Today, female professional tennis players receive equal prize money to men at all four majors, the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open., making tennis one of few sports today that offers equal prize money (at most tournaments) to both male and female players. But the world of tennis wasn’t always this way and the movie “Battle of the Sexes” highlights a time when women’s tennis was valued much less than men’s.
“Battle of the Sexes” tells the story behind the legendary 1973 match between one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), and the 55-year-old retired tennis professional and grand slam champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). King’s victory over Riggs in three-straight sets was one of the most significant statements a female athlete has ever successfully made for equal rights in the sports arena.
In an age where female tennis players were earning roughly an eighth of what their male counterparts were earning, simply because spectators were supposedly more interested in men’s than women’s tennis, the feminist leader King in fact didn’t challenge Riggs to the highly televised “Battle of Sexes,” but rather the other way around. In the midst of enduring a bitter divorce and grappling with a gambling problem, Riggs, a cocky and misogynistic believer in the age old stereotype of women’s place being in the kitchen, decided challenging the best female player in the world would make a statement that women shouldn’t be demanding equal prize money, as King was, because their level of play simply isn’t equal to that of men. King’s argument? That the myth that tennis fans are more interested in men’s game is false, as recent attendance figures signify an equivalent interest in women’s tennis.
After Riggs’ proposition, the movie goes on to highlight the little known fact that King actually rejected Riggs initially, citing that an exhibition match like this would inhibit her regular tournament play. Riggs then turned to Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King’s bitter rival, an offer which Court accepted. With Court’s match against Riggs, the Battle of the Sexes movement got off to a rough start for the women, as Court lost in straight sets to Riggs. After this disappointing result, King finally accepted Riggs’ challenge, deciding that a female victory over Riggs was necessary to prove the strength of female tennis players.
Aside from King’s struggles to establish equality for women in tennis, the film went to great strides to show the trials King endured throughout her career in battling with her own sexuality, as despite her marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell), Billie Jean King also entertained an affair with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Her affair with Barnett proved to be a major obstacle for King throughout the movie, as she struggled with how far she would let herself explore this part of her sexuality without it becoming a distraction to her tennis career and her marriage.
The casting of “Battle of the Sexes” was impeccable — Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs were perfect fits given the personalities of their respective characters. Stone has starred in numerous films as a courageous, headstrong female figure, such as Skeeter Phelan in “The Help,” and if anyone’s seen Carell as Michael Scott on “The Office,” they know that he plays the role of the goofy and slightly sexist male figure perfectly.
In addition to the movie’s casting, the producers of “Battle of the Sexes” clearly did a thorough job researching the lives of King, Riggs and the other characters of the movie, as Billie Jean King herself reported that “I’d say 99% of it they got right. They certainly captured the essence.” King noted that while the film’s depiction of King and Riggs’ entrance to the court during the Battle of the Sexes may have seemed like a dramatic scene in the movie, the real event was that extravagant, as she said, “We really brought the entertainment factor to the match and made it exciting to people.”
Further, the film highlighted several elements of the tennis world King herself implemented during her time as a professional player. For example, at the beginning of the movie, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a former professional himself who pushed for lower pay for female players, announced that female players could no longer be part of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which he helped found, after King announced she would be starting a tournament of her own where women would receive equal pay to men. King accepted this rejection and from this, started the Women’s Tennis Association, a separate tour for women players that still exists today.
In today’s political climate, a movie like “Battle of the Sexes” is so important because it reminds women of the struggles females before us have endured to establish equal rights among all genders and the fact that this fight still isn’t over. Even in the tennis world this year, John McEnroe, former tennis professional, made a remark that any male player on tour could beat Serena Williams, who many regard as the greatest female player ever. Despite all that the Battle of the Sexes accomplished for women’s rights, McEnroe’s comments draw a close parallel with the remarks of Bobby Riggs over 40 years ago. The reality is that in tennis and all professional sports, female players are still struggling to overcome the stereotypes that have been held against them for decades, showing that the statement made from the Battle of the Sexes is still relevant today.
If you’re looking for a motivational and inspirational film that will also have you laughing at the nonsensical quotes from Bobby Riggs, you’ll want to catch “Battle of the Sexes” before it leaves theaters. I give it 4.5 stars.