Nominally, Battle of the Sexes is about the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, which grabbed the world’s attention and brought to mainstream public discussion tensions between men and women that had been bubbling beneath the surface since…forever.
But the story of what took place just before and during the famous tennis exhibition provides much of the entertainment in the well-paced film: TV coverage of women’s sports was marked by blatant sexism and none more than tennis, which treated women as second class citizens though they sold as many tournament tickets as the men.
As the film shows, discrimination (purses for men were eight times those for women) caused King to help launch a competing women’s tour, despite strong opposition by the men running pro tennis at the time.
While all that was playing out, King, tennis’ biggest female star, was experiencing a sexual awakening; the married 29-year old found herself falling in love with her female hairdresser.
That’s enough pressure for anyone. But then Riggs came forward with the “Battle of the Sexes” idea.
Emma Stone and Steve Carell, are well cast. Stone captures King, the tough as nails competitor in a man’s world, coming to grips with something the (until now) always-focused-on-tennis star discovers she cannot control.
Carell makes Riggs, whose public persona was that of a clownish misogynist, a somewhat likable figure. We see the one-time tennis prodigy (he was the 1939 Wimbledon champion) failing to adjust to life as a responsible adult. At age 55, that’s a problem. Riggs hatched the idea for a televised “Battle of the Sexes” as an answer to his mid-life crisis.
Riggs vs King helped grow interest in women’s tennis and, as a result, helped change the disparity between what men and woman pros were paid.
In 1973, the prize for Wimbledon’s men’s singles champion was £
5,000. The women’s champion received £
3,000. This year, men’s singles champion Roger Federer
2.2 million. So did women’s champion Garbiñe Muguruza
That’s progress in more ways than one.
King vs Riggs was also a part of the beginning of moving toward a world where women began to get some of the respect they deserve.
Full sexual equality remains America’s destination, but Battle of the Sexes spotlights a moment when more people than ever began questioning what they’d always been told about the roles, the intelligence and the toughness of women.