What happens when one justice isn’t enough?
Battle of the Sexes recounts the events that led up to the 1973 tennis match between retired all-star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and champ in her prime, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). However, this particular ‘sports film’ has very little to do with actual sports, choosing instead to focus itself on the story around the match rather than the match itself. Coming at a time when women were beginning to make strides in their right for equality, Riggs’ challenge to King for an exhibition tennis match quickly became a lightning rod for conversation around gender issues.
Still, the film is acutely self-aware and knows what it wants to accomplish. By de-emphasizing the sports aspect of the film, the film allows King’s backstory to take center-stage. In doing so, Dayton and Faris focus their lens on King’s journey as a feminist trailblazer and an oppressed homosexual, giving the film a much-needed dramatic tone. Because this particular tennis match had more to do with women’s struggle against injustice than it did world rankings, the decision to emphasize King’s journey allows the film to ask modern questions, despite its ’70s look. Given that the results of the famous tennis match aren’t nearly as compelling as the context itself, the film carries with it a sense of inevitability. (For example, when King storms off after hearing some of Riggs’ comments, Gladys claims that she is merely running towards her ‘fate’.)
Through King’s journey, the film determines that the true battle of the sexes was (is?) the fight for women to be considered equals on the pro tennis circuit. Seeking equal pay to the male stars, King and her followers are forced to fight male stereotypes at every opportunity. Interestingly, while Riggs provides the primary example of these ideals, King identifies former boss Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) as the true threat. In essence, King recognizes that, while Bobby preaches ‘male chauvinism,’ he also holds few genuine convictions in regards to the role of women. However, in Jack, she recognizes a deeply-embedded conviction regarding female inferiority. (“Bobby is a clown, but you, Jack, you actually believe this,” she protests.) By accepting Rigg’s challenge, it’s this heart of injustice that King believes she’s attacking on a cultural level (as represented by Jack). In moments such as these, the dialogue feels both past-tense and all too current as well. (After all, it was only recently that we have heard of the differences in pay scale within the film industry itself.)
Further, however, the film also serves as a double-edged sword in its war on injustice by juxtaposing King’s battle for women’s rights with the cultural obstacles that came with her sexuality. As further inroads are being made regarding respect for women’s freedom, King’s relationship with her ‘hairstylist’ feels like a prison, as she struggles to keep it from the public eye. In this manner, the film shows its hand of modern-day politics by establishing multiple support systems around King, ranging from team wardrobe consultant, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), to her [somewhat stunned] husband, Larry (Austin Stowell). (“Don’t worry. One day a time will come when you can love who you love,” Tinling pines.) Here, the film balances its victorious tone with a reminder that, with every battle won, there remains another on the horizon.
While the film doesn’t label the church directly, the film uses Margaret Court as a representative of more judgmental attitudes that have been presented by religious conservatives. (Now retired, the real Court is an outspoken pastor with conservative values.) Still, although Battle may use Court as an isolated ‘villain’, the divisiveness and oppressive views she represents are far broader on a cultural level. As a pastor, it pains me to see grace lost in conversations of differences in the name of self-righteousness. Even in moments where there is disagreement, the responsibility of the church is to love openly and freely in a manner that provides hope and restorative community. That is who Jesus is.