Battle of the Sexes

Oct 14, 2013

This excellent documentary tells the story of the gripping 1973 contest between gutsy women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and male chauvinist poster boy Bobby Riggs.

Much more than just a game, it was seen as a battle of the sexes – King had the weight of the entire feminist movement on her shoulders as she took on the buffoonish hustler who claimed that “man (not Billie) is king”.

This may sound like a dull history lesson in gender politics, but Battle of the Sexes is gripping stuff. James Erskine’s clever direction captures all the excitement of the lead-up to the much-hyped and anticipated match, with fascinating archival footage of women’s liberation marches, tennis tournaments and television interviews, plus fresh commentary by people including King, American feminist Gloria Steinem, Riggs’ son and other tennis greats such as Australian Margaret Court, Chris Evert-Loyd and Serena Williams.

The story of the great tennis “battle of the sexes” coincided with the fierce push for equality that was taking place in the home, workplace and elsewhere. American tennis player Riggs, who was world number one in the 1940s, believed in male supremacy and, with his buffoonish personality and recognised talent for hustling, he managed to tap into the fear and anger some men felt regarding the growing movement.

Despite being aged 55 in 1973, he was convinced he could beat the world’s top women tennis players and challenged several of them to take him on. King initially refused, realising there was probably more to lose than gain, but after he decisively beat Australian champion Court she felt she had to put herself on the line.

Dovetailed with the build-up to the Riggs-King match is the story of the birth of the Women’s Tennis Association, which owes its origins to a group of female tennis players including King who formed a breakaway women’s tournament. These women risked their careers by incurring the wrath of the International Tennis Federation, but were motivated by the fact that they had too few opportunities to compete and, when they did, their prize money was a pittance compared with that of the men.

There is plenty of humour in Battle of the Sexes, including quirky cartoon sequences, and nods to the pop culture of the time such as footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono singing “Woman is the Nigger of the World” and Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”. Some of the blatantly sexist quotes also provoke audience laughter when viewed through contemporary eyes: one tennis commentator is critical of the way King “charges around the court very much like a man”, while Riggs states that “I like women … I like them in the kitchen and in the bedroom”.

King was right in feeling there was much at stake when she faced Riggs in front of a star-studded crowd of 30,000-plus at a Texas stadium: “I wasn’t just playing for myself, this was for everybody”. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could watch the showdown without absorbing some of the tension and excitement, even when you know how it ends.

Forty years later, much has changed for the better, but Battle of the Sexes also serves as a reminder of how far we have yet to go: tennis is still the only sport where women have won equal prize-money and, in most other sports, women at the top of their game get only fraction of the recognition enjoyed by their male counterparts. This documentary is compelling and entertaining viewing; it should also be compulsory viewing for any woman who doesn’t think she owes a debt of gratitude to the leaders of the feminist movement.

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Battle of the Sexes screens again at 1pm today (October 15) at Palace Nova Cinema as part of the Adelaide Film Festival.

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