“Battle of the Sexes” takes a look at gender roles, past and present
October 12, 2017
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
This quote—attributed to feminist writer Marie Shear—came to mind multiple times during my recent viewing of the new film “Battle of the Sexes,” which dramatizes the highly-publicized 1973 tennis match between feminist icon Billie Jean King and flamboyant chauvinist Bobby Riggs.
During a time in which gender divisions remain a hot-button issue, this period comedy-drama sheds light on how far our nation has come and how far we still have to go in regards to women’s rights.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband and wife team behind “Little Miss Sunshine,” ”Battle of the Sexes” stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell as King and Riggs, respectively. Neither star is particularly transformative in their portrayal, but both exude an effortless magnetism that keeps the performances breezy and believable.
The film touches on a number of issues, including LGBTQ+ rights and infidelity. King carries on an affair with her female hairdresser throughout the film, while still married to husband Larry King (no relation to the geriatric, former CNN personality).
Various characters—particularly her oncourt rival, Margaret Court—suspect that King is lesbian and warn that her sexual orientation could threaten her status as the number one player in women’s tennis. But, as we all know, King eventually came out—becoming and remaining a champion of not only women’s but also LGBTQ+ rights.
Riggs has his own secrets, most notably his gambling addiction—an affliction that the film treats with surprising sincerity as we see how it damages the relationship between Riggs and his wife and son. But the main issue “Battle of the Sexes” addresses is the relationship between men and women—specifically, the oppression of women by men in power.
We see the inequality of the times—women tennis players receive only one-eighth the prize money of men, are belittled by sports announcers on live television and are forced to wear skirts instead of shorts. It’s troubling, yet perfectly imaginable and even comparable to some of the oppression seen in today’s society.
We see King’s frustration through Stone’s convincing performance. The constant bigotry seems to exhaust her more than professional tennis ever could. Carell, meanwhile, hams it up as Riggs, who claims he wants to “put the ‘show’ back into ‘chauvinism.’”
However, the two most pivotal, eye-opening scenes in the film do not involve Riggs at all. Instead, they consist of King plainly telling two men the fault in their ways.
The first of such sequences occurs during the media build-up to the match, when a reporter asks King why she thinks women are better than men. King whips around and says, “I never said women are better than men. I just want equality and respect.”
The words echo loudly, particularly for someone like me—a straight, white, uppermiddle class male—who the words are seemingly meant for. Too often do men misinterpret feminism as some sort of coup on our societal and biological status. That’s not it at all. The goal of feminism is not to conquer men. Rather, like King says, it’s about equality and respect.
The other sequence involves King confronting Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman), a former tennis player and noted misogynist who wants to act as the color commentator for the marquee match-up. During the scene, King tells Kramer that she doesn’t see Bobby Riggs as a threat to women’s rights. He’s simply flamboyant and putting on a show.
Rather, she thinks men like Kramer are the real problem—men who conduct themselves as gentlemen, yet quietly and emphatically believe women are inherently worth less than men.
The notion that women are people and deserve to be treated equally is only considered “radical” when put in the context of men like Jack Kramer. Similar to how “covert racism” continues to plague and divide our nation, so too does covert sexism.
Following King’s triumphant and resounding win over Riggs, there’s a heart-wrenching scene in which King sits alone in her locker room weeping. It shows how deeply satisfying the victory is and how much King values her greatest love: tennis. At the same time, the scene also plays as King’s first and only opportunity in the film to embrace her emotions.
Part of being a successful woman at the time involved having to act like a man in order to be taken seriously in an unbalanced society. So it’s gratifying to see King finally embrace her emotions, albeit in private. King’s ability to successfully and gracefully embrace both her traditional masculine and feminine qualities is her real victory in the film.
Overall, “Battle of the Sexes” is a rare crowd-pleaser that turns a mirror toward our nation’s current problems involving gender roles (i.e. gender pay gap, rhetoric of the Trump campaign, etc.).
As the credits roll, the main truth circling around male-female relationships becomes clear: men and women are different, but they should be treated equally.
Contact Jimmy Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852