A judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed against Netflix by Georgian chess master Nona Gaprindashvili, who claims she was defamed in an episode of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ series.
In the lawsuit, which was initially filed in September last year, Gaprindashvili – a prominent chess player in the Soviet Union in the 1960s – claims that a line in the series falsely states that she had “never faced men.” The chess player argues that the statement is “grossly sexist and belittling” as she had actually faced 59 male opponents by 1968 – the year in which the series takes place.
In response to the lawsuit, according to an article published by Variety, Netflix claimed that it could not be held accountable, since the show is a work of fiction and that the First Amendment gives the creators artistic license to say whatever they want.
But a ruling by US District Judge Virginia A. Phillips found Gaprindashvili’s argument to be plausible, saying works of fiction can still be held accountable for defaming 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 line in question comes from the final episode of Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ series, which follows Elizabeth Harmon – a fictional American chess player. In the episode, a chess announcer dismissively explains the reason for Harmon’s victory over her male opponent, saying: “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 argues that the show creators never meant to offend Gaprindashvili and were actually trying to recognize her efforts. “The Series’ reference to Plaintiff [Gaprindashvili] was intended to recognize her, not disparage her,” Netflix’s lawyers claimed.
While acknowledging the show’s theme of breaking gender barriers, Judge Phillips noted that the narrative could also be seen as building up the achievements of a fictional character at the expense of the accomplishments of a real person.
“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.”
The judge also argued that the line cannot be dismissed as a dramatization, since the show presents the notion that Gaprindashvili never faced male opponents as a factual claim.
“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 also claimed that ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ featured a standard disclaimer, stating that “the characters and events depicted in this program are fictitious.” However, the judge ruled that the disclaimer was not enough to dispel the notion that the show’s claims were presented as factual statements.