As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
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It’s been difficult to find time to write recently because there has been just so much sport to watch, which is unlikely to change with the Olympics approaching! And it’s been great sport too, including my favourite tournament in my favourite sport – Wimbledon. What a fabulous time of year! I didn’t realise how much I had missed Wimbledon until we were sitting courtside two weeks ago, listening to the polite applause and thwacking of balls and I felt a whole year of missed experiences lift off my shoulders. Similarly to movies, sport has always been an extraordinary way to escape – immersive, exciting, terrifying, exhilarating, potentially frustrating, and occasionally devastating – and that’s felt even more needed this year. Whether cheering England’s storm through the Euros or celebrating Andy Murray’s glorious return and devastating but inevitable loss, I have been particularly grateful for sport these past few weeks!
But, angry feminist that I am, I struggle to really enjoy sports without also acknowledging the inequalities within them. It’s been impossible to ignore the systemic racism within sports, first with the recent banning of sprinter, Sha’Carri Richardson, after testing positive for smoking cannabis – something that didn’t have the same consequences for white male athletes – and then this weekend when the FA had to make a statement condemning the racist abuse faced by England football players following their defeat by penalties in the Euro 2020 finals.
The arguments about inclusion of gender diversity have also reared their ugly heads again as rules intended to exclude trans athletes have simply led to black cis athletes being banned for having naturally high testosterone levels. And, of course, there is no doubt that women’s sports are still considered secondary to the men’s game in nearly all sports. Less prestige, less money, less media coverage, and apparently any perceived equality is still worth questioning.
Don’t misunderstand me – tennis is one of the better sports in this regard. Perhaps even the best! Women have equal prize money in the Grand Slams (although not all tournaments – I’m looking at you, Italian Open) and Naomi Osaka and the Williams sisters are as famous as, say, Djokovic or Federer. But it’s not enough. Osaka is the highest paid sportswoman ever and is still only 12th on Forbes highest earning athletes list, a list that includes only one other woman – Serena Williams; Wimbledon still rarely schedules more than one women’s match on the show courts each day, despite being a source of complaint for years; and I am still arguing with otherwise reasonable people about whether women do deserve equal pay. Just last weekend, I had to persuade a friend that women should have equality in both pay and coverage BECAUSE THEY ARE JUST AS TALENTED, WORK JUST AS HARD AND ARE JUST AS ENTERTAINING SO DESERVE IT JUST AS MUCH, even if the ratings are lower, because that’s the only way to encourage more engagement.
Of note, this isn’t a historic issue. I was shocked to discover that Wimbledon and Roland Garros, the French Open, two of the biggest tennis tournaments of the year, only offered equal prize money in 2007. Fucking hell! (The Tennis Podcast recently did an incredible show on the journey to equal prize money that I would strongly recommend!)
But this is a movie podcast so I will try to curtail my rant and talk instead about a movie that covers the origins of this very argument. And it exists at the intersection of almost all of my key interests – movies, Emma Stone, feminism, sexism, and tennis – so, of course, I loved it!
Set in 1973, Battle of the Sexes tells the story of a publicity stunt; a match between young star and personal hero Billie Jean King (Stone) and aging misogynist Bobby Riggs (Carell) that was meant to prove that the women’s game was worth watching. 1973 was a big year for women’s tennis – the Women’s Tennis Association was formed in June when the Original 9 signed contracts for $1 to become professional players, prompting their expulsion from the US Lawn Tennis Association, and the US Open offered equal prize money for the first time that autumn – and, of course, the men didn’t like it. Riggs, a well-known gambler and hustler, saw this as an opportunity to make a quick buck and humiliate women in the process. Initially playing and beating Margaret Court, an Australian player who was World No. 1 at the time and has since become notorious for anti-LGBT views that have made it difficult to celebrate her legacy, King takes up Rigg’s challenge to play him – and she wins, something described as a win for women’s tennis and women’s sports.
There’s something wholly ridiculous and depressingly familiar about Riggs’s challenge to King. He was in his 50s and had retired in 1951 – over 20 years before he decided to claim that, even at his age, he could beat any of the top women players. This reminded me of the 2019 YouGov poll that showed that 12% (ONE IN EIGHT) British men think they can take a point off Serena Williams, arguably the greatest athlete of all time, and how John McEnroe in 2017 felt that Serena would be only ranked ‘like 700’ in the men’s tour. There is no doubt that the men’s and women’s games are different and I really resent the comparisons between them because, to me, it would be like comparing a 200m and 800m sprinter and wondering why each can’t win the other’s race. But I still think that these men who think they could so easily beat the top women’s players are seriously underestimating their skills!
As I’ve been writing this, it’s been difficult to separate my review of the movie from the review of the actual event. Because I have so much to say about how wonderful and inspiring Billie Jean King is and how historic this event was. And, for a publicity stunt, the Battle of the Sexes really was inspiring – and proves to me that sometimes doing something to make a point really can make a difference. Over 100 million people watched the match internationally on TV and it really did have implications for the acceptance of women’s tennis, just as King knew it would.
And so I loved how Battle of the Sexes emphasised the difference in stakes faced by King and Riggs. Carell perfectly hams it up as Bobby Riggs, a man who is set on creating a circus. He tells the press that he is ‘going to put the show back into chauvinism!’ He poses for photoshoots with scantily clad women and plays tennis dressed as a milkmaid. Or with a saucepan. He’s a joke. But he says outloud what men who felt begrudged by women’s liberation and the progress of feminism felt, and he knows that this makes him a hero for those men. Frankly, Riggs also doesn’t think that he has anything to lose. Particularly when he so easily beats Margaret Court – as far as he is concerned, he has already proven his point. Battle of the Sexes showed us how much of a gambler he was, and he looked like he was on a winning streak. Why wouldn’t he think he can do it again?
We’re obviously not supposed to like Riggs but I did like that Battle of the Sexes didn’t ‘demonise’ him. It would have been so easy to make him a cartoon villain, an unsympathetic figure of hate, but that wouldn’t have fitted with reality – that it was simply much more complicated than that. He was a joke, but he wasn’t vicious. He wasn’t actively holding women back – you could say that he was giving them a platform! And Riggs is shown to be pretty dependent financially on his wife, which is a fabulous irony. King also thought a great deal of Riggs and admired his tennis, telling Mark Kermode at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2013 that ‘he was one of my heroes and I absolutely respected him,’ and you can tell by watching. But she knew that he wasn’t the real enemy. He may have been the mouthpiece for the misogynistic masses but he was more a showman who found his audience.
King knows that the Battle of the Sexes is more than just a show, as do we watching. She takes it seriously – both the circus, sparring with Rigg’s banter, and in her preparation, and this is well represented in the movie. As Peter Bradshaw wrote in his Guardian review, ‘the film crucially faces the same challenge as the participants from real life: the challenge of tone. How unseriously should this match be taken? How strenuously should the attitude of casual jokiness be maintained? No one involved in this encounter could be certain of its outcome; neither side could be sure of avoiding humiliation, and thus everyone had a vested interest in keeping it light. Up to a point. But only one side was facing jokiness as a weapon, the same weapon of boorish condescension and toxic bantz that they faced outside the sporting arena every day of their lives.’ And, for me, Battle of the Sexes did find the right balance. It was both hilariously funny at times and, through Stone’s impassioned performance as King, appropriately desperate and high-stakes.
King shows the audience that she is much more aware of the systemic nature of the oppression, personified in Battle of the Sexes by Bill Pullman’s fantastic role as Jack Kramer, the real villain of the movie. Kramer was another retired World No. 1 and was instrumental in the formation of the ATP, Association of Tennis Players, and the professionalisation of tennis. He wasn’t a stranger to conflict for the greater good, leading the Wimbledon boycott in the same year as the Battle of the Sexes. But, according to this movie, he didn’t respect women and simply didn’t want them to succeed, using his positions of power to undermine women’s tennis.
King: ‘I don’t think you respect women.’
Kramer: ‘I’ve been happily married for thirty-two years.’
King: ‘You like us in the kitchen and the bedroom.’
It was a very clever movie trick for King to have to face up against both of these men, Riggs and Kramer, representing both types of misogynists – the loud ones that tell you to your face that they are better than you, and the quiet ones that work within the system to prevent you from ever making progress. Pullman’s Kramer smiles and shrugs and says that he wishes it didn’t have to be this way but that’s just the way the world works and he has no intention of changing it.
This was one of so many little touches in Battle of the Sexes that showed that the filmmakers knew how insidious the oppression women faced could be, and how difficult it was respond. Riggs tries to sell the Battle of the Sexes as a ‘male chauvinist pig vs hairy-legged feminist,’ knowing that the label wouldn’t damage his reputation nearly as much as it could damage hers. As I wrote when talking about Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, even in 1990s, I was put off the idea of feminism because I didn’t want to fulfil the negative stereotype that Riggs was exploiting to gain power over King.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the tennis on screen because it was actually pretty good. It’s not an easy sport to show on screen – one day I will write about Wimbledon, my secret favourite movie that I love so much that it almost makes me forgive how awful the actual tennis scenes are – but the match play was enough to please a fan like me. The winning shots were obvious, sure, but they were still thrilling. And it sounded right. It sounded like those thwacks that I’d missed so much at Wimbledon.
And finally, I thought the sub-plot of King’s exploration of her queerness through her relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) was well handled too. IMBD claims that the scenes when Barnett was cutting King’s hair were deliberately designed to act as ASMR, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and I loved how it immersed the viewer in how a new crush can feel. I liked how the queerness of their love wasn’t really a scandal either, as it might have been in 1973, and instead it was King’s infidelity that was the focus of the tension in her relationship. It also really amused me that King’s family accepted that she would need a haircut before the match, rather than even considering that the person providing the cut might be the source of support! If it’s not a ridiculous oxymoron, it was almost a sweet misogynistic misunderstanding that King might be so concerned about her hair, rather than even needing her gal pal.
So I really enjoyed this film. I do acknowledge that this is mostly because I adore both Emma Stone and Billie Jean King, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent film!
As I become more aware of her and what she has done for tennis and women in general, the more I am inspired by King. She quite simply got stuff done! And she was right. This was an important win for women; in tennis, in sport, and in general.
And I loved that she understood that the patriarchy screws everyone. As the real King told Catherine Whitaker in another brilliant interview for the Tennis Podcast, ‘when a woman says something or does something they go “Thank you for what you did for women.” I didn’t just do it for women; I did it for everyone.’ Because we all benefit from equality. Sport is better when women are included – it doesn’t diminish the men’s game and it offers the spectators more. More role models, more beautiful matches, more of everything we love about sport. How could that ever be bad?!
So thank you. Thank you so much!
This was played before Saturday’s Wimbledon Ladies Final. I’m sharing it because it mirrors the sentiment of Battle of the Sexes and Billie Jean King’s fight perfectly, and is one of the most powerful pieces of film I have ever watched.
It’s not about playing for greatness; it’s about playing for legacy.
NEXT TIME…the promised but delayed Ralph Fienne’s movie star post on THE ENGLISH PATIENT!