Battle of the Sexes
photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
The most pitched battle in Battle of the Sexes
is not strictly on the tennis court. Odds makers and popular opinion alike were very much against Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) in her famous 1973 tennis match against Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The question the match posed was not whether a professional female player could beat a male peer. It was whether the best female tennis player in the world could beat any competent man, in this case, a cartoonish, fifty-five-year-old former pro.
The film’s true foil is a male-dominated culture ripe for upheaval and, more pointedly, a misogynistic tennis industry epitomized by former men’s champ and bigwig Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). When Kramer refuses to raise the women's purse at his tournaments, King and other female players bolt to form the Women’s Tennis Association and Virginia Slims tour.
Against this backdrop and backlash, Riggs spies opportunity. He’s a bucktoothed carnival barker, a three-time Grand Slam winner who spends his later life trying to hustle his way out of a gambling addiction and into one last turn in the limelight. Riggs is portrayed as a rather sympathetic figure, and the closest the film gets to analyzing his outsize “male chauvinist pig" persona is showing that he lives as a kept husband in the emasculating shadow of his heiress wife, Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue).
The stakes are far greater for King, ably portrayed by the indomitable Stone. Coming on the heels of Riggs’s challenge win over top-ranked Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), the outcome of King’s match will shape the popular perception of women’s tennis. King’s contribution to women’s equality was right for the times. Her battle for LGBTQ rights would have to wait; her affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) remains hushed for fear of derailing her marriage, career, and sponsors for the nascent women’s tour.
At the time of King and Riggs’ face-off, the event was regarded as a crass publicity stunt mainly because the outcome seemed preordained. King’s victory shattered expectations and one more glass ceiling, and her greatest achievement is that we look at back the match forty-four years later as much ado about nothing.