Battle of the Sexes

A line in the sand between men and women

Battle of the Sexes is an island of fist-pumping inspiration in the usual seasonal deluge of October horror movies. The film tells the story of Billie Jean King, the push for equal pay in women’s tennis, and the cultural undercurrents surrounding the 1973 tennis match between King and Tennis Hall of Famer Bobby Riggs.

Billie Jean insists multiple times throughout the film that she’s not trying to say that women are better than men, just that women deserve the same respect as men.

It’s the early 1970s, and women’s tennis players are struggling for equal pay and respect. Tennis star Billie Jean King leads a group of women on their own tennis tour, earning ridicule from male establishment sports figures and drawing crowds of fans anyway. Meanwhile, veteran player, gambler, and inveterate showman Bobby Riggs sees a chance to make some money and reclaim some lost glory by challenging a top women’s player to an exhibition match. He claims that at 55, he’s still good enough to beat any woman, even the best in the world. It’s a show for him, but for the women involved, the match takes on a greater significance that reaches beyond sports.

Twenty-nine-year-old Billie Jean (Emma Stone) has a passion for tennis that eclipses everything else in her life. Tennis makes her an activist for women’s rights out of sheer necessity, and unlike most athletes, she has the burden of winning equal pay—not just her tennis record—coursing through each match. What’s worse, she struggles in her personal life between her love and loyalty to her supportive husband, Larry, and her deeply closeted lesbian feelings. For Billie Jean, acting on her true sexuality not only jeopardizes a relationship she values deeply, it threatens her career, the careers of the women who have followed her into the trenches, and at some level, the legitimacy of the women’s rights movement.

As for Bobby Riggs, the film does a wonderful job of not slotting him as a two-dimensional villain. Yes, he casts himself as a “male chauvinist pig” and does outrageous stunts for publicity, but he’s also a lost man, grappling with his failing marriage to the strong woman who has supported his gambling all these years (Elizabeth Shue is magnificent as his wife, Priscilla). A large part of Bobby’s charm comes from Steve Carrell, who can play a loveable, pathetic antagonist to perfection.

The match itself is a sporting event, a circus, a toe-to-toe line in the sand between men and women. And even though it is just a tennis match, the faces of the women in the crowd and the women waiting on the men watching on TV tell the depth of what is riding on Billie Jean’s driven shoulders. Amid all these “change the world” dynamics, the film never forgets that its star competitors are people too.

Ultimately, the Battle of the Sexes tennis match propped open a door that could have slammed shut for women, but it didn’t take down the wall. Change comes gradually.

I had the privilege to discuss this film with a dear aunt, Pert Shetler, who lived the history of so much of what happened in this movie. She was a standout athlete in school and college, and even toured internationally to promote women’s basketball. She also coached tennis. To hear her describe the effect the 1973 match had on her as a woman, an athlete, and a phys ed teacher as well as her determination the next year to have the same expectations for her girl students as her boys reminded me of my own flourishing under a wonderful fifth-grade teacher who expected the world of all his students, both in sports and in academics. In later years, this aunt also served as a college athletic director at a time when she was the only woman athletic director in her conference. She remembers making suggestions at conference meetings that were dismissed, and learning that if she got a male athletic director she trusted to propose her ideas for her, they were adopted. I’d like to think that this cultural tendency in boardrooms across North America has improved, but it certainly hasn’t gone away.

As Billie Jean insists multiple times throughout the film, she’s not trying to say that women are better than men, just that women deserve the same respect as men. This argument resonates today, and is a frustrating reminder that even though we’ve come a long way, baby (thank goodness), we still have a long way to go.

The Battle of the Sexes is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.