When Sloane Stephens won the women’s singles title at the U.S. Open this year, she took home a check for $3.7 million, the same as the men’s winner, Rafael Nadal. That’s the way it should be, but not the way it always has been. In 1968, the first year the U.S. Open offered prize money, the prize money for the men’s champion was $14,000, versus $6,000 for the woman’s champion. In many tournaments, the discrepancy between the prize money for men and women was even greater—for instance, the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles paid men eight times what it payed women.
Some women players simply accepted this as the way things are, but not Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). In an early scene in Battle of the Sexes, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, King and World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confront Pacific Southwest Championships tournament chairman Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) with the glaring discrepancy in the prize money offered to men and women. Kramer offers the usual litany of excuses, including the still-popular “men have families to support” (a surprisingly socialist concept still heard among diehard capitalists, who are not really interested in paying people according to their needs so much as they wish to keep male privilege intact). Rather than accept his reply, King and Heldman found a rival women’s tennis tour, called the Virginia Slims circuit (after their sponsor, a cigarette whose advertising slogan was “You’ve come a long way, baby”). From these modest beginnings grew the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour, which in 2017 offered 55 tournaments in 31 countries and $139 million in prize money.
Founding the WTA may be King’s greatest accomplishment, but Battle of the Sexes concentrates more on a single event, her 1973 exhibition match with Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes,” it was played in the Houston Astrodome in front of over 30,000 spectators, the most ever to watch a tennis match in the United States. Add in an estimated 50 million television viewers in the U.S. alone and an additional 40 million worldwide, and you can see that this was no ordinary tennis match. Preposterous as it seems in retrospect, the match between King and Riggs was taken by many as a referendum on the right or lack thereof of women to be taken seriously in anything they did. A common ploy of the day was to ask women if they were feminists, with the intention to make them feel uncomfortable by being forced to apply a label to themselves. To quote the author Rebecca West, “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
Riggs, a 55-year-old former men’s champion turned tennis hustler and all-around opportunist, saw the match as an opportunity to exploit societal fears of the growing women’s liberation movement, and to make a nice paycheck for himself in the process. How much of the misogyny he expressed leading up to the match was based on personal belief, and how much was simply a means of generating publicity, is not entirely clear. It doesn’t really matter anyway: as far as I’m concerned Riggs no more deserves a free pass than does George Wallace, of whom the argument has been made that he was not personally a racist, but espoused racism as a strategy to further his political career. You said it, you own it.
The stakes for the King-Riggs match were heightened by the fact that Riggs had easily beaten the top-ranked woman tennis player in the world, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), a few months before. Court is by far the least sympathetic character in Battle of the Sexes, which presents here as snobbish, homophobic, and strictly out for herself. As Court is still a homophobe and opponent of marriage equality who has declared that tennis is “full of lesbians” and that transgender children are under the influence of the devil, I can’t feel too sorry for her if she doesn’t like the way she is portrayed in this film.
Battle of the Sexes is an engaging film that takes a light approach to its subject. While this may disappoint some viewers (and believe me, as one who lived through this period, the reality of sexism and homophobia at the time was far worse than anything shown in this film), it’s useful as a means to carry the film’s message to people who may not remember the event and haven’t a clue how hard-won are many of the freedoms and privileges women enjoy today. It’s not just about tennis—it’s also about giving respect to women as human beings and recognizing their aspirations and achievements, not reductively focusing on how they look or automatically downplaying whatever they accomplish simply because they’re women. | Sarah Boslaugh