It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is a top-ranked tennis player and an outspoken proponent of women’s liberation. But as we said, it’s 1973, and female players are treated as a sideshow and paid considerably less than their male counterparts, an untenable situation that prompts King, along with entrepreneur and promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), to form a rebel Women’s Tour in protest. Meanwhile, 55 year old former champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a showman as much as a sportsman, sees an opportunity: stage a high profile exhibition match between himself and King – a “Battle of the Sexes”, if you will. For Riggs it’s a chance to rake in some cash and boost his profile, but for King it’s an opportunity to prove on the world stage that sportswomen deserve a place at the big table, hopefully once and for all.
Directors Jonathan Drayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) get a lot of mileage out of the more garish and kitsch details of the film’s period setting, both visual – the fashions, people! – and social, such as the irony of a tennis tour being sponsored by Virginia Slim cigarettes. Couple that with the often gobsmacking background radiation of misogyny that permeates Battle of the Sexes‘s setting, with its constant chorus of “little lady”‘s and patronising male authority figures, and you’ve got all the makings of a breezy look at the chauvinistic ’70s designed to make us all grateful things aren’t like that any more.
Battle of the Sexes is more complex than that, though. King was a closeted lesbian at the time, and that aspect of her life is explored through her on screen relationship with her hairdresser, Marilyn (Angela Riseborough), who accompanies her on tour while her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell) – who certainly is not blind to his wife’s preferences – mostly stays at home. The central irony of Battle of the Sexes is that, while distance means we can, to a degree, laugh at the open sexism of the ’70s it depicts, we as a culture are still negotiating LGBTQI+ rights, and quite heatedly; indeed, it’s unarguable that this theme will land harder for Australian audiences than American ones at this time, given current events surrounding the marriage quality plebiscite.
Stone gives a career-best performance as King: determined, conflicted, strong and vulnerable, unapologetic about her feminism but wrestling with the knowledge that the truth about her sexuality could ruin her. Carell provides a fascinating foil in Riggs, who is depicted not as a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist, for all that he promises “to put the show back into chauvinism”, but as an inveterate gambler and self-promoter whose principal crime is being blind to the wider implications of his showboating. The real villain of the piece is Bill Pullman’s Lawn Tennis Association honcho, Jack Kramer, the embodiment of unthinking, patronising sexism in the film’s narrative – it’s not that he doesn’t like King, he just cannot imagine a world where she – or any women – can move outside of the parameters society has set for them.
Battle of the Sexes likes to play broad, resorting to archetypes and obvious signifiers – the cigar-and-whiskey patriarchs in their smoky men’s clubs, Alan Cumming’s camp fashion designer/Greek Chorus leader – but it works much better when it irises in on moments of vulnerability and truth, such as the initial intimacy between King and Marilyn, and the scenes between Riggs and his long-suffering wife (Elisabeth Shue), who is immune, more or less, to his patter. These sequences give the proceedings heart and depth, connecting us to the wider issues in a personal and empathetic way.
Virginia Slims were marketed to women with the catchphrase “You’ve come a long way, baby.” By drawing parallels between the women’s rights movement of the ’70s and the gay rights struggles of today, Battle of the Sexes argues that perhaps we haven’t. For all that it comes across as a brisk, feel good crowdpleaser, it’s provocative and serious at its core, framing issues we are still dealing with in a bright, entertaining package.