A lot has changed since Billie Jean King hoisted a trophy in victory over her head on September 20, 1973 after a historic “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome. In a movie sharing a namesake with the game—in which King claimed victory not just for herself, but for women in a tennis match framed as a showdown between feminism and male chauvinism—we get a sobering glimpse at just how much that moment mattered.
The historical context of the event is so bizarre, so absurd and heavy-handed, that only actual footage of what transpired to create a media-saturated showdown between a “male chauvinist” and a “hairy feminist” would suffice—so that’s what Battle of the Sexes gives us. Smack-dab in the middle of the film, there it is: in the midst of a montage of scripted re-enactments of press conferences and sponsorship shoots come actual clips of King and Riggs from forty years ago. Viewers are haunted by that, caught between laughter at the outlandish high-jinks of the media and Riggs himself that perpetuate a form of sexism we’re less accustomed to in contemporary times.
Emma Stone brings a younger King back to life, so well-costumed you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Steve Carrell uses his masterful melancholy to remind us through his own interpretation of Riggs that the men who so often capitalize on bigotry for shock value do so because their privilege and entitlement have failed to deliver them the greatness they sought. Battle also provides us with context that was invisible when the actual match was televised to millions of viewers: Riggs is struggling with a gambling addiction and the effects of a fading sports fame; King is having trouble holding it together as her queerness begins to come publicly to the surface, threatening her career. With that backdrop, it becomes even more clear how the personal and the political intertwine. Each has something to prove to themselves—and the world—on the court.
Viewers walk alongside King as she embarks on a groundbreaking women’s tennis tournament, traversing the country in pursuit of defiant proof that women were worthy opponents and worthy investments. As part of King’s ongoing fight for fair pay for women in tennis, she organized the tour—sponsored, in a delicious twist of irony, by Virginia Slims—in an effort to give her female colleagues an opportunity to play and win for a pot comparable to those of the men who often shared their courts. At a time when women were just beginning to see burgeoning opportunities to participate and compete, King wouldn’t settle for playing by men’s rules—especially if they offended the dignity of female players like herself.
King refuses to become exhausted by the notion of being “first.” In this portrayal of her, we are reminded how much weight we put on our “firsts,” and how unfair it is that we ask them to shoulder it. “I’m gonna be the best,” King remembers thinking as a child, “so I can really change things.” It is this same sense of duty and obligation that drives her to ultimately face off against Riggs—knowing that her failure would extend to become a failure for all women—and it is the same sense of purpose that drives her to fight even when the male-dominated sports establishment attempts to force her out.
Viewers watch as King discovers that a tournament allowing women and men to compete won’t be offering them the same rewards, and walks out on her acceptance of their invitation to compete; we overhear men very seriously trying to explain that viewers simply aren’t interested in watching women play, and watch as brazenly misogynst men are given microphones to narrate women’s games over and over and over again; we find ourselves cheering for King not because we’re feminists or because we’re women, but because the callous and overt sexism of a time not so long ago comes across in Battle like nails on a chalkboard. There is nothing to do but laugh as we watch the men who we know will ultimately fade in their fame by the end scene do all they can to hold accomplished and worthy women back. There is nothing to do but gasp, sigh and scream as they do so without even a hint of self-awareness.
The emotional roller-coaster in Battle isn’t the outcome of the game itself. That we all know—it’s a matter of historical record. We know that King will win and that Riggs will fail at his attempt to prove that no woman is his worthy opponent. Instead, the tension comes from counting down to that moment, to the triumph and the vindication. After wallowing in seventies-era sexism for over an hour, viewers find themselves short of breath in pursuit of King’s last word to the sexist men who attempted to control her career. We want the tortured spectacle of “men versus women” to come to its climax, to become history again and release us back to the present, where the same fight continues but somehow feels less suffocating. We are exhausted by the kitschy trappings of sexism, of Riggs’ pathetic attempt to find relevance through a caricature of masculine dominance, of King smiling sweetly as the men around her encourage her to return to the kitchen and to the bedroom.
We find ourselves desperately scratching at the walls for relief. By the end, it comes. It begins to feel almost alien then, to return to our bodies in a world where men don’t stake their existences on the subordination and humiliation of women.
Of course, the relief is imaginary. Much of what King is yearning for in the film she is still fighting today. Much of what we yearn for alongside her we cannot and will not find when we leave the theater.
King’s suffocating fear of coming out may feel alien to those of us who live proud lives within the queer community today, but King’s work to this day with LPAC—the only political action committee for lesbians—is a stark reminder that there are still too few out women who hold power and influence. As we look back at the seemingly vintage sexism of open and brazen pay discrimination, it seems downright dismal to recognize that the national gender wage gap has yet to close. Even with all the gains being made by women in sports today, disparities remain.
Juxtaposed against the recent heartbreak of a presidential election that led to the rise of a chauvinist demagogue and alleged rapist; situated among ongoing battles for equality, freedom from abuse and harassment and a rise in racist and sexist extremism, Battle is both a victory parade and a rallying cry. In paying due homage to King, we are reminded that there is more work to do in winning the larger battles for women’s rights, some of which King herself has been fighting for since her historic win in Houston. But as we watch her triumph, we also regain our urgency—more convinced than ever that victory is imminent.
The game has long since been set, and the match goes on. Now we just have to hold our breaths, trusting that the final triumphant swing is coming up in the next scene.