Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"Battle of the Sexes"

Battle of the Sexes” is a sports movie that is about much more than sports.

Based on true events, the biopic is set in the America of 1973, just months after the passage of Roe v. Wade, while second-wave feminism is in high gear. The rigid gender roles of the greatest generation are falling away as many women seek to escape the home and climb professional ladders, in search of personal opportunity and institutional equality.

Tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) has become the first woman to win $100,000 in a single year. Though this is a financial high-water mark, it’s a fraction of what men are earning on the pro tour. When pressed by King, U.S. Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer, the film’s bĂȘte noire, defends this gap by saying that women lack the stamina and drawing power of men. With King and other top female players on board, World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) bucks Kramer and forms a separate women’s circuit to help shrink the pay differential; the tour is sponsored by Virginia Slims, the cigarette manufacturer known for selling cancer sticks to women with the slogan “you’ve come a long way baby.”

Stepping in to capitalize on the gender rift is Bobby Riggs, masterfully played by Steve Carell. Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion, is a gambler and a natural showboat. We see him playing blackjack with his shrink and facing off against an octogenarian on a rooftop tennis court while holding a dog on a leash, as other bettors watch. He wears a Little Red
Bobbi Riggs (Steve Carell) does
pre-match promotion
Riding Hood outfit on-court in one scene, uses a frying pan to swat tennis balls in another. His life force lights up the screen and lifts the viewer out of the social themes of the film into comic relief.

At 55, Riggs is drifting, having been abandoned by his wife for his impulsive nature, looking for something to engage his attention and line his pockets. He tries to set up a highly-publicized match with Billie Jean King, but she declines. As a fallback, Riggs challenges Margaret Court, who is on the verge of supplanting King as the #1 woman’s tennis player in the world.

While King embraces women’s rights, Court is conservative and traditional, and has little problem with patriarchy. King and Court differ in one other fundamental way:  both are married, but King befriends, and falls for, her hairdresser Marilyn. This liaison shakes up her heterosexual identity, threatens her sponsorships, her career, and her relationship with her parents, and stirs derision from the religious and homophobic Court. “Whatever I may feel, I can’t act on it,” King tells Marilyn, leaving her passion in the shadows.

As this subplot grows, Riggs easily beats Court in what comes to be known as The Mother’s Day Massacre, and turns his attention back to King, proposing a purse of $100,000 for the winner. Feeling that Riggs’ humiliation of Court was a disservice to the women’s movement, King accepts the offer.

To gin up attention for the match, Riggs and King hold a press conference in which Riggs trash talks King, and female tennis players in general, and promises to “put the show back in
chauvinism.” Reinforcing Riggs’ misogynistic narrative is Jack Kramer, who claims that women can’t handle pressure after King drops out of the U.S. Open one month before her contest with Riggs.

The spectacle draws over 30,000 to the Houston Astrodome and 50,000,000 viewers nationwide. After the match is over, King’s fashion designer Teddy Tinling, a gay man aware of her relationship with Marilyn, says, “Someday we will be free to be who we are and love who we love.”

In addition to being an absorbing character study, “Battle of the Sexes” is uncannily relevant to the present. Looking back on 1973 from the vantage point of 2017 reminds us that human progress comes in fits and starts. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed citizens to love
who they love in the 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, but as the 2016 presidential election showed, women (even very powerful women) still face widespread discrimination in the United States.

Parallels between Riggs-King and Trump-Clinton are inescapable. Both incidences included
a loudmouth clown of a man talking down to a dignified, introverted woman with more discipline, character, and credentials. In both incidences, the empty bluster of the male, opposite the quiet composure of the female, somehow indicated the strength of the former and the weakness of the latter to many Americans. Both incidences showed the way the major media ignore important issues such as gender inequality while pimping cheap sensationalism (E-mails! Benghazi!) that the American public swarms to like flies on shit.

The differences between Riggs-King and Trump-Clinton are instructive. In contrast to Donald Trump, Bobby Riggs had a sense of humor and didn’t seem to believe his hyperbolic lies and distortions. And unlike politics, in sports—where prejudice is no match for (athletic) merit—the best person wins.

Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")


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