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Netflix’s Strange Defamation Lawsuit Has Hit a Stalemate

Nona Gaprindashvili has taken down a lot of big opponents in her time, but the Georgian chess champion’s strangest foe has gotta be Netflix. She says the streaming giant’s big show The Queen’s Gambit defamed her, and lawyers had a tough time sorting through some of the strange legal issues her case raised: Can a real person be defamed on a fictional show? As of Monday, the answer remains unclear: Gaprindashvili reached a stalemate with Netflix. The two sides have struck a deal.

For those who missed Netflix’s pandemic hit, it follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) as a 1960s chess genius who must overcome both sexism and her own inner demons on her way to becoming a champion. The series was based on a fictional book, but did namecheck Gaprindashvili in one episode. “The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex,” says one commentator. “And even that’s not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”

That heightened The Queen’s Gambit‘s stakes but in real life, according to Gaprindashvili herself, is just not true. Her lawsuit claimed the idea that she never faced men is “manifestly false, as well as being grossly sexist and belitting.” In fact, by 1968 when the show was set, Gaprindashvili says she’d faced off against 59 men, ten of whom were grandmasters.

“Netflix brazenly and deliberately lied about Gaprindashvili’s achievements for the cheap and cynical purpose of ‘heightening the drama’ by making it appear that its fictional hero had managed to do what no other woman, including Gaprindashvili, had done,” the complaint read. “Thus, in a story that was supposed to inspire women by showing a young woman competing with men at the highest levels of world chess, Netflix humiliated the one real woman trail blazer who had actually faced and defeated men on the world stage in the same era.”

For its part, Netflix argued that the show was fictional. So maybe Gaprindashvili had accomplished a great deal for gender equality in chess in our own world, but The Queen’s Gambit is allowed to ignore those accomplishments to tell a better story.

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But U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips disagreed with Netflix’s take, arguing that the show hadn’t made it clear that this particular detail was fiction. So while viewers of, say, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can be expected to figure out that the show’s depiction of the Manson murders isn’t real, Netflix had enough “reckless disregard” for the truth in this case.

Nevertheless, the two sides settled before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could get involved.

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