Tennis Film Highlights Persistent Sexism

Annette Ungermann, Opinion Editor

At the forefront of the new film, Battle of the Sexes, is sexism in professional sports, with tennis legend Billie Jean King, portrayed by Emma Stone, providing a real-life story of one athlete’s fight for equality.

The film juxtaposes the revolutionaries  of the 1970’s feminist movement against the old boy’s club that maintained a strong hold on the sport and public opinion at the time.

Championing the cause of the self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pigs,” aging tennis star Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell, challenges King to a now infamous tennis match with the intention of proving male superiority in the sport.

The game’s reality –a battle for feminist legitimacy and women’s rights–was a PR spectacle. While Riggs’s motivation was to maintain his own relevance in the sport, King’s was personal and political –revealing how women had to go to extraordinary lengths to be taken seriously.

For King, the stakes were especially high.

Prevalent throughout the film is the gender divide in life and sports that resonants to this day.

The narrative moves back and forth between the personal lives of both King and Riggs, revealing the fallout of both of the players’ marriages, King’s secret affair with another woman, and Riggs’s gambling addiction. These subplots give the film a more intimate picture of the players’ motivations and personal struggles in contrast to the public debate. The off-court drama carries the film, making it less about the game and more about the individuals.

King’s battle to accept her own sexuality is too commanding to be simply a subplot, providing much of the films true substance. However, it doesn’t quite get the in-depth treatment it deserves. Still, the film is unflinchingly real in portraying the beginning of the quiet dissolution of King’s marriage, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, as she is not yet free to embrace her true sexuality without even more public outcry.

The movie is far from a mindless sports flick. It spends precious little time showing Riggs and King fighting it out on the court. An audience member less interested in the game and more dedicated to the underlying sociopolitical and personal conflicts will find the film fulfilling.

The film tackles heavy issues with skill and provides a thoughtful perspective to a legendary tennis match.While King was, and continues to be, a champion for women’s rights, the film underscores the reality that much of what the 1970’s feminist movement worked to overcome remains a problem.

The Battle of the Sexes rages on.