“You know, I remember when the actual match happened,” an older woman told me as we walked out of the theater together. I threw away my popcorn as she reminisced, “At the time, I just thought it was a big show.”
The famous 1973 match between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and retired champion Bobby Riggs was set up as an elaborate publicity stunt, with parades, dancers, costumes, and sponsorships. But Battle of the Sexes reveals the more sinister elements going on underneath. Infidelity, repressed sexuality, addiction, and, of course, sexism.
Battle of the Sexes’ main plot might be the lead up to the match, but the topic that obviously interests the filmmakers more is Billie Jean’s affair with hairdresser Marilyn, her sexual awakening. I think people should know what movie they are going to see, so just keep that in mind.
What I found most interesting about it was, while it’s tastefully done, the film hides the negative aspects of the relationships. We do see the toll the affair takes on Billie Jean emotionally, and her husband Larry is portrayed as a great guy. But the film leaves out of its ending credits what ended up happening to the relationship (Marilyn sued Billie for palimony, outed Billie through the lawsuits, and Billie lost her sponsorships).
Whether you agree with the choices Billie Jean King made or not, not telling the truth about something seems suspicious on the part of the filmmakers. However, it’s also Hollywood, and to be expected. It just sets up an odd tonal shift with Billie tearing herself up about it one minute, then the next throwing Larry out and seemingly confident with her decision in the next. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to realistically show what a situation like that is like, but not in a way that could be interpreted as negative or disheartening.
All that said, this is the best performance I’ve seen Emma Stone give. She’s always been talented, of course, but here her role just allows her to be even more transformative. She’s not the La La Land actress, fantasy girl. She’s a flesh and blood woman. Her Billie Jean King is driven, focused, conflicted, but when it comes to the tennis match, is always the bigger person. She faces her opposition with grace and humility, but doesn’t hesitate to speak out. She’s a role model to many for a reason.
Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs with both over-the-top extravagance and subtle nuance. His Riggs is a showman, a con artist, and an actor. His brash and extremely sexist comments are almost laughable, and when you see how he really does seem to love his wife and family, he becomes likeable. His actions and comments are no longer as bad because he is so likable. He’s just doing publicity! Making headlines!
But that is what is just so sinister about it. When we like someone, we are less willing to critique them or call them out on something. Rigg’s sexism is so over-the-top and “playful” that it becomes normalized. It appears less harmful, although he’s preying on real attitudes. And the thing about sexism is that it isn’t just words. You don’t just hurt women’s feelings. Sexism is sinister because it is tangible. Words reflect thoughts, which is a person’s character, and eventual actions.
The things Riggs and some of the men in this movie say are scary because we almost don’t take them seriously. They are the “lovable misogynists,” and they validate men who want to do the same. There are many, many men in power who have used their lovableness and “cluelessness” to allow them to say, and then do, horrible things. It doesn’t matter that Bobby Riggs may not mean it, or his wife loves him or he’s a good dad or whatever. “Boys will be boys,” “It’s just locker room talk,” are excuses. It wasn’t appropriate then, and it doesn’t become less appropriate just because one representative woman “proved the worth” of all womankind.
There was one thing I felt missing as I walked away from Battle of the Sexes. I never got a strong establishment of the time period. Outside of tennis, what was sexism like in the wider American culture? How did people perceive the famous match? Did it really make any difference to women outside of sports? What did it mean to have one woman represent all women? Did Billie Jean King feel that burden going forwards? The film doesn’t answer any of those questions, leaving the impression that it isn’t nearly as interested in that subject as it is in its main protagonist and her love affair.
Making the main angle Billie Jean’s personal story is a good choice, though, because the typical sports story about overcoming adversity and winning has been done. That happens here, but it’s short and sweet at the end, and isn’t really the point. Winning the match for women is here, and it’s important, but by making the focus even narrower, a woman’s tumultuous time in her life, winning the match becomes bigger. It’s a matter of life and death for Billie Jean’s soul.
With those kind of stakes, it’s way more than just a show.