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film review: battle of the sexes


If someone asks me to watch a movie about sports I’ll usually pass; in all honesty with the exception of watching Space Jam or The Mighty Ducks I’d probably rather read ill-informed articles about whether the gender pay gap is real. But when I first saw the trailer for Battle of the Sexes I was like – “YAAAS get this movie into my eye socket spaces now!”.

And here is why: 1) Battle of the Sexes is about Billie Jean King, women’s tennis champion and LGBTQI rights activist, 2) Battle of the Sexes is about Billie Jean King schooling the world on the importance of not only women’s sports but equal pay for all women, 3) Battle of the Sexes is a still-all-too-real demonstration of why we still need feminism! All this goodness is wrapped up in a dramedy which will be a people pleaser with its funny side characters and exciting action scenes, but backing all this up is a heavy dose of feminist reality that will bring more than just tennis fans courtside*.

It is 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) has just been named number one female tennis player in the world two years running, she is oh so famous and drawing a crowd as big as the ones at the men’s games. Despite this, the women are being offered a prize which is an eighth of what the men play for. The tennis establishment, personified by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) say the women’s game lacks the power and skill of the men’s matches.

King and her sassy business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) react by raising enough support from stakeholders and within the women’s tennis circle to just start their own Women’s Tennis Association (Ha!).  This event and King’s threat to boycott the US Open led to the US Open offering equal pay to men and women champions (all four grand slams now have equal prize money). I would argue that King and Heldman’s efforts have also led to equal(ish) television coverage, equal hype and equal star power for the female players. King and her crew pull this off despite the amazingly patriarchal systems confronting them, whilst still being professional sports women AND whilst drawing attention to women’s liberation in general.

So aside from falling in love with Billie Jean King in this movie you will also be introduced to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Riggs is kind of the antagonist to King’s equality goals. I say ‘kind of’ because there is a lot of complex characterisation happening with Riggs which I will now attempt to unpack for you. Bobby Riggs is a 55-year-old former men’s tennis champion, and a gambling addict who has just been kicked out of his home by his wealthy wife. Bobby has just beaten Margaret Court (side note: when Margaret Court came on screen there was a discernible grumble that ran through the cinema) in an exhibition match and proclaimed himself the new women’s number one. He now seeks to play Billie Jean King.

Being a smart woman, King knows that if she gets sucked into the Riggs’ circus her fight for equality could be trivialised by the self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig who states he is putting the ‘show back into chauvinism’. To combat this, King attempts to shape the match to suit her message by being the reasonable levelled voice that sits alongside all the flamboyant showy-ness that is Riggs.

You know what, I didn’t hate Riggs for his part in this and I don’t think it was just because he was played the loveable Steve Carell. I think it was because it became clear that Riggs is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to patriarchal power.  Yes, he is an individual who genuinely thinks that as an out-of-shape former tennis player he has the right to be in the same league as King, but he is a man who is really struggling to get his life going after tennis; what he says therefore reflects his own struggles and his private actions do not seem to be based on hatred. He says often he is a self ‘styled’ chauvinist, suggesting to me that he is acting the part to get the most monetary gain and fame.

Riggs is the kind of man that sustains patriarchal structures, but not the real antagonist of the film. This role goes to Jack Kramer, who uses his power within the tennis establishment to constantly undercut the women’s game as a legitimate sport. My interpretation of why King decides to play Riggs in what is termed the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is because she wants to take on these harmless misogynists to be better able to take on the big boys like Kramer who create the structures within which tennis is established.

Despite being set in the gloriously pastel pink seventies (I’m in love with the aesthetics of this film, very on trend) you will find a lot of eerily modern echoes in this film. There are the bigger topical ideas the women face, like fighting for equal pay and making tennis less of a classist establishment, and the everyday stuff like the constant comments about the women players’ appearances and the hand-sy male journalists.  We can see these struggles carried on in modern women’s sports today; and in tennis we see the power of the women’s game through the legendary skills of the Williams sisters.

In the film, King hides her new relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) from everyone but eventually her business partner and husband Larry King (Austin Stowell). The relationship between Marilyn and King does not hint at the complex media storm which will eventually result in King being “outed”. Despite the quite simple rendering of their blossoming relationship, which takes a back seat to the tennis plot, it is so important to see stories like this in mainstream films and to see LGBTQI relationships portrayed as not salacious, but real.

I went to see this film because my BF loves tennis so much and I fear it is starting to rub off slightly as now I can name over ten tennis players. It is easy if, like myself, you are not a sports fan to shy away from films like this because they seem to be portraying something too simple: that women can play as well as the men. But that is not King’s point. Her point is that the women’s game is legitimate within itself, regardless of the men’s game. She has a wonderful line where she tells a reporter off for suggesting that she thinks that women are superior, stating that you would never have to choose between your mother and your father!

*Courtside is a tennis thing right?

Hannah Rogers is a writer and radio producer from Hobart, Tasmania. She talks about writing on her Instagram as @hannah_ruby_rogers.

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