One thing that has always bothered me about Hermione Granger is how little ambition she has for herself. Sure, we’re told that she becomes Minster for Magic in The Cursed Child, but throughout the actual Harry Potter series—the one I grew up reading and idolizing—her ambition extends to little more than graduating from Hogwarts and staying loyal to Harry Potter. Although she’s easily the smartest character in the entire series—empowering for a small bookworm like me—she also refuses to stake any large claim to the amazing things her intellect made possible.
I’ve found similar dissatisfaction with other women in fiction. Katniss Everdeen, the darling of feminists everywhere, is often represented in pop culture as the ultimate Strong Female Character™. Yet her goals extend little beyond keeping her mother and her sister safe, and she is reluctant to become the face of the resistance—arguably, Katniss has little ambitious agency of her own. Despite their power and intellect, many of our most precious fictional females still tell us that women shouldn’t pursue success just because they want to.
Then, in January, I saw Molly’s Game, a movie directed by my all-time favorite TV writer, Aaron Sorkin. The film is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (portrayed in the film by Jessica Chastain), a young competitive skier who ends up running notorious underground poker games in Los Angeles and New York City after a devastating back injury forces her to quit sports. What struck me about the film was not Sorkin’s writing (subpar compared to The West Wing), the filmography (just okay), or the storyline (honestly kind of boring for the first hour). What lingered with me—what still lingers with me, weeks after seeing the film—was Chastain’s honest portrayal of a woman who is ambitious for ambition’s sake.
The film follows a convoluted timeline, intermixing Molly’s time as “poker princess” with her complex relationship with her father, her brief skiing career, and her eventual arrest and trial for purportedly laundering mob money through her poker games. Molly is a success at everything she tries her hand at—sports, school, the LSAT, poker, math, people, even astronomy. But what makes her different from Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen and all the other smart, strong female characters of the world is not her unbridled success: what makes her remarkable is the notion that being ruthlessly ambitious is central to her identity. Whatever she does, she’s quick to remind us that she’s in it to win.
Yet unlike most women in fiction, who are vilified for their desire to succeed, Molly proves herself a fundamentally good character, not despite her ambition or because of her ambition but along with it. It is evident that she cares about those around her, even if she does not do so in the traditional sense of the word. She refuses to jeopardize innocent lives. She accepts the consequences of her actions. And throughout the film, she makes these decisions logically and rationally, but also as a person.
But Molly Bloom isn’t perfect. In fact, she’s far from it. She abandons what could have been a prestigious career in law for what could be prison time. She blurs more than a few lines. She’s greedy. She struggles with something dangerously close to depression, and many times, when she doesn’t win at whatever game she’s playing, she’s too proud to seek help. Yet none of the failures Molly experiences are because of her ambition. They are curveballs that life throws at many of us, and it is Molly’s relentless internal drive that sets her apart. Many of the issues Molly struggles with throughout the film–family issues, debt, injury, substance abuse, and mental health–do not weaken her: they make her more human. Molly’s Game did something I’ve never before seen in a film or in fiction: it portrayed a woman like me as a human being, proud, powerful, and complex in the success that she—and only she—earned.
Even when she’s at her worst, Molly never lets go of her ambition: it’s the thing that fuels her, the drive at her core that I believe many determined students at selective colleges, like myself, understand. When Molly’s ventures fail, she pauses for a moment. She doesn’t apologize for her ambition, as society dictates women do. She doesn’t quit. She cuts her losses, picks herself up, and asks, in typical Aaron Sorkin fashion, “What’s next?”