In 1973, the “Battle of the Sexes” was about to take place: a match between a current women’s tennis champion and a former male star. It seemed a little silly at the time. A bit goofy.
Little did we know.
At that time, Billie Jean King was the top female player in the world. But in an era when female tennis players were making about an eighth of what men’s players raked in, Billie Jean couldn’t help but ask if that was enough? Shouldn’t she be doing more? Shouldn’t she be using her platform and popularity to make a difference for other women?
For that matter, now that Billie Jean had reached the pinnacle of her sport—a goal she’d spent all her life achieving—shouldn’t she start being a bit more true to herself, too? Yes, she was married to a nice guy. But shouldn’t she get real about the sexual feelings she’s always kept bottled up inside?
Bobby Riggs, meanwhile, was a clown.
By the early 1970s, the aging superstar had become a showman: a good-ol’ boy who was always looking to parlay his former fame into more attention and a few more bucks. That was his shtick and everybody knew it. So why not play Billie Jean on TV?
Yeah, he was goofy and way past his prime. Sure, he had a bit of a gambling problem. But in the age of Women’s Lib, he and his self-promoted “chauvinist pig” shenanigans would surely grab a lot of hilarious TV attention, he figured.
Little did anyone at the time realize that the combination of those two figures might impact women’s tennis forever. That it might provoke thinking about bigger cultural changes. That it might propel Billie Jean King into becoming a lesbian icon who would influence future LGBTQ generations.
Little did we know.
Billie Jean fights for female equality in the tennis world and even helps establish the Women’s Tennis Association. Her husband, Larry, is portrayed as a kind and loyal guy, even when she isn’t.
On the other side of the court, Bobby and his wife, Priscilla, obviously share a sincere love (though that doesn’t keep him from making unwise choices that get him kicked out of their home).
Billie Jean’s friend and manager, Gladys, wonders why she isn’t allowed in a men’s club. “Is it because I’m a woman or because I’m a Jew?” she asks.
The majority of the movie deals with Billie Jean King’s sexual exploration as she meets and eventually has a sexual tryst with a female hairdresser named Marilyn. At first, she says she can’t follow through on her feelings because of her marriage. But she eventually capitulates to her same-sex attraction to Marilyn.
We see the women flirt, kiss and caress each other in and out of bed. They strip to their underwear or are covered by sheets on a couple occasions. (The camera catches a glimpse of Marilyn’s bare back as she walks away wearing only panties.)
Billie Jean’s husband figures out what’s happening between them, and he backs away to let Billie do what she wants. Several others take note of Billie’s choices, with one player criticizing her “sin” and “licentiousness.” A gay clothing designer warns Billie that the “world isn’t a forgiving place.” The film’s closing credits include mentions of Billie’s LGBTQ activist choices and victories.
At one point, other female tennis players suggest they go on a “sex strike” to gain attention.
One s-word along with a handful of uses each of “h—” and “d–n.” Jesus’ and God’s names are misused six or seven times (with God being combined with “d–n” twice).
Gladys smokes regularly. And after she sets up a sponsorship deal with the cigarette brand Virginia Slims, she encourages other female tennis players to follow suit by handing out packs of those cigs.
A number of people drink beer and mixed drinks at clubs, parties and private get-togethers. A female tennis player quaffs champagne after a victory. During his “training” for the match with Billie Jean, Bobby drinks by a pool. We also see him popping loads of vitamins and some sort of “special” stimulant.
A number of men in the film espouse sexist ideas about women. Bobby gives in to his gambling addiction, even though he knows his choice may be the last straw in his marriage.
Message movies are a hard sell.
If you’re happily sitting in the cinematic choir and longing to be preached to, then the substance of a message movie will sing. If not, well, not.
Which brings us to Battle of the Sexes.
This isn’t a film about women’s tennis. Not really. And it’s not a pic that shows how a famous female tennis player—who happened to be gay—changed the face of a sport. No, Battle of the Sexes is a film about how a gay woman—who happened to be a tennis icon—explored her sexual identity and impacted her era.
“Someday we will be free to be who we are and love who we love,” gay clothing designer Ted Tinling whispers to Billie Jean at the conclusion of the film. And co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris showcase that as Billy Jean’s shining moment.
Oh, and she plays tennis pretty well before that, too.
Still, those looking for a movie that really unpacks the much-ballyhooed 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs will likely go away disappointed. That secondary narrative in this message movie lands flatly: like a bright yellow Penn ball that’s lost its oomph.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.