“I never said women were better. I said we deserved the same respect as men.” Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, clearly vying for another Oscar nom) minces no words throughout the incredible narrative of Battle of the Sexes, fittingly directed by the male/female-husband/wife duo best known for Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Like Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) in A League of Their Own, Billie Jean is the alpha female representative of her sport–tennis. Unlike Dottie, however, Billie Jean is anything but “ladylike,” least of all in her treatment of her beard of a husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell, a real Ken doll of a dish)–the other Larry King wasn’t famous enough yet to make this name an issue.
In arguably the most sexual scene of haircutting ever rendered to screen, we’re confronted head on with Billie Jean’s repressed desires as her stylist, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), gives her a cut that will change her life in more ways than just those pertaining to aesthetics. But Billie Jean’s loyalty to her husband, who has always supported her in her profession, is too strong to fall completely down the rabbit hole. Even stronger than this loyalty, though, is the one she feels for the game–and what it represents for feminism. After breaking with the Association of Tennis Professionals that former tennis hero Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) founded, Billie Jean aligns with World Tennis magazine creator Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, toeing the perfect line between a comedic and dramatic performance) to boycott the underpaid prize money for female players. Branching out with what would become known as the Houston Nine, featuring Rosie Casals, Judy Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville, Peaches Barthowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfus, Billie Jean’s timing coincided perfectly with the women’s liberation movement, set off then most recently by a lawsuit by female employees against their sexist employer, Newsweek. With tensions between the genders continuing to run high in 1973, Billie Jean’s stand against Kramer and men with his rigid thinking about “a woman’s place” couldn’t have been more apropos.
While the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was a blip in the female professional sports movement, established at a moment when women were helping–not threatening–men with their presence on the field as American soldiers went to war, Billie Jean’s organization would serve as the crux for the Women’s Tennis Association, still going strong today. Regardless of the former entity’s disbandment in 1954, its very existence confirmed that women were worthy players and opponents in the world of pro athleticism. Yet, the U.S. wasn’t ready–especially with Joe McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower running the puritanical show for most of the 50s (even in the face of Hugh Hefner breaking down barriers and pulling down panties).
No, when Billie Jean struck, the iron on gender inequality–in all facets of life–was already very hot. More than right place, right time, there was Billie Jean’s buffoonish rival. Not Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell)–Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). The Australian fresh off having a baby serves as the Kit Keller (Lori Petty) figure, in that she is always second fiddle to Billie Jean, except when Billie Jean’s personal life obstructs her ability to play at her best. When Margaret takes the number one slot on the Virginia Slims Tour (before it was called the Women’s Tennis Association Tour), Bobby seizes on the opportunity to get her to challenge him in the Battle of the Sexes tournament that Billie Jean–his first choice–refused to engage in.
Despite showboating his natural addiction to the gamble–and dismaying his sugar mama of a wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), in the process–Bobby achieves just what he wants out of his game from Margaret: proof that women are inferior. This, of course, pleases Kramer to no end, now in possession of a very personal vendetta against Billie Jean. Although Pullman’s role as Bob, Dottie’s husband away at war, in A League of Their Own is gentler and more understanding, both he and Kramer have one thing in common: they will always see the female’s status as one that should be relegated to bedroom and kitchen activities. With no other choice but to answer Bobby’s challenge in the wake of Margaret’s fuck-up, Billie Jean must choose between the fate of her new relationship (and corresponding sexual identity) and total focus on the one thing that really matters: getting men to see women as equals. If it smacks of Dottie having to choose between her sister’s happiness and proving the worth of her own talent, that’s because the stakes are, indeed, rather similar.
Also echoing the overarching theme of A League of Their Own, Battle of the Sexes highlights the constant struggle of a woman to balance the internal with the external, the personal with the professional; all in a way that men have never comprehended, because they’ve never needed to. Mocking Billie Jean’s passion and rage before she’s set to play Bobby, Kramer balks, “You know the difference between a good player and a great player? A great player doesn’t let emotions get in the way.” Needlepoint ready as that sounds, somehow it’s hard to take as gospel. For in so many ways, a woman’s emotions are her superpower–or at least how she taps into “serving” her revenge if not cold, slightly lukewarm.