BATTLE OF THE SEXES (Dir. by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 121 min., 2017, USA)
BY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC We have a tendency as humans to build up people and events with layers of symbolic meaning until they come to stand for something far greater than perhaps originally intended. Barack Obama seemed for a while like not another president, but the indicator of a post-racial age. Moonlight’s win over La La Land was touted by some as the redemption of the movie academy’s general bigotry. While these narratives are often fabricated to make money or shift public opinion, they are still cultural signifiers that represent discussions in society.
Battle of the Sexes depicts a famous 1973 match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). As the outcome is quite well known — the match was watched by about fifty million people at the time — most of the film is a prelude to the match, as the lives of the two competitors slowly collide. King is the number-one seeded Women’s Tennis player who, infuriated by the low prize money offered for an upcoming tournament, decides to form a women’s league with the top-rated female players of the day, one where they can set their own terms. On the tournament circuit she falls in love with a hairdresser, Marilyn Bennett (Andrea Riseborough), a relationship that creates the central drama of King’s story.
Riggs is an all-but washed up tennis pro, living on his wife’s dime to cover his gambling addiction. In order to turn around his career, Riggs hits on a surefire marketing scheme of ‘male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist.’ He will play on gender tensions — women’s liberation versus patriarchal reactionism — to reignite his career. Thought Riggs demonstrates ingrained misogynistic tendencies, at no point does he seem to care about the significance of his actions besides how much the public cares. He is a hustler, a con-man, and his goal is first and foremost self-interest. All he needs is an opponent.
The buildup to the match transcends either a comedic or dramatic genre, as moments of levity counterpoint melodrama, allowing both stars a chance to shine. Riggs’ antics — based on real life photo ops — allow Steve Carell to play Riggs’ comedy to the hilt. Riggs gives exhibition games for the press in swimmer’s gear and in the outfit of Little Bo Peep instead of properly training. In King’s narrative, Emma Stone demonstrate her acting chops, as King vacillates between love interests and overcomes sickness, exhaustion, and doubt to prove why this match is so important, not only to her, but to her fans.
For just what is the symbolic importance of the match? Not in the terms of 1973, but in 2017; why is this match still so important that it deserves a feature length movie? Well, many of the same issues that plagued King and her fellow athletes are still present today. While advances in gay rights and women’s independence have been made, society has in no way reached equilibrium. Women are paid less on average, with the same tired excuses brought out to cover what is often plain misogyny. Their struggle to achieve often basic dignity is met with scorn by reactionary elements in society. And yet, I don’t honestly know how much producers and studios care.
It may be cynicism on my part, but I can’t help but wonder how many executives are like Bobby Riggs — they pretend to care deeply about an issue, but the bottom line is only ever to turn a profit. When female stars consistently have their labor exploited; when women receive fewer roles with fewer strong characters than their male counterparts; can the executives be said to care? Is this anything more than lip service to history? A movie can be well-shot, well-acted, and well-written, but without a follow-through on the intention, the message feels — to me, at least — somewhat hollow.