A judge on Thursday declined to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Russian chess master who alleged she had been slandered in an episode of the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Nona Gaprindashvili, who rose to fame as a chess player in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, sued Netflix in federal court in September. She took issue with a line in the series in which a character – erroneously – stated that Gaprindashvili had “never dealt with men.” Gaprindashvili argued that the line was “crudely sexist and belittling”, noting that in 1968, the year the series was set, she had actually met 59 male competitors.
Netflix wanted the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the show is a work of fiction and that the First Amendment gives the show’s creators broad artistic license.
But in a ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips disagreed, finding that Gaprindashvili had made a plausible argument that she had been defamed. Phillips also believed that fictional works are not immune to libel cases if they discredit real people.
“Netflix does not cite, and the Court is not aware of, cases where charges of defamation for the depiction of real persons in otherwise fictional works are excluded,” Phillips wrote. “The fact that the series was a work of fiction does not insulate Netflix from liability for defamation if all elements of defamation are otherwise present.”
Based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, “The Queen’s Gambit” follows a fictional American character, Beth Harmon, who becomes an international chess champion in the 1960s. In the final episode, set in Moscow, Harmon defeats a male competitor. A chess crier explains that her opponent underestimated her: “Elizabeth Harmon is not a major player at all by their standards. The only unusual thing about her is actually her gender. And even that is not unique in Russia. There is Nona Gaprindashvili, but she is the female world champion and has never dealt with men.”
Netflix argued that it relied on two chess experts in an effort to get the details right, and that the show’s creators did not offend Gaprindashvili.
“The reference in the series to Plaintiff was intended to recognize her, not to discredit her,” argued the streamer’s lawyers.
In her statement, Phillips noted that the show’s theme involves breaking down gender barriers. But, she said, the show can be seen as building on the fictional Harmon’s achievement by rejecting that of the real Gaprindashvili.
“An average viewer could easily interpret De Lijn, as Plaintiff states, as ‘discrediting Plaintiff’s performance’ and ‘Carr[ying] the stigma of women wearing an insignia of inferiority that the fictional American woman Harmon, but not Plaintiff, could overcome,” the judge wrote. “At the very least, the line is disdainful of the achievements that are central to Plaintiff’s reputation.”
Netflix had relied heavily on an appeals ruling in a similar case involving actor Olivia de Havilland. In that case, de Havilland had sued FX Networks and objected to her portrayal in the Ryan Murphy series “Feud.” The appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, finding that creators have significant artistic freedom in depicting real people. That statement was widely praised in the entertainment community.
The de Havilland case involved a fictional dialogue spoken by actors portraying real people. The appeals court ruled that those scenes would be interpreted as dramatizations, not literal transcripts from real life. Phillips ruled that, unlike in that case, viewers might leave the show with the false impression that Gaprindashvili had never interacted with men.
Netflix also noted that “The Queen’s Gambit” contained a standard disclaimer stating that “the characters and events depicted in this program are fictitious. It is not intended to represent actual persons or events.” But the judge ruled that wasn’t enough to dispel the notion that the show was making a factual claim.
“In context therefore Netflix ‘creat'[ed] the impression that [it] alleged objective facts,” wrote Phillips. “Plaintiff alleges sufficient falsehood that the Rule is ‘reasonably susceptible to an interpretation implying a demonstrably false statement of fact’.”
Netflix declined to comment on the ruling.