Review: The Battle of the Sexes

15 May 13

The Battle of the Sexes

I do not define myself as a feminist. Sure, I care about people being able to do what fulfils them, and having the opportunity to pursue their dreams, etc. etc., but I don’t stand firmly in the current feminist camp.

Perhaps if I’d lived in the 50s and 60s it would have been different. In fact, I’m pretty certain I would have been a wildly outspoken women’s libber in a time when females were genuinely expected to “make house” and do little else. But it’s not something I give much thought to in day to day life. Like many youngish women in the 2000-somethings, I sort of take for granted that I can make a living, have a job, live alone, and still be respected as much as any guy. Because… well, why would it be any different?

That’s what makes this film important. And the other thing that stands out about it is its sense of humour. It’s not a boring soul-sucker of a political statement. Nor is it solely about sport. It’s actually a really important statement about the history of feminism, and how it got us to where we are now.

The movie centres around the great tennis match of 1973, between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. I’m into sports, but not exactly a tennis aficionado: I’ll watch it if it’s on, but I know very little about the mechanics of it. My own brief foray into the game involved discovering that I had a nonexistent backhand and a far too enthusiastic forehand, meaning that I was constantly either completely unable to hit the ball at all, or racing across the road to retrieve it from the other side of the school. Eventually I gave up and decided to focus on reading, an altogether more sedate sport and one that rarely caused any physical injury larger than a paper cut.

So really, I shouldn’t have found this film hugely compelling. But as someone interested in sociology, I did enjoy watching it. Not just due to the content of the movie, but also because of the reaction of the audience.

It opened with clips of advertisements from the 1970s: ads portraying women, completely openly, as “the weaker sex”, talking about how “she is at home in the kitchen… if she’s ambitious, she may have a part-time job…” and so on. Cue amused titters from the audience. Throughout the movie, flashbacks were shown of popular opinion around the time when King and the Original Nine were launching their own revolution: images that showed men talking about being “male chauvinists” as if it were not only free of shame, but something to be proud of. Sitting in our nice comfy seats in the Wired offices, men and women next to each other, all with probably similar concerns about getting home to the partner, grabbing dinner on the way back, that big meeting with the editor tomorrow, we were able to laugh at the obvious ridiculousness of the views being put forward on the screen. But as the film wore on, it became more and more evident that there had been a battle to get to this point, and that it had been hard-won.

Billy Riggs,  55-year-old tennis retiree, self-professed “male chauvinist” and “sugar daddy” (as proclaimed by his sports jacket), challenged two women to take him on in a match to end all matches: a Battle of the Sexes, in which he would prove that male reigned supreme. Challenge #1: Margaret Court, not a women’s libber but a quiet, religious lady who accepted the way the world worked and lived in it in her own unassuming way, courtseying to Riggs when he gave her a bouquet of flowers at the beginning of their match and being altogether very cordial and… well, just nice.

Cue Billlie Jean King, antagonist extraordinaire and a formidable opponent for Riggs. Not that he seemed to notice: his attitude to the whole situation was blasé to the extreme, and he was so certain he would win that he bet $15,000 on it at the bookies’ before he entered the court.

Who won? If you don’t know already, watch the movie. I’ve never been so into a game of tennis in my life. Especially not a pre-recorded one.

It was history being made, and Billie Jean wasn’t afraid to make it. Her sheer tenacity in the face of crazy odds – especially the setting up of the Original Nine, which would later become the Women’s Tennis Association, despite the threat of never being able to play a Wimbledon or US Open match again – made her a genuine heroine. And one with a sense of humour: that all-important quality that seems to be lacking in so many people who feel strongly about things.

It’s a really interesting film, and an important one if you have any feelings about feminism, positive or negative. For me, it was interesting to see the historic movement which got me to a place where I can be a “career woman” and no one thinks it’s strange. For modern-day feminists, it’ll be a fantastic journey into the life of one of their predecessors. And for everyone else… well, it’s an excellent game, and it might just get you interested in tennis. Or feminism, who knows?

7/10 – An interesting and important film about a seminal time in history