Socialist Worker

Battle of the Sexes serves up a set of anti-sexism from 1973

New film Battle of the Sexes shows the sexism of the 1970s and one of the battles against it, but misses the broader context, argues Stephanie Onamade

Issue No. 2582

Emma Stone (centre) plays Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes

Emma Stone (centre) plays Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes (Pic: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)


The Battle of The Sexes portrays the journey of female tennis player Billie Jean King as she speaks out against the sexism within the world of tennis in the 1970s.

We watch a determined young athlete, played by Emma Stone, struggle to get her voice heard as she demands higher pay for women tennis players.

Men take much bigger prize winnings home than women in tournaments despite selling the same amount of tickets.

King is faced with a backlash of sexist comments such as, “at the very top it’s a man’s game.”

Despite all this King aims to prove that women should be paid the same and respected equally as men.

Her journey begins when she defiantly starts a boycott of a tournament along with the other top women players at the time. The men’s prize is eight times that of the women’s.

“The men are simply more exciting to watch,” King is told. They are “Stronger, faster, more competitive,” supposedly.

The action of the film centres on a 1973 match between King and the self-described chauvinist Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carrell.

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Riggs challenged King in order to prove the supposedly innate superiority of men.

The film drips with the sexism that was, and still is, pumped out through every part of the media.

King is told, “You’re definitely cuter than the men” and that, “the male muscle is a little stronger than the female muscle”. A common theme the director uses to effectively portray the oppression of women is through a lack of freedom to act on what feels right.

King’s love affair with her female hairdresser is portrayed as forbidden—which it was by society.

Understandably she gives ground to this huge pressure in places, calling her lover a “phase”.

The sense of shame women are forced to feel through stigmatisation is palpable.

Like many mainstream films, there are problems. It focuses on one woman’s personal struggle as a defining point in the fight for women’s liberation.

Seismic shifts were happening in society outside the tennis court. While these are referenced in the film, the link could be more explicit.

Riggs did not throw down his challenge for the sake of it. He saw an opportunity to hold back the growing mood for change in society, and took it.

Despite this, the film is definitely an enjoyable look at a snapshot of part of society in a time of social turmoil.

The Battle of the Sexes is in cinemas now

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