Emma Stone takes on the tennis legend Billie Jean King in new feminist masterpiece, Battle Of The Sexes – and Billie Jean King takes on any man who tells her she is somehow less than.
The film revolves around a very public match between King and a former male tennis legend, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) that took place in 1973, a match dubbed the ‘battle of the sexes’.
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Yet at its heart, this is a far more intimate, far more important story about the fight for equality.
Billie Jean King was revolutionary in her fight back in the 1970s. When she decided to go against the system that told her women were not as important or worthy as men, she was threatened with career ruin and told she would fail – and yet she persisted.
What the real-life King did back then was brave. Yet, at the same time, it was also so simple.
She saw injustice. She saw inequality. She saw the way the women were being treated in the sport she so dearly loved playing (and worked incredibly hard at) and she realised that she had one of the few voices to which people might listen to.
And instead of going along with the status quo and just keeping her mouth shut, she refused. She said no.
The feminism captured in this film is simple, controlled, firm. And in that lies its real power.
King doesn’t shout men down when she disagrees with what they’re saying. She argues her case, firmly and with volition. She’s not afraid to speak up, to make her voice heard.
If anything, she argues her case ‘like a man’, with reason and logic. Her argument is clear and straightforward, none of these ‘emotional’ outbursts women aren’t supposed to have.
And when they dismiss her or refuse to take on board her points, she comes up with an alternative and leaves them to their sexism.
There’s a marvellous moment near the beginning of the film where King and her friend Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) enter the male-only club in order to speak to the men in charge.
When the two women are told that they’re not allowed to be there, Silverman quips ‘Is that because I’m a woman or a Jew?’ – and from the look they give her it could feasibly be either (or both).
The women ignore the protests and sit down, ready to fight their case.
Women aren’t worth as much as the men, she’s told.
‘Why?’ she asks. ‘We sell the same number of tickets’.
She is then told that men have families to support (to which she replies that she is the main breadwinner in her family). She is then told that men are more ‘exciting’ to watch and she is flatly told that the women will be getting no more money.
Later in the film, a reporter comments that King thinks women are better than men. She quickly fights back, explaining that she has never said such a thing. She clarifies that all she wants is equality, that the female tennis players are treated the same way the men are.
‘You have parents’, she says to the journalist. ‘Do you think your father is better than your mother just because he’s a man?’
It’s never about men being the bad guy. It is not about ‘all men’ or men-hating. It is very specifically about injustice of the time.
Certain men (and a couple of the ladies) believed women belong in the kitchen and the bedroom and nowhere else, that they should shut up and be grateful and do as they’re told.
And one woman, and her friends, stood up and said ‘Enough!’. (And we could certainly use more of that at the moment.)
So Billie Jean King played that match.
In Battle Of The Sexes, we see that she played it to prove a point – to prove that women deserve to be in the room. And she knows that if she fails, then all women will be tarnished with the same generalising brush.
But Billie Jean King is not one to bow under pressure. If anything, it only makes her work that much harder.
The film is fierce and powerful, moving and inspiring. I only wish this story could be more of a celebration of how far we’ve come as a society, not a stark reminder of how much we’ve regressed to these outdated, absurd sexist notions in the past couple of years.
But with women like Billie Jean King to inspire us, and directing teams like Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris there to show us what incredible work can come of men and women working together, there might be hope for us yet.