Review: Battle of the Sexes

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Directors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Writer: Simon Beaufoy

Composer: Nicholas Britell

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough

Genre: Biography, Romance, Drama, Sport

Rating: PG-13

Power couple, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are at it again! Directors of critically acclaimed films, Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, are this time taking on a biographic tale – the story of female tennis player, Billie Jean King, as she dukes it out on the court to defend the reputation of sportswomen everywhere.

While this film is helmed by a seasoned pair of directors, critics have their eyes more on the cast, particularly Emma Stone and Steve Carell. Many feel that Carell especially is due for an Oscar, and are hoping that his role as chauvinist and insufferable hustler, Bobby Riggs, will be the one that pushes him over the line. After all, the Academy is notoriously biased towards films depicting true events, women’s rights and the exploration of the LGBT community, and Battle of the Sexes has it all. But is it all just hype? The Academy may like it, but what about the general public?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: None.

Language/Crude Humor: Women are frequently spoken about in a derogatory manner and are patronized. The s-word is spoken, along with more minor swears such as “h*ll” and “godd*mn.” Parts of anatomy are spoken about in a crude manner.

Drug/Alcohol References: Alcoholic drinks and cocktails are consumed in social settings. The smoking of tobacco is heavily featured; Virginia Slims sponsors the Women’s Tennis Association, and the film includes this piece of history as part of the plot.

Spiritual Content: None.

Sexual Content: This film depicts a lesbian relationship and it is a prominent part of the plot. Two women romantically kiss multiple times. Sex is heavily implied but not shown on camera. Women are shown in their underwear. There is a male gay relationship present as well, though it is not explored in any depth. A man poses nude for a photo shoot but his genitalia is not seen.

Other Negative Content: One couple experiences marital problems, while another character conducts a full-blown affair. These adulterous actions take up a significant portion of the plot and are only condemned by one of the villains in the story. Through editing, the film takes a swipe at motherhood. One character has major gambling issues, which is also heavily present in the story, though the film does not condone that behavior.

Positive Content: The film does send the message about being true to oneself, though some viewers may not agree with the path taken to get there. Respect and equal pay between the sexes are issues that are strongly raised during the course of the movie. The female characters fight solely for equality between the sexes, not for superiority over the other.


Battle of the Sexes takes an honest look at the life of Billie Jean King; focusing on a rather tumultuous period of her tennis career, which also coincides with an awakening of her sexuality. The year is 1973, when women’s sport isn’t taken seriously and the pay for the players reflects the misogynistic attitude of society. The film does a fantastic job of transporting the audience back in time. The cinematographic has a rustic tone drenched in sepia-rich colors. The production design team and costume department truly outdo themselves in Battle of the Sexes, as every little detail looks meticulously planned.

While this film may score an Oscar nod for these technical elements, most punters have their eyes on the main cast. Academy Award winner, Emma Stone, plays the main role of Billie Jean King. Stone feels more introspective than usual here, as normally we see her contagious smile and quirky mannerisms permeating the character, with her natural sense of exuberance bursting forth onto the screen. Playing a real-life person seems to have stretched her already impressive range a bit further, leaving little to critique regarding her performance. Though considering she’s only just recently won her Oscar, it’s unlikely she’ll be awarded another next year – the Academy does like to pass it around. It also may simply not live up to the other performances that are also in contention for the prize.

Steve Carell’s take on ex-world tennis champion and massive hustler, Bobby Riggs, does remain close to himself (minus the chauvinism). He has a lot of fun in this role. Carell holds the comedy back, with a lot of his taunts not played for laughs – it’s a more nuanced performance for him, though he hasn’t entirely altered his personality. It’s a shame the screen time is weighted more towards telling King’s story, as Riggs is a rather interesting character with an unexpected amount of ambiguity. Hilariously plagued with an addiction to gambling, it’s intriguing to ponder whether he genuinely believed the views he promoted, or if it was all just an act to drum up business. It may not be enough to score an Oscar, though he has a second chance with Last Flag Flying. Yet even though it’s early days in the race, it seems unlikely anyone will be able to topple the juggernaut that is Gary Oldman playing Churchill in Darkest Hour.

The plot structure of Battle of the Sexes shares many similarities to Rocky. Yes, there’s a training montage right before a tense final match. But if it’s been a while since you’ve seen the Stallone classic, you may have forgotten just how long the first act is, and how little Apollo Creed interacts with the piece. The same is true with Battle of the Sexes. There are long stretches of time where you don’t see Bobby Riggs at all. Instead, the film focuses on King’s personal life.

In many ways, the women’s rights storyline feels like a false front for what is really the heart of the movie, which is LGBT issues. The campaigning for equal pay, finding sponsors, defending their gender to the media, merely feel like activities for the characters to do, while the true focus on the film is about being true to oneself, and that includes acknowledging and pursuing one’s sexuality.

If one doesn’t know much about King’s life story, then Battle of the Sexes may come across as a bait and switch. The trailer certainly focuses on the issues surrounding feminism, and only hints towards the exploration of LGBT topics, while in the actual film it’s the opposite, where women’s rights take a backseat. Indeed, the story rolls along, depicting the discrimination of female sports players and the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association, when suddenly Andrea Riseborough walks in, the lens beautifully softens, and the mood instantly changes, as though someone had just ripped the remote out of your grasp and changed the channel to something completely different.

You’re either going to love the new direction or feel disgruntled. On the one hand, it’s good to see this community have a cinematic voice. While it’s fascinating to hear how despicable the sports commentary was back in the 70s, the gender issues faced by these characters do seem rather archaic in today’s times, as though the film is merely preaching to the choir. Whereas the problems encountered by the LGBT characters in this story are more relevant in today’s political atmosphere.

LGBT relationships feel like the new Romeo and Juliet – star-crossed lovers – conundrum of today’s era. Though unlike boundaries such as class or race, dare I say, gay relationships aren’t all that engaging to watch. The LGBT genre is still in its infancy, but so far it is marked with romances that simply don’t know how to progress anywhere in the narrative. For the most part, that’s simply keeping in line with the complexity of same-sex attraction experienced by people living a few decades ago. But there’s only so many times the characters can make longing googly eyes at each other, framed using a soft lens, before it becomes rather… boring, to be perfectly blunt.

It’s fascinating because it’s heard so often in the wider society how people supposedly long to see more LGBT stories on the big screen. Yet while verbal support is one thing, actual attendance is another. While Battle of the Sexes is certainly more mainstream than others in this genre, this sudden shift in focus from feminism to gay rights does kill the pace quite a bit, which may explain the dissatisfaction some audiences have experienced concerning this movie.

My biggest gripe about this film, however, is that it contains a rather big pet peeve of mine; the glorification of adultery or infidelity. Doesn’t matter if it’s a classic such as Doctor Zhivago or wildly popular like The Notebook, cheating on one’s partner never seems romantic. The character passionately pursues ‘true love’ while simultaneously obliterating the most important aspects to a relationship, and that is trust and commitment. It’s selfish, hedonistic, and hypocritical.

The adulterer constantly laments about the dilemma they find themselves in, though it’s a problem purely of their own making, and it’s hard to sympathize. As the film tries to thematically explore the moral conundrums surrounding extra-marital relationships, Christians may find the issue to be frustratingly simplistic, as Bible followers will only find immoral choices here. In one scene, this character, after a night of passion, announces how they’ve made a mistake and still love their spouse. Within seconds, they then make love again, rolling over in the bed towards their lover as quickly as my eyes rolled in my head.

While the adulterer experiences a few consequences – with most involving a lack of focus in other areas of their life, and numerous awkward social situations – the vast majority of the cast are either supportive or turn a blind eye. With no character acting as an external conscience, it means that the film doesn’t present a counter-argument to this worldview that having an affair is okay. Even the cheated spouse appears oddly calm about the situation, which feels unrealistic.

The only character that does deliver any sense of moral objection is Australian tennis player, Margaret Court, who is an antagonist and a major rival in this story. Since all judgment is voiced from the villain in the piece, it further cements the concept that the audience is meant to align with the pro-adultery side. For viewers who disagree, they may find themselves metaphorically sitting in the car beside Margaret Court, as she gives scathing looks across the field at the promiscuous character, because while she may be judgemental, her criticisms are not exactly wrong either! When it’s possible that audience members may sympathize more with the villain’s point of view than one of the hero’s, it means there’s something wrong with the narrative, as this was obviously not the director’s intention.

Thankfully, while Battle of the Sexes touches upon a number of political and social issues, it’s not overly preachy. There are a few lines of dialogue that are on the nose, but it certainly could have done worse. However, some characters are rather one-dimensional for the sake of convenience. Margaret Court is one such example, while Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer seemingly only exists to spout oppressive misogynistic views, and Alan Cumming is the stereotypical gay man friend.

For the most part, however, Battle of the Sexes does seem to present the idea that Billie Jean King was merely just a woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time when it came to implementing societal change. “You’re still a feminist, right?” Bobby Riggs asks her. “I’m a tennis player who happens to be a woman,” she responds. While it would be hard to argue that this film is anything but pro-feministic, it doesn’t take it to extremes. It also feels as though Billie Jean King was a feminist who happened to be homosexual; the movie never seems to promote the myth that the two are interconnected or inseparable, particularly when the entire female cast of differing sexualities battle for equal rights alongside King.

So it’s disappointing that despite the film’s positive approach to women’s issues, the editing gives the impression that those same validating vibes don’t extend into the realm of motherhood. In one scene, a male character describes Margaret Court (the seemingly antagonistic black sheep of the women’s tennis competition) as being the ‘type of woman’ who is more inclined to follow orders and can be controlled more easily. Soon afterward, we are introduced to Court’s character more thoroughly. We watch as she comforts her toddler in her hotel room, alongside her husband.

The fact that she’s the only one in the competition that has children and is traveling with her spouse is remarked upon. In no way does the film overwhelmingly affirm just how amazing it is that Margaret Court managed to accomplish what she did in the sport while simultaneously raising a young child, but rather the sequence of events suggests the opposite – she is a ‘domesticated’ woman because of her difference in lifestyle compared to the other players. Giving the directors the benefit of the doubt here: that interpretation is probably unintentional, but an unfortunate by-product of narrative’s chronological order of events nonetheless.

If you can’t tell already, Battle of the Sexes has the potential to review a number of topics due to its story casting a wide net over a multitude of social issues. What messages a viewer will retrieve from this film will alter depending on their personal worldview and the political environment at the time of watching. As an Australian, this movie brought to mind a lot of the arguments heard in support of same-sex marriage. For those who don’t know, Australia is currently in the midst of conducting a public survey in order to determine whether marriage laws should change. Suffice to say, there’s been a lot of debate across the country. I went to the cinema to escape the world and its problems for a few hours; nope! Should’ve looked elsewhere!

Margaret Court has also been in the news as of late; she voiced her Christian beliefs about the LGBT community in a spectacularly untactful way, which has caused some to request that a tennis arena should no longer be named in her honor. With impeccable timing, Battle of the Sexes also brings up the question as to whether a person should be celebrated more for their physical, sporting achievements or for their social image. It would be interesting to learn whether Court was portrayed in the movie as a bit of a villain because of these past events, or if it’s merely a coincidence – a chicken or the egg scenario. So Battle of the Sexes will hit rather close to home for Australian audiences.

For Americans, this film may bring to mind current arguments about the wage gap. Or the patriarchy. Some may feel it’s a white man’s guilt movie. One reviewer on IMDB even managed to read a Trump versus Hilary message into the film! Audiences from other countries may narrow in on another aspect of the movie’s story entirely, depending on what’s currently discussed in the news. That’s what I love about art – it will speak to everyone a little bit differently depending on their life journey. There’s potentially a lot to unpack in this film, thanks to its focus on possibly the most life-altering section of King’s career. However, by scattering its messages, changing tack and shifting pace, it’s not actually an enjoyable film to watch. If you’re looking for more of a feel-good, easily-digestible, real-life story that the whole family can truly enjoy, then maybe just stick to Hidden Figures.



The Bottom Line


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Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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