Courting women's and gay rights

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Battle of the Sexes (PG). Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Jessica McNamee, Austin Stowell. 121 minutes

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the SexesThe 1973 exhibition match between tennis champion Billie Jean King and former pro Bobby Riggs is a historical story for our times. The showdown between King and self-styled 'chauvinist pig' Riggs came at a time when King and other women from the pro circuit had broken off from the tennis establishment to hold their own tour, as a protest against unequal pay in existing tournaments. King, a later campaigner for LBTIQ rights, was also coming to terms with her identity as a gay woman, against the cultural expectations of her sport and broader society.

Fast forward to 2017, and there is still a significant gender pay gap in professional sports, including tennis. Gay rights have become an increasingly popular cause in western nations, but the conversation around marriage equality in Australia has aroused significant nastiness, especially in the context of the postal vote. Several of our sporting institutions and individuals have been highly visible in the fray. The notoriously macho AFL backed a 'yes' vote before softening its stance in the face of a public backlash. Tennis great and evangelical Christian Margaret Court has openly campaigned in favour of a 'no' vote. 

Given these ongoing issues and debates, a film about the King-Riggs match and its context should have plenty to say to the present day socio-politics of sexuality and gender. But Battle of the Sexes suffers from an identity crisis of its own. Is it a sardonic take on gender inequality? A gentle account of personal sexual awakening, in the context of forbidden romance? A drama about true selves and true loves withered under the gaze of a society that disapproves? A 'David and Goliath' story about victories, personal and professional, achieved against the odds? Well it's all of these, and ultimately none of them.

 

"The climactic match will have you barracking for the hero King against the villain Riggs and the patriarchy for which he stands, both in the sport and in society."

 

To her credit, Stone, in gawky wig and outsized glasses, disappears into the character of King. She brings a stoicism to her standoff with the tennis establishment — personified by former pro turned administrator and commentator Jack Kramer (a suitably smug Pullman) — and sweetness to her affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Riseborough). The latter blooms under the disapproving gaze of a coolly villainous Court (McNamee). Yet here already there are signs of disjointedness: while the film initially sets up Court and her conservatism as a prime antagonist, it all but sidelines her later in the film.

The treatment of Riggs is more jarring. True, Carell brings his considerable comedic strengths to bear, making of Riggs a buffoonish hustler with a penchant for publicity, mugging for the press while playing tennis in the rain wearing flippers, using a frypan as a racquet, or lobbing shots from amid a flock of sheep. The film arrays several characters around Riggs to shore up some sense of dramatic import for the character in his own right, including his wife (Shue) and adult son who have grown weary of his antics. But none is well enough conceived in the script, or executed on screen, to have the intended impact. 

As a sum of its parts the film is entertaining enough. Certainly the climactic match will no doubt have you barracking for the hero King against the villain Riggs and the patriarchy he stands for, both in the sport and in society. But given the material's obvious resonances with contemporary issues, the film's failure to unite its various strands either tonally or thematically amounts to a missed opportunity. Instead of a 'historical story for our times', both entertaining and significant, Battle of the Sexes is a lightweight crowdpleaser that ticks off its various issues without giving due weight to any of them. 

 


 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Bobby Riggs, Billie Jean King, feminism, LGBTIQ

 

 

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Existing comments

Thanks heaps, Tim; a 'must see' at this time, by all accounts.
Dr Michael Furtado | 28 September 2017


Dear Tim, I was 21 when the so called Battle of the Sexes took place. I think the film captures that era well, and although not perfect is thoroughly entertaining and reminds us of the progress made against misogyny since that time, thank goodness! However, there are still plenty of Jack Kramer's out there making plenty of sexist comments and downplaying women's achievements in sport.
Sandra H | 04 October 2017


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