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Battle of The Sexes **** – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris


Battle of The Sexes **** – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

In my lifetime the presumed sexual hegemony of heterosexual relationships has first been questioned, then doubted, undermined and finally fragmented to the point where gradually we are beginning to embrace the idea that individual, personal human relationships should be valued by the honesty, sincerity and commitment of the emotions and feelings manifested within them; not by the sexual orientation or preferences of the individual partners. This is a social journey; a growth of humanity and tolerance still under way and by no means complete. Little by little we may be finally learning to countenance the once anathema idea; the wisdom and insight; that sexuality in all its infinite variety of forms, is in itself morally neutral. Physical intimacy is perhaps the most deeply rooted instinct between human beings and the sexual expression of that intimacy perhaps the most precious. For these reasons we can never say sex is irrelevant to the goodness, the rightness, the wrongness of the way we treat each other in our deepest relationships; but our best qualities of humanity now refuse to define morality in terms of sex and sexuality; but rather the other way round: to value sex more highly precisely to the extent that it manifests the best of our moral human qualities including respect, love, tenderness, kindness, generosity, selflessness etc etc.

Only organised religions deny these truths and systematically, with varying degrees of hostility, prejudice, intolerance and imposed behavioural norms; fight against the civilising effects of the move from total illegality in my youth to an increasing secular social tolerance and acceptance of diversity today.

When the challenge tennis match between ex-tennis champion Bobby Riggs and then world number 1 women’s champion Billie Jean King took place in 1973 only 4 US States had decriminalised same sex relationships and this legal change in the UK was only about 5 years old and still highly controversial.

The most impressive quality of this excellent film is that while sexuality and especially lesbian relationships undeniably provide a subtext and context for it; it is more about the equality of respect and fair treatment of supreme athletes and entertainers who happen to be women; rather than a post hoc exercise in socio-political proselytizing on behalf of the broad non-heterosexual community. That Billie Jean-King was gay and perhaps bi-sexual by definition through her marriage to attorney Larry King, are the least important facts about her. Of far more significance; she was a supremely successful and competitive tennis player winning 39 Grand Slam titles including 20 at Wimbledon. In her successful leadership of the demand for equal respect and prize money for women tennis players she struck a major blow for the equal treatment of women both in sport and more widely. She remains an indomitable champion of women’s rights and other social issues.

This quite extraordinary woman is well served by Dayton and Faris’ film. It is well written and with a superlative central performance as King by Emma Stone ably backed up by Steve Carell as the flamboyant self-publicising Bobby Riggs and a strong supporting cast. BOTS is set at a critical point in King’s life: she was world number one women’s tennis player and heavily involved in the protest movement within the women’s game for equality of treatment and reward for women players against a male-dominated structure at the head of the game both at official and commercial levels in the early 70’s. At the same time despite her successful marriage to Larry King, her latent lesbian sexuality was emerging and creating a major conflict for her as lucrative sponsorship deals both for her and the game in general would not under the prevailing climate of public opinion, survive the open acknowledgement of lesbian relationships involving major sports stars. At this time inveterate gambler and former world number 1 tennis champion Bobby Riggs then in his early 50’s, challenged the claim to equality for women players on the grounds that they were neither as good nor commercially valuable as men players and to prove it said he could beat the best of them. King refused his challenge for a winner-take-all match but he eventually managed to persuade Margaret Court, vying with King as world number 1, to accept the challenge. Riggs beat a seriously under-performing Court 6-2, 6-1 in 1973. When he repeated his challenge to King in the same year she felt obliged to accept to resist the conclusion from Court’s capitulation that all the male sexist stereotypical assumptions about women were validated; including crucially the claim for equal prize money.

In the film King meets and becomes overwhelmed by a passionate relationship with Marilyn, here a hairdresser, in real life her secretary. The film explores most effectively, the complex conflicts of personal relationships and public pressure sporting and commercial. She took on the then commercial supremo of world professional tennis Jack Kramer, head of American Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) who had himself fought long and hard to admit professional players to the largely amateur game and the major Grand Slam tournaments: a battle won when Wimbledon finally admitted pros in 1967. This made the financial stakes of the confrontation with King and the women professionals extremely high. King’s easy victory in three straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 was watched by the largest ever audience for a tennis match in the US of 50 million (90 million worldwide).

The Billie Jean King that emerges in BOTS is of a fiercely competitive athlete with a dedication to social issues, especially concerning women’s rights as represented by the symbolic disparity in men’s and women’s prize money. However self-interested this issue was for King herself, both the dignity and articulacy of her position one remembers in real life are faithfully captured here not least in Stone’s portrayal which accomplishes the difficult feat of showing King as strong yet vulnerable: a consummate professional both on and off the court, and one of the most popular of Wimbledon champions; still respected and affectionately remembered today. King dealt with a great deal of vindictive and vile abuse with a certain grace, refusing to respond in kind, preferring to remain totally focussed on her prime objectives in furthering women’s rights.

This is an engaging and absorbing film, with very strong performances, that touches on important issues of social and personal morality without, of necessity perhaps going too deeply into them. But for my money, it is all the more persuasive in presenting arguments for more tolerance and liberal attitudes to sexual diversity and equal respect for women, than a more didactic, proselytizing treatment would have achieved. The film has a certain quiet, steely integrity that seems entirely in keeping with the real life demeanour of its chief protagonist.


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