Battles of the sexes have likely been going on, in one form or another, for as long as men and women have roamed the planet. But the first time an event was ever officially billed as such was in 1973, when tennis champion Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs to prove once and for all that female players deserve equal respect on the court.
The event, which took place at the Houston Astrodome on a September afternoon, pitted Riggs — a former Wimbledon winner himself, who, at 55, was well past his playing prime — against King, who, at 29, was at the top of her game. Forty-eight million viewers from living rooms across America tuned in to watch; courtside, fans wore handmade buttons featuring phrases like “I’m with Billie Jean” and waved banners in the air. After an animated singalong to “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” wrapped up, Riggs strolled onto the court, waving a gigantic Sugar Daddy candy sucker, which he presented to his opponent; King was carried out on a chaise manned by half-dressed hunks, her own contribution to the spectacle, and gifted Riggs with a pink, squealing piglet — a nod to his "chauvinist pig" routine. But when the game began, King stopped playing around. She was there to win. Because she knew if she didn’t, it would be a loss for women everywhere.
As of this month, "battle of the sexes" is no longer just a moment in tennis history or a platitude trotted out to describe any variety of gender-based friction. It’s also a film of the same name, starring Emma Stone as the legendary Billie Jean King, Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs, and a cadre of other characters, all of whom are tasked with telling a complex story about the quest for gender equality. In a nutshell, the movie is a confluence of many narratives: a biographical account of an American icon; the legacy of Title IX (which was passed a year before the match); sexism in sports (and by extension everywhere else); feminism and sexuality; and, of course, love.
Depending on how you look at it, we’re living in either a sombre year for stories like these, or one where they are as resonant, and necessary, as ever. Like Wonder Woman — the other high-profile, overtly feminist film of 2017 — Battle of the Sexes was green-lit and made at a time when we thought the gender gap was getting smaller. But lately, it feels like the chasm is growing by the minute — or, as some might say, by the tweet; and in some senses, the national conversation about equality we’re having right now feels like a broken record of that same dialogue from the 1970s.
Like, for example: How do we get men to give a damn when it comes to stories about women’s struggles, and to see gender inequality as their problem, too? “Men and boys often drag their girlfriends to see the next Terminator movie,” Simon Beaufoy — the Academy Award-winning screenwriter who penned the script — said during a recent interview with Refinery29. “But I wonder if women will drag men to see this one," he added. "Sexism works at all sorts of different levels, including what films we end up watching.”
Sexism also takes many different forms. For example, in the film, Riggs is painted as a sexist, sure, but a harmless one who was mostly a product of his era. (That may be true enough, considering that King and Riggs remained close friends up until the day he died.) Still, that didn’t stop him from framing the match as a referendum on women’s liberation versus male superiority: the only thing that sells better than sex might be feuds between the sexes. Riggs put all his energy into grandstanding, supplying pithy commentary about how he intended to put the “show” back in “chauvinism,” and generally making a mockery of the face-off, with a goal of drumming up attention.
He substituted handfuls of vitamins for time spent working on his serve, a sign of just how seriously he was taking his competition. Looking back, the idea that anyone believed Riggs could have beaten King is as laughable as it is condescending. And yet, it’s obvious both in Battle of the Sexes and in real life that Bobby Riggs’ behaviour was less dangerous or threatening than other characters revolving through King’s world. As tennis pro and commentator Jack Kramer (a prototype of men’s rights activism before that was the branding), Bill Pullman plays a chilling villain who clearly believes that women who challenge men's societal status deserve to be put in their place.
“That kind of insidious sexism, the kind that’s almost in the DNA of people like him: It’s much worse,” says Beaufoy, the screenwriter. “It’s hidden, but it’s built into society.” Which makes it all the harder to combat. There is a scene I won’t spoil, in which Kramer and King are behind closed doors: alone and locked in a face-off that makes you suddenly afraid for her. It’s one of the most intense moments in the film, and will stir up feelings for anyone who understands what it’s like to feel threatened for simply asking for your fair share of respect. And it’s sickening because it gets that interaction exactly right, something we rarely see drawn out with such clarity on the big screen.
But though Battle of the Sexes is overwhelmingly attentive to the subtle nuances of how misogyny moves upon women, it is not as nuanced when to comes to its treatment of secondary characters. As the fashion designer and tennis circuit fixture Ted Tinling, Alan Cumming is pigeonholed as the film’s fairy gay father: the wardrobe genius behind King’s on-court ensembles who also guides her toward the acceptance of her own sexuality, bibbity-bobbity-boo. Sarah Silverman’s caricature of World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman is entertaining but mostly held together by zingers and hairspray. The film also tackles the love affair between King and Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and King’s relationship with her then-husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell) — an incredible story that could merit its own two-hour movie, there’s so much to unpack. But those scenes are dreamy, too drawn out, and oddly dissonant with the rest of the film.
Because of those issues, among others, Battle of the Sexes has taken some heat from critics, some of whom make fair points. Did Bobby Riggs deserve a tougher treatment, instead of a softball? Possibly. Is the movie mildly anticlimactic? Sure. Does it go too far out of its way to be crowd-pleasing? I thought that was true, and I'm not alone. But the fact that it didn't resonate with white male critics at establishment outlets is a major problem of its own, though probably one that has less to do with the film itself than the culture we live in. And, for the record, at the time of this writing it's averaging 88% on the review platform of the people, Rotten Tomatoes. (Take that, patriarchy.)
Plus, even if it's not a "perfect" film: So what? Battle of the Sexes gets it right where it counts by conveying the complexity of Billie Jean King’s story — and reminding us all that the fight for basic fairness isn’t over. The movie also nails the brand of feminism that King has been espousing from the very beginning; the kind that proclaims that equality isn't about anyone being better than anyone else, but about treating everyone like a human being who is valuable, regardless of gender. We’re still hitting the ball back and forth over the net on that one. It’s what we’ll keep doing until someday we finally realise we’re all on the same team.
Battle of the Sexes is in UK cinemas from November 22.