Battle of the Sexes

Aida Vucic | 02/10/2017

Perfectly timed for the upcoming same-sex marriage national poll, undertaken by the Australian Government, the highly publicized tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes is a testament to society’s progression (irrespective of whether more time has elapsed than should have for acceptance to be achieved).  

Battle of the Sexes takes places in 1973 prior to the showdown between the pair, when Billie Jean (played by Emma Stone) was lobbying for the fair pay for women tennis players. Struck by the discovery that her male counterparts are offered 8 times the prize money that female players are, Billie and her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) boycott the tournament. Instead, they start running concurrently a tournament for the Women’s Tennis Association, which they create. It’s during this tour that the film explores Billie’s sexuality, as she, a married women at the time, engages in a relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). 

Running parallel to Billie’s story is the story of Bobby (Steve Carelll) a former tennis champion, compulsive gambler and self-proclaimed chauvinist. He sees an opportunity to redeem some of his former glory by challenging the female tennis players to an exhibition match. After a decisive victory against Aussie Margaret Court, he proclaims himself the Women’s World Tennis Champion, goading Billie into acceptance of an exhibition match that surprisingly takes up little screen time.

As the name suggests, Battle of the Sexes is an arm to arm combat between two genders, and while the message of equality is there, it’s weak and outshone by the pervasive internal sexual battle of Billie Jean. Forced to suppress her feelings in the fear that she would lose everything - family, friends, sponsorship and even the game she so loved – Billie struggles in the choice between her husband and her lover, and this internal rally is actually the main focus of the film. The tennis takes a back foot to the personal drama, and the personal drama is often presented with real taste and subtlety. Director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) show their restraint from the start of this budding romance, as their unobtrusive, extreme close-up lens documents the intimate connection between Billie Jane and Marilyn is a tastefully orchestrated sequence of hair cutting, utterly awash with sexual tension.

It is odd that the chauvinism and masochism on display are often less of an irritant than Marilyn’s love for Billie, which threatens to destroy a character who we come to love through Stone’s portrayal. Perhaps this is because of Dayton’s and Faris’s preoccupation with Billie Jean’s training regime, regularly stating that it is not the forbidden same sex relationship that causes her game harm, but the fact that she is focusing on any relationship at all and not on the court. While this may be very much true for Billie Jean, it does result in a film that seems to convey no stakes about the societal discontent with homosexuality at the time, stripping the film of a strong message in this regard. Even Bobby’s character is spared any real venom of the lens, as Carell injects subtle hints of his charisma into his character, giving him an everyman quality perhaps at odds with the outdated message that the filmmakers are undoubtedly trying to condemn. His lovable personality shines through in everything from outrageous photoshoots to dinner conversations with his family.

In fact, both main characters are incredibly endearing, and shots late in the piece of them walking off the court with their arms around each other give tremendous effect. Dayton and Faris demonstrate that both characters, despite their presence on opposite sides of history, have redeeming, lovable qualities. That doesn’t stop them from condemning the true evils of the day, though, particularly through their depiction of Margaret Court, a devout Christian and ambassador against gay marriage. She is an utter disgrace, and the film vehemently depicts her as the homophobe that she is.

Both Stone and Carell are strong performers, and here they do just as well as you imagine. Yet, there is still room for improvement, as Battle of the Sexes feels overly long even while watching it. It’s likely due to the utterly jam packed story, which covers tremendous swathes of two people’s lives. The film overstretched itself, and what could have been a strong film that echoed the movement of today’s current social climate comes out as more of a whimper of agreeance.


Battle of the Sexes is another paint by numbers piece of filmmaking. While Stone and Carell do tremendously well with the material, and the cinematography is beautiful, the pacing of this overwrought, stuffed to the brim film leaves much to be desired in terms of entertainment, and is even more wasteful when it comes to social condemnation of homophobia and misogynism