When Bobby Riggs missed the drop shot that clinched Billie Jean King’s straight-set victory in the final minutes of Battle of the Sexes, the people in my packed theater in New York City burst into cheers. For 20 minutes they’d been hanging on every volley, gasping at every serve, hissing their approval as cross-court winners whizzed from Billie Jean’s racket, as if they were watching a real tennis match unfold to decide the fate of feminism, instead of a fictional reenactment of a forty-year-old sporting event. “Billie Jean King is a hero!” an older man in front of me whispered loudly to his wife. She patted his hand. She said, “I know.”
Battle of the Sexes, which stars Emma Stone as King and Steve Carrell as Riggs, is so many movies. It’s a comedy about a charming, washed-up, middle-aged gambling addict looking for a little notoriety and one more hustle. It’s a period drama about a group of women athletes trying to get equal pay and a little respect. It’s a sports movie, complete with breathless action sequences, overwrought crowd reactions, and a soaring score. It’s a biopic about a legend. And it’s one of the best lesbian films I’ve ever seen.
Billie Jean King — a gay icon, a feminist idol, one of the greatest athletes in history, an unshakable pillar of indomitable humanity here in 2017 — becomes even more powerful in Battle of the Sexes, but the film also offers audiences the gift of undoing her invincibility in our imaginations by allowing her to fall in love.
Her name is Marilyn Barnett and she’s a stylist. She’s doing Billie Jean’s hair for a photoshoot to celebrate the press conference that’s launching the Women’s Tennis Association into existence. It’s casual laughs and small talk until Marilyn’s hands start to linger in Billie Jean’s hair; until Marilyn leans closer to whisper near Billie Jean’s ear; until Marilyn compliments Billie Jean’s eyes, her nose, her mouth. The intimacy is almost stunning, as the camera closes in on them and the microphones do too. Their faces. Their voices. The snip of Marilyn’s scissors. “Is that… perfume?” The look on Billie Jean’s face as understanding dawns on her: what she wants and has always wanted. They find themselves at a bar later, and in a hotel room — and, ultimately, on the road together with the eight other players who made up the first Virginia Slims Tour.
The tour, in real life and in the movie, was a tag-team effort between Billie Jean King and World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman to combat pay inequality on the professional tennis circuit. They argued that women pulled in the same size crowds as the men, but USTA execs refused to give women more than a fraction of the men’s winnings because they weren’t as fast or as strong. When King left the USTA to start her own league, she had everything to prove, which is why she eventually agreed, at 29, to play 55-year-old self-proclaimed “male chauvinist” Bobby Riggs. He’d already defeated superstar Margaret Court, and King realized the shortest path to pay equality in women’s tennis — and women’s pay equality, full stop — was through Riggs. She also knew it was the most dangerous. In later years, King told reporters she felt sure, at the time, that if she lost she would set the women’s movement back 20 years.
Billie Jean carries the weight of her affair with Marilyn; the knowledge that she’s acting on romantic feelings that could, if made public, destroy her career; the pressure of the first women’s professional tennis tour; the hype surrounding her match with Riggs; and the hopes and dreams of millions of women around the world.
The irony of Battle of the Sexes is how hard it has to work to try to make Carrell’s Bobby Riggs a character of equal importance. It touches on his marital problems, his parenting problems, his gambling addiction, his bombastic sexism, his training style, his narcissism, his sponsorships, what he wears, what he eats. But no matter how many narratives weave their way around him, Riggs is never more than a distraction.
Many male movie reviewers (so: the majority of movie reviewers) have found the film’s depiction of Riggs & Co’s sexism unbearable. Before ultimately deciding it was okay for people to watch, David Edelstein over at New York Magazine mocked the “smirkingly chauvinistic chauvinist Jack Kramer” who “smirks chauvinistically,” while also calling the film “feminist propaganda” and part of the “feminist and gay agenda.” As if watching a complicated, accomplished, unapologetic woman face off against a misogynist clown in the middle of a media circus is just so very outside the bounds of reality. As if that same misogynist clown didn’t once offer Serena or Venus Williams a million dollars to face off against John McEnroe. As if John McEnroe didn’t come unglued when he found out Serena laughed when she heard the offer. Battle of the Sexes is set lushly in 1973, but it’s also not.
It does oversimplify things. Billie Jean King was tortured by her sexuality; her parents were so homophobic she wasn’t able to come out to them until she was 51. Everyone who knew about her sexuality told her it would shatter women’s professional tennis if it became public. She developed an eating disorder as she tried to cope with the pressure of staying closeted. When she was outed by Marilyn Barnett in the early ’80s it almost ended her career; she lied about the depth and length of their relationship and went immediately back into the closet. Her loving and supportive ex-husband, whom she has remained close to throughout her life, told Ms. magazine in 1981 that she’d had an abortion without her permission. Another media blitz followed. She was forced to play tennis long past the age at which she wanted to retire because she lost all her endorsements — totaling $2 million, more money than she made in winnings her entire career — in a single day when she was outed.
But one of the beauties of stories is their ability to bend space and time. In 1973, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in The Battle of the Sexes in front of an audience of over 50 million people in 37 countries. In doing so, she pushed feminism forward in incalculable, exponential ways. In 2017, Billie Jean King has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, is the namesake of the tennis center where the U.S. Open is played, and lives with her life partner, Ilana Kloss. Those are the true bones of then and now.
In the closing scene of Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean emerges from the locker room where she’s just broken down in private for the first time: sobbing, heaving, gasping relief. Alan Cummings’ gay designer Ted Tinling pulls her aside and promises her that one day they’ll be free to love who they love. He assures her that her victory moved them one step closer to that day. Billie Jean’s eyes are hope and disbelief. She half-smiles and leaves that dream behind, walks to the center of the Astrodome, the court where she defeated Bobby Riggs, a thousand women waiting to watch her dance.