The year is 1973. Flare sleeves and bell bottoms are in. Nixon is president. And Billie Jean King has just defeated self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, an exhibition tennis match that represents a monumental triumph for women in the world of sports, and will, in 44 years, get a film adaptation in a world both very different and very similar.
It’s no small feat to turn a match with such a well-known outcome into fodder for a suspenseful, compelling movie, but Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the directorial team behind “Little Miss Sunshine”) successfully flesh out the famous match’s complex backstory. Faced with staunch misogyny from high-ranking tennis executives, King (a broad-shouldered, hunched Emma Stone) founds the Virginia Slims Circuit with a troupe of fellow female tennis players helmed by Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Glaring at her news coverage, Riggs (a clownish Steve Carell with fake crooked teeth) is a retired Wimbledon champion with a gambling addiction that causes tension in his marriage with his exasperated wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). As women’s tennis gains traction, Riggs decides to challenge the best female player in the world. Things get more complicated when King, while preparing for the match, begins a love affair with her hairstylist, Marilyn Barnett (a captivating Andrea Riseborough, with blonde, Farrah Fawcett waves), neglecting her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), who is distant but affectionate. But one gets the sense that for King, love is just a distraction; as Larry explains to Marilyn, “We’re just the sideshow. Tennis is her real love.” When King makes her entrance into the Houston Astrodome, it is clear just how much is at stake. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch her train rigorously while Riggs hams for the camera, to see that so much rides on this match for her, and so little for him. The audiences could feel it in every breath, every volley of the ball over the net: her fight is theirs, too.
It’s a heady time to make a movie in which an ambitious, hardworking, qualified woman beats an incompetent, publicity-grubbing man in the game she knows best. Each misogynist epithet lobbed at King and her teammates smacks viscerally of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric—each time King is criticized for cracking under the pressure or derided for taking time off under the flu, every patronizing sportscaster, the leering exhortations to “stay in the kitchen.” King’s ultimate victory, her final volley, is symbolic of so much more, a kind of catharsis that spans the decades.
For all its road-paving, however, “Battle of the Sexes” tends to market feminism, rather than explore its complexities: It strives to be palatable, and in doing so, becomes reluctant to challenge some of the insidious, systemic factors at work. When Riggs asks, “You’re still a feminist, right?” King answers, “No, I’m a woman who happens to play tennis.” That brand of women’s rights feels remarkably tepid. Why, one might wonder, are they mutually exclusive?
The question of King’s feminism, though, rests on the unreasonable expectation for successful women to speak for their entire gender. Amelia Earhart was just a woman who happened to be a pilot. Marie Curie was just a woman who happened to be a scientist. Sally Ride was just a woman who happened to be an astronaut. Billie Jean King was “just” a female tennis player—but of course, her legacy and her place in cultural consciousness represent so much more.
For King, the “Battle of the Sexes” was a rigged game—one that is still being played today. It would take a cold heart not to feel the slightest bit empowered when King hoists her trophy into the air. It is a distant cultural memory, but a joyous one, a victory that feels like it belongs, in part, to all of us. After all, it’s a trying time to fight for women’s rights in 2017. Perhaps we’d like to return, at least for a moment, to 1973.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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