.
Figure 1: Google Searches for Selected Streaming TV Shows in 2020
Whatever the core reason for the popularity of The Queen’s Gambit, there is no denying that the show has attracted an unprecedented mass audience for a streaming TV series.
It makes me think Netflix might consider making more than seven episodes.
My one big annoyance with “The Queen’s Gambit”
Mark Twain once said of fiction: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”
While I appreciate Twain’s sentiment — fiction should not be too restrained by truth — he clearly never had to explain to his teenage son that fire-breathing dragons did not exist in the Middle Ages, despite what Game of Thrones suggests. I fear The Queen’s Gambit will launch of generation of people who think an American woman competed internationally in chess in the 1960s and thereby diminish the much more profound accomplishments of an actual female chess prodigy, Judit Polgár, arguably the greatest female chess player of all time and who famously refused to compete in women-only chess tournaments.
While her achievements would occur two decades after Beth Harmon’s fictional rise, Polgár, a 44-year-old Hungarian, fought the real battle and offers the more substantive and entertaining story, in my opinion. It would be like Hollywood making a movie about a fictional female law professor defeating institutional sexism and rising to the Supreme Court in the 1960s, when the true story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg already exists.
Granted, Walter Tevis’ book upon which The Queen’s Gambit is based was published in 1983, before Polgár was competing internationally, but for someone who followed Polgár’s career, The Queen’s Gambit‘s inspirational tale rings a bit hollow.
No American woman was competing at the highest levels of chess during The Queen’s Gambit time frame of the 1950s and 60s. In stark contrast, Polgár actually did that from 1990 to 2014, achieving a peak rating of 2735 in 2005 — which put her at #8 in the world at the time and would place her at #20 in the world today.
Perhaps only chess geeks understand how rare such an accomplishment is in chess, regardless of gender.
Polgár, at the age of 12, was the youngest chess player ever, male or female, to become ranked in the World Chess Federations’s top 100 (she was ranked #55) and became a Grandmaster at 15, breaking the youngest-ever record previously held by former World Champion Bobby Fischer.
Still, I want to be clear: I loved the The Queen’s Gambit. I don’t sit up at 3 a.m. watching Netflix on my iPhone unless I have a good reason — such as watching Czech porn. I merely offer a piece of criticism so that some poor sap 20 years from now doesn’t think The Queen’s Gambit is based on a true story. It most certainly isn’t. It is a pure Hollywood-processed work of fiction.