Battle of the Sexes: “Male Chauvinist Pig Versus Hairy-Legged Feminist”

by Gracie Bucklew

Note: This column contains spoilers for the movie Battle of the Sexes]

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Battle of the Sexes. It touched my heart in so many ways to see a movie in a theater (Ark Lodge Cinemas) that stars a driven, self-discovering lesbian womxn.

An early scene, depicting Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) confronting tennis association honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), was so invigorating to witness. They had just found out that Kramer intended to pay King and the other femxle tennis players an eighth of what male players receive.

Their just frustration reflects that of most workers who aren’t men. The Wage Gap was so blatant in the 70’s, during this Battle of the Sexes, Kramer audaciously justified this discrepancy by claiming “The men are simply more exciting to watch.” While the Gap has slimmed since then, it has only become more insidious.

As of 2012, womxn earned only 78 cents to the White man’s dollar. And that’s only White womxn. Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander womxn earned 66 cents, African American 64, Native American and Alaskan 60, and Latinx a mere 53 cents.

King and Heldman would have none of this. Viewing them marching into Kramer’s office and demanding equality made me want to pump my fist and applaud. I became even more pumped when King declares she’ll start her own association – the Women’s Tennis Association – if Kramer won’t be fair.

The film is filled with moments like these, where womxn seize what has been unrightfully withheld from them. Whether it be money, credit, or a voice, the femxle characters in this movie are determined to get what they deserve.

While I found this film empowering, I did have a slight problem with how Bobby Riggs’ (Steve Carell) misogyny was portrayed. Carell played Riggs as a perpetual jokester – always fooling around, never serious – which is fine if that was legitimately Riggs personality, but it almost downplayed the seriousness of his disrespect for womxn. Because everything he did was just in fun, it made chauvinism funny, when in reality, it’s quite dangerous.

In addition to feeding my feminist soul, this movie touched my little gay heart.

The list of mainstream movies that star queer characters is pathetically short. In 2015, there were only 22. The list of the ones that do and also show explicit queer affection is even shorter. Most queer characters are on screen for less than ten minutes, and when they are, they’re almost always white cis men. It is truthfully exhausting to only see straight relationships and affection over and over in movies. Battle of the Sexes lay bare intimacy between two womxn unconcealed. Billie Jean King and Marilyn Barnett’s (Andrea Riseborough) beautiful love inspired such happiness in me.

The two first meet in Barnett’s barbershop. King is so captivated by her hairdresser, Barnett that she loses her words several times and keeps a grin throughout. This relatable queer tenderness is extraordinarily meaningful. It enforces to young queer people (and queer people in general) that their feelings are valid and real and not something to be ashamed of.

King and Barnett’s love is also terribly tragic. The film exposes the rampant homophobia of the early 70’s when King swears Barnett to secrecy about their affair. She knows that if she was outed it would ruin her career; her sponsors would evaporate along with her celebrity.

There is a heartbreaking understanding that fighting for equality as a womxn is already hard enough; fighting as a gay womxn would be simply too much. The film reveals more than queer romance however.

In the ending scene, companionship is shown between King and her gay fashion designer, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming). In an embrace, Tinling tells King that there will be a time when they can be who they are and love who they want freely. That part brought me very close to tears because I am living in that time right now. And even now, so many LGBTQ+ people are not living and may never live openly as their complete selves.

This candid support between two queer characters is meaningful, just as the romance is. It refutes the too-often over-sexualization and fetishization of queer people in media. It shows that queer people aren’t just always having sex and partying, as often portrayed in movies. As a lesbian, I felt humanized by Battle of the Sexes.

I am so grateful directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton shared this part of King’s story. I am grateful King allowed them to share this part, and all of, her story. Billie Jean King was and is a real life superhero. Her Battle of the Sexes was only one fight in a much larger struggle that continues today.

“The main thing is to care. Care very hard, even if it is only a game you are playing.” -Billie Jean King

Gracie Bucklew is a musician, artist, Unitarian Universalist, intersectional feminist, and activist and contributes a regular local pop-culture column to the Emerald. She is currently a student at The Center School. She lives on Beacon Hill with one of her moms, and is a lifelong resident of Rainier Beach with her other mom. She loves her friends, cats, and ice cream.