Battle of the Sexes

“I started thinking about society and women and what this might mean…I knew I had to win.” – Billie Jean King

In an era of Angelique Kerber and Serena Williams, it is hard to imagine a time when leadership within the tennis community trivialised women’s tennis. Many would say that there is still work to be done to show respect to these incredible athletes within the sporting world, but the progress since the 70s has been significant. Battle of the Sexes depicts a key turning point in women’s tennis and male/female relations in western culture.

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was a force of unrivalled stature in the world of women’s tennis from the 60s through until the 80s. Her racket allowed her to become a trailblazer in the world of sport and to see equal pay for female players. She came into sporting history during a significant time of social shifts and sometimes the opportunities for change came in strange packages.

Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a former tennis champion from a previous era and now is left to hustling people out of their money on the courts. After some poor life choices, he came up with the idea to challenge the #1 women’s player to play against him in The Battle of the Sexes. His first target was reigning female leader, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), but then the door of opportunity finally opened for the real prize of playing against Billie. This history-making event became a media dream and drew an audience of over 90 million viewers. Throughout the ensuing media circus surrounding the event, this tennis match became a turning point in sport.

What better choice for directing a film named Battle of the Sexes, than the married couple of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The creative minds behind the film Little Miss Sunshine provide a balanced view of the fight for women’s equality in sport and for the social changes that continue to impact our culture. Not shying away from some of the key issues of chauvinism and homosexuality that were interwoven within this story, this directorial couple delivers a soft lob to these confronting issues.

One aspect that Dayton and Faris benefit from in this time on the courts is the quality cast. From the lead actors to the supporting cast of Andrea Riseborough, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell and Sarah Silverman, this film oozes with strong performances from the baseline to the net. From the personal situations to the infighting within the tennis community to the active display on the court, there was an attention to detail that deserves admiration and recognition. Even though it does move toward the calculable sporting film conclusion, it is the acting that serves up the necessary action to keep this from a mere exhibition match.

It is the emphasis on the realities of Billie Jean and Bobby’s personal lives that prove to be the undoing of the film. From King’s struggle with her sexuality to Riggs’ addiction to gambling, the film only manages to show the actual effect it had on the two central characters. The failure to show the ripple effect it had on their spouses and families seems to minimise the difficulties of those who were impacted most by their decisions. This exclusion was understandable but did cause the whole film to centre on these two large personalities, which left them more egotistical than sympathetic. Especially with the heavy-handed and forced statement by Alan Cummings at the end, this came off as cringe-worthy and unlikely to be an accurate depiction of the history.

Battle of the Sexes provides a glimpse into a part of sporting history that many are unaware occurred or may minimise the significance of the spectacle. The movie had the potential to be engaging and entertaining but with the egocentric depiction of their personal life, this went from being the battle of the century to a non-event.

REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? 

What does the Bible really say about marriage?  It is hard to avoid the topic since the spouses of King and Riggs are the ones who seem to be trivialised in this film. Both lead characters had a mistress, one was a woman and the other was gambling.

Some may think that the Bible does not have the answers to this question of marriage or adultery. Thankfully God does not leave this question unanswered on both subjects. The Bible gives us direct answers to the question on protecting marriage. It is not hard to find the answers, even Jesus shares specific answers to people when asked.

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”Matthew 14:4-6

Marriage was God’s idea and is a blessing to mankind. There is freedom within his paradigm, but God does have a paradigm. Anyone’s opinion that differs from the Bible and/or Jesus’ statement on marriage is merely their opinion and puts them at odds with God’s view of the matter. The Bible’s answers are accessible to all for consideration, but the reader must choose what to believe.

Passages on marriage: 

Genesis 2:20-24, Proverbs 19:14, Matthew 14:4-6, 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5

Trailer of the film

Due to the mature content in this film, Battle of the Sexes is for adult audiences only.

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Russell Matthews

Russell loves film and enjoys engaging in discussions about the latest cinema offerings and then connecting this with the Gospel. He has worked for City Bible Forum for over 10 years, is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and Entertainment Fuse and has a blog called Russelling Reviews. He moderates events for Reel Dialogue which connect the film industry with the general public.