Battle of the Sexes



            It really was a cultural phenomenon, though it seems hard to believe now.  A 55-year-old sometime tennis champion turned hustler and gambler, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) claimed he could beat any women's tennis player in the world.  The one who was ranked number one at the time, Australian Margaret Court, accepted the challenge---and lost.  A lot of smug chauvinists chortled in the back rooms of exclusive country clubs.  A lot of hard-working women closed their eyes and shook their heads that the culture wars had somehow come down to this, including the women on the pro tennis tour, among them the former No.1, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who decided the culture wars needed another chapter.  She accepted Bobby Rigg's challenge, and this match generated a lot of publicity, and more prize money than any championship on either the men's or women's tours.

            This movie concentrates on the who the main characters were behind the scenes, and the actors prove up to the challenge in portraying the complexities and nuances.  Bobby Riggs was a showman who played up the sexist angle, but actually he was married with a grown son.  Ironicially, his wife was the one with the money, so he was hardly in a position to play the paradigm of the superior gender.  But he knew how to generate publicity.  And he reveled in the spotlight.

            Billie Jean King's persona was more complicated.  She was married at the time, also, but she's shown here beginning an affair with her hairdresser, a Californian named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), at about the same time she was leading a group of women's tennis players away from the USLTA, led by the slick, condescending Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), because there was such a large discrepancy between the prize money for the men's and women's tour events.  Fortunately for the nascent women's tour, they had a terrific supporter in Business Mananger Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), who managed to land their first sponsorship:  Virginia Slims, the makers of cigarettes aimed at women's consumption (that wouldn't be politically correct today, either).

            Billie Jean is depicted struggling through a sexual identity crisis during this period, mainly because the society was so not ready to accept “open” lesbians (much less other gays, not to even mention bisexuals and transgenders) that there was genuine fear of losing precious corporate sponsorships.  There's a tender moment when Billie Jean's (gay) wardrobe designer hugs her and says, “One day, they'll let us be who we are and love who we want.” 

            But for now, it was all about the tennis match that at one level, meant absolutely nothing, but at another level, captured a national television audience and filled the Astrodome and constituted the breakfast table chat for Americans everywhere. 

            The Virginia Slims advertising slogan during those days was “You've come a long way, baby.”  Well, we'd all like to believe that about gender equality in these United States, particularly in the workplace.  But there are also many who will say we've got miles to go before we sleep.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What gender inequities have you seen or experienced?

2)                  Why don't female athletes make as money as their male counterparts?

3)                  Do you watch female athletes as much as male athletes?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association