A judge on Thursday refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Georgian chess master who alleged that she was defamed in an episode of the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Nona Gaprindashvili, who rose to prominence 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 stated — falsely — that Gaprindashvili had “never faced men.” Gaprindashvili argued that the line was “grossly sexist and belittling,” noting that she had in fact faced 59 male competitors by 1968, the year in which the series was set.
Netflix sought to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the show is a work of fiction, and that the First Amendment gives show creators broad artistic license.
But in a ruling on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips disagreed, finding that Gaprindashvili had made a plausible argument that she was defamed. Phillips also held that works of fiction are not immune from defamation suits if they disparage real people.
“Netflix does not cite, and the Court is not aware, of any cases precluding defamation claims for the portrayal of real persons in otherwise fictional works,” Phillips wrote. “The fact that the Series was a fictional work does not insulate Netflix from liability for defamation if all the elements of defamation are otherwise present.”
“The Queen’s Gambit” is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, and 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 announcer explains that her opponent underestimated her: “Elizabeth Harmon’s not at all an important player by their standards. The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex. And even that’s not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”
Netflix argued that it had relied on two chess experts in an effort to get the details right, and that the show creators meant no offense to Gaprindashvili.
“The Series’ reference to Plaintiff was intended to recognize her, not disparage her,” the streamer’s lawyers argued.
In her ruling, Phillips noted that the show’s theme involves breaking gender barriers. But, she said, the show could be seen as building up the achievement of the fictional Harmon by dismissing those of the real-life Gaprindashvili.
“An average viewer easily could interpret the Line, as Plaintiff contends, as ‘disparaging the accomplishments of Plaintiff’ and ‘carr[ying] the stigma that women bear a badge of inferiority’ that fictional American woman Harmon, but not Plaintiff, could overcome,” the judge wrote. “At the very least, the line is dismissive of the accomplishments central to Plaintiff’s reputation.”
Netflix had relied heavily on on an appellate ruling in a similar case involving the actor Olivia de Havilland. In that case, de Havilland had sued FX Networks, objecting to her portrayal in the Ryan Murphy series “Feud.” The appeals court dismissed the suit, finding that creators have significant artistic freedom in their depictions of real people. That ruling was widely hailed in the entertainment community.
The de Havilland case involved fictional dialogue spoken by actors portraying real people. The appeals court ruled that those scenes would be understood as dramatizations, and not as verbatim transcripts taken from real life. Phillips ruled that unlike in that case, viewers might well leave the show with the false impression that Gaprindashvili had never faced men.
Netflix also noted that “The Queen’s Gambit” featured a standard disclaimer, stating that “the characters and events depicted in this program are fictitious. No depiction of actual persons or events is intended.” But the judge ruled that was not enough to dispel the notion that the show was asserting a factual claim.
“In context, therefore, Netflix ‘creat[ed] the impression that [it] was asserting objective facts,'” Phillips wrote. “Plaintiff sufficiently pleads falsity because the Line is ‘reasonably susceptible of an interpretation which implies a provably false assertion of fact.'”
Netflix declined to comment on the ruling.
Update, Feb. 8: Netflix has filed a notice that it will appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.
Correction: This story originally described Gaprindashvili as Russian. She is from Georgia.