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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

Battle of the Sexes movie review: totally ace

Battle of the Sexes green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
An essential history lesson with a smart smack of relevance for today (because feminism always has to be relitigated). It’s also warm, funny, and hugely entertaining.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): not a sports fan at all
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

That saying about those not remembering the past being condemned to repeat it? Of course it’s true… but sometimes it’s not an accident that the past gets forgotten. Sometimes the squashing of history — and the continuation of history into the present — is deliberate. Feminists know this: Women are constantly having to reinvent feminism, refight the same battles, because they don’t stay won. A brief moment of small triumph very quickly gets drowned out by major cultural pushback; women may savor victory only long enough for it to be washed away. There’s that other saying: Two steps forward, one step back. With feminism, it’s more like: Half a baby step forward, a dozen steps back.

This was an enormous cultural event that transcended sports. And yet it’s been all but forgotten in the popular consciousness.

That’s how it’s possible that the 1973 “battle of the sexes” tennis match, meant to settle the question of whether female athletes were the equals of their male counterparts, did no such thing. Does anyone who was too young to have watched or not yet alive at the time even know about it? (I’d love to hear that I’m wrong about this.) The match was played at the Houston Astrodome and drew 90 million viewers around the world at a time when live global TV was only in its infancy. It was an enormous cultural event that transcended the niche of sports. And yet it seems to have been all but forgotten in the popular consciousness. Certainly the “question” of women’s athletic prowess continues to be posed, though only so that it may be pooh-poohed, most recently in the “debate” over whether Serena Williams is the best tennis player ever or merely the best female tennis player. (Are women ever allowed to be considered the best of anything? Or must our accomplishments always be qualifed as lesser?) Male tennis legend John McEnroe appears to be itching now for a rerun of the 1973 match with Williams on the other side of the net.

If we were men, these $1 Virginia Slims contracts would be $1.50...

If we were men, these $1 Virginia Slims contracts would be $1.50…tweet

So, as usual, there’s a necessity to a movie like Battle of the Sexes, an urgency to be seen,tweet that goes beyond its sheer entertainment value, which is also enormous. It doesn’t feel like the essential history lesson that it is, though would that it didn’t make me rather depressed to see how little has really changed in 44 years. Somehow, the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — they of the not-good Ruby Sparks and the brilliant Little Miss Sunshine — has captured the amusement value of retro kitsch without their film being actually kitschytweet (perhaps because its subject matter sadly feels so au courant). Somehow they’ve made a film that quietly debunks the spurious notion that feminism can’t be funtweet by itself being fun, full of cheery bashes at outrageous sexism and an aura of sporting (in all senses of the word) can-do spirit.

“I’m gonna put the show back in chauvinism,” the larger-than-life Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell: The Big Short, Freeheld) — 55 years old and a former champion — announces at a televised press conference once Billie Jean King (Emma Stone: La La Land, Aloha) — the 29-year-old number-one-ranked woman in the world — has finally accepted his challenge to play him in an exhibition match. Everyone laughs, including King. But while he may be entertaining, he’s an entertaining asshole, entirely representative of attitudes she has been battling for years. She is under no illusions about how vital it is for her to win this game. To lose would give fuel to those who believe women inferior to men. To lose would be to transform a half-baby step forward into a hundred steps back.

“Oh, did that get you in the noggin, Riggs? My bad! So sorry.”

“Oh, did that get you in the noggin, Riggs? My bad! So sorry.”tweet

But the actual Battle comes at the end of the film. The movie opens with King — Stone is wonderful in the role, all quiet determination and ambitiontweet — pulling out of the tennis federation run by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman: Independence Day: Resurgence, American Ultra) over his refusal to pay the women players the same prize money the men receive: the women, after all, sell as many tickets as the men do. But he’ll have none of it: he’s the kind of man who dismisses women with statements that start with “The thing about women is…” and end with some nugget of awful stereotyped nonsense, all delivered with suave “reasonable” gentlemanliness. The likes of Kramer, a respected authority figure, are the real problems, the most insidious misogynists, not a clown like Riggs. (Carell is an absolute hoot in the role. Ghastly, but a hoot nevertheless.) King doesn’t just pull out of Kramer’s organization: she leads other women players in boycotting his tourneys and setting up their own league, with the help of World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (a hilarious Sarah Silverman: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Wreck-It Ralph), who deals with the business end.

Steve Carell is an absolute hoot as outrageous chauvinist Bobby Riggs. Ghastly, but a hoot nevertheless.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Everest, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) finds a lot of sly humor in how the women’s tournament grows and succeeds, stuff that wouldn’t have caused anyone at the time to bat an eye but seems amusingly ironic today, such as the fact that it’s tobacco company Philip Morris sponsoring what is billed as “the Virginia Slims* Tour”; Heldman, though, does get some wry mileage out of the disparity between athleticism and smoking cigarettes. The always delightful Alan Cumming (Strange Magic, The Smurfs 2) as former player turned fashion designer Ted Tinling represents a loosening up of the on-court etiquette with his colorful dresses for King and her fellow players to wear while competing; no more boring whites. And our eye today cannot help but pick out the appalling condescension and casual abuse that was misogyny passing unnoticed in 1973, as how Battle of the Sexes commentator Howard Cosell — a legend of sports journalism and another authority figure — has no compunction about delivering his televised blow-by-blow with his arm draped possessively around the shoulders of his cocommentator, King colleague and fellow tennis player Rosemary Casals (Natalie Morales [Going the Distance, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps], very convincingly CGI’ed into the original Cosell footage). It’s so… ugh. (One interesting positive change in the intervening years: the filmmakers have had to age up Carell to play Riggs, even though the actor is the same age the player was back then. Fifty-five today is younger than it was 44 years ago.)

“I can give you an iconic hairstyle and better orgasms than a man ever has...” “Deal!”

“I can give you an iconic hairstyle and better orgasms than a man ever has…” “Deal!”tweet

Perhaps the more trenchant history lesson, though, that Battle of the Sexes has to offer is this one: behind every victory, even a shortlived one, is another campaign for dignity and respect waiting to be started. Battle does a lovely job of depicting the absolute necessity of King keeping her homosexuality a secret. She was married at the time of the Battle, to Larry (Austin Stowell: Colossal, Bridge of Spies), who at first seems like a Ken-doll beard for her, but we come to see that there is real affection and friendship between them. He is genuinely hurt when his wife takes up with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough: Mindhorn, Birdman), a hairdresser who — wow! — gave King that famous 70s “Billie Jean” hairstyle. This is as much a tender, gentle romance between the two women as it is a story about a push for fairness in professional sports across gender lines. But that relationship had to be conducted outside the public eye, lest suggestions of “licentiousness, immorality, and sin,” as a disapproving player on the women’s tour deems King’s sexuality, taint the ongoing fight for equal pay and equal esteem. Battle of the Sexes is a bittersweet reminder that not all battles can be fought at once.tweet And that that other battle is still ongoing, too.

*Oh, my babies, you may not know this since cigarettes are not advertised like they used to be, but Virginia Slims cigarettes were (still are) a brand directed at women, the marketing of which harnessed notions of female liberation but also, ironically, strict adherence to beauty standards as selling tools.

Battle of the Sexes screens at London Film Festival in October. Get tickets here.

green light 4.5 stars

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Battle of the Sexes (2017) | directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
US/Can release: Sep 22 2017
UK/Ire release: Oct 20 2017

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent moderate sex)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Bluejay

    Wow. Emma Stone AND Steve Carell AND Alan Cumming AND Natalie Morales? SOLD. This has just shot to the top of my must-see list.

    I remember the Virginia Slims “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” ads — which are only horrifying me now, after not having thought about them since childhood. Women aren’t anyone’s “baby,” and sadly, they haven’t come far enough.

  • Kathy_A

    I was born in 1966, and have very vague memories of this match. I think I remember more the lingering pop-cultural references to it for the rest of the 1970s. Billie Jean was always a feminist icon to me, and Bobby Riggs was always a clown–I had no idea he was an actual former tennis champ until recently.

    I just popped over here hoping that you had posted a review of this, and was delighted to read this! I am going to look up my local theater online and hope that they have it booked for this weekend.

  • This is opening on only 20 screens in the US tomorrow, but it goes wide next Friday.

    I was born in 1969, and I have vague memories of King, and somehow I was aware of this match, but I can’t recall how or where I first heard about it. I certainly have no memory of the event from 1973.

  • Kathy_A

    It is playing at the big multiplex near my apartment, and is actually going to be on two screens there. Looking forward to seeing it!

  • There’s a great collection of Virginia Slims magazine ads from the 60s through the 80s here:


    The constant harping on the NOT FATNESS of these cigarettes is disturbing. Combined with the notion — unspoken, but everyone knew it, even those who didn’t smoke — that cigarettes suppress appetite, you’d almost think they were selling these as a dieting aid.

  • Enjoy!

  • Anna

    Interesting point – if Emma Stone gets nominated for an Oscar, she’ll be the first woman to be nominated for one for playing a real-life athlete: http://www.goldderby.com/article/2017/battle-of-the-sexes-emma-stone-oscar-history-billie-jean-king/

    Are there any sex scenes? My aunt wants to see this with me and I’m interested in the history, but I can’t watch sex scenes in front of her.

  • There is one demure sex scene between King and Barnett. It’s romantic, and not explicit.

  • Anna

    Ok cool. I’m also happy this is being released while Billie Jean King is still alive, by the way. So often it seems like women get recognized posthumously.

  • Allen W

    I was also born in 1966, and didn’t see the match, but was vaguely aware of it at the time. Oddly enough, my only direct exposure to Bobby Riggs was when he guest-starred on The Odd Couple.

  • Allen W

    (And my main memory of Billie Jean is network news stories about the palimony suit.)

  • Robert P

    That’s how it’s possible that the 1973 “battle of the
    sexes” tennis match, meant to settle the question of whether female
    athletes were the equals of their male counterparts, did no such

    The reason it did no such thing isn’t
    because of any alleged steps backward for “feminism”, it did no such
    thing because it wasn’t meant to. It was a money-making stunt – period.

    women ever allowed to be considered the best of anything? Or must our
    accomplishments always be qualifed as lesser?

    Sure – in arenas where it’s not ludicrous and unfair to compare them head to head against men.

    doesn’t take a thing away from King to say that Riggs in his prime
    would have crushed her, just as the top male players of King’s day would
    have. 50-something Riggs did beat Margaret Court who was the top-ranked
    female player at the time and one of King’s top rivals. As it was King
    struggled to beat Riggs even with the advantage of analyzing his match against Court.

    The top female golfer in the world
    Annika Sorenstam gave it a shot and couldn’t hang with the men. Both
    Williams sisters were beaten by the 203rd ranked man
    in the world – after making the bodacious claim they could beat any man
    out of the top 200. It doesn’t change that all of these women are superb
    athletes, they’re just not working with the same tools – it’s not an
    affront to womanhood to acknowledge reality.

  • Bluejay

    I think it’s a much more complex issue. Biology undoubtedly plays a role (though not the ONLY role) in determining how male and female athletes perform. But I think people are too quick to seize on results from specific matches between specific athletes in order to make generalizations about the sexes as a whole.

    Sure, King beating Riggs didn’t settle the question of whether female athletes are on par with male athletes. But by the same token, Riggs beating Court didn’t settle it either. There have been other male-female matches in tennis where sometimes the men won and sometimes the women did. There are other sports in which women have done better than men. Ranking doesn’t definitively prove anything either; sometimes top-ranked athletes and sports teams lose to lower-ranked underdogs of the same sex. There are so many factors to consider: age, health, background, training, personality and state of mind (grit, determination, etc), support infrastructure, capability not just in strength but in strategic thinking, whether someone’s simply having a bad day. Not to mention simply existing in a culture that puts different expectations on boys and girls from the start — e.g. by <a href="“>funneling them into different sports — which means women have additional sociological hurdles to clear. And it could be argued that most sports have been designed by men to be played by men and are therefore rigged against women to begin with.

    The problem I have with the biological argument is that, while it may be true in certain narrow contexts — i.e. comparing purely physical ability between top athletes in the same sport in peak condition, ALL other physical and cultural factors being equal — it’s too easy to use it in a lazy claim like “men are stronger than women” when the truth is that, in general, everyone’s abilities are all over the place. Some women are stronger than some men and weaker than others, and vice versa. And it’s too easy to cry “biology” in making broader claims, like the Google memo guy who thinks women make worse coders and engineers, or those who say women (and LGBT folks) shouldn’t serve in the military. In fact, I’d say “biology” has been THE reason used to justify keeping women restricted to certain roles throughout history: women were “made” to be in the kitchen and serve men, and weren’t “made” to fight in wars, to play sports, to be in the workplace, to be leaders. I can understand why women would want to push hard against that, in any and every field that they possibly can.

  • Bluejay

    Sorry, bad link. The “funneling them into different sports” link should be this:


  • Robert P

    Of course we’re talking about the elite levels of sport where you have people who are uniquely talented and train at an extremely intense level.

    Certainly many women can beat many men players. I think it was tennis phenom Tracy Austin whose coach as a prank would have her play varsity men college players when she was like 13 or so before she was famous and she would wipe the court with these older guys who were decent players, but she was already on track to be a top player and ate, slept and breathed tennis. In my home town there was an exhibition match between a local club pro and a teen girl who had played at Wimbledon. He was doing good to get a racquet on the ball. I don’t think he won a single game. But there’s a huge chasm between a local club pro and the top players in the world.

    In many sports “strength” isn’t how much can you bench type strength. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus etc. weren’t powerlifters but they could generate tremendous rotational power combined with a long list of other skills. None of the top men in tennis are going to get jobs as bouncers but they hit consistently harder than the women encounter against other women. He’s going to wear her down with the amount of energy she has to expend to try and keep up. The fastest serve recorded by a woman wouldn’t put her in the top 30 men’s fastest serves.

    Maybe someday there’ll be a woman placekicker in the NFL, I don’t see there ever being a woman in any other position at the pro level. Even playing quarterback would be suicide.

    It should be pointed out that in some of those other matchups you mentioned the men were by design handicapped such as the women being able to use the doubles area where the men had to hit into the singles area. That’s a huge handicap to overcome, which is why it was done.

  • amanohyo

    It’s true that comparing men and women at elite levels in most popular sports is a silly exercise, but this exhibition, in addition to being a profitable publicity stunt, was a symbolic of a larger change in society – a young, professional woman refusing to be bullied or talked down to by an older man in her field. No one with any sense would conclude from the outcome that women were better than or even as good as men at the highest levels of tennis or (most) professional sports in general (equally entertaining/profitable is a separate, possibly more important question).

    The more fundamental problem is the privileged place sports and other competitions involving physical strength hold in society. Because men have held the highest positions of power for so long, everything that men, on average, seem to enjoy due to a combination of biological and social reasons is held in high regard. Even in areas that women dominated at lower levels like cooking and designing clothes, you once found mostly men in the elite, although there have recently been many women who have made their way to the top, suggesting that in an alternate universe where men and women were equally encouraged to be competitive and ambitious, the ratio of women to men at professional levels might be higher (maybe not 50/50, but probably higher than we see today).

    The most pernicious message is therefore not that “men are better than women at sports,” or even that “football, soccer, and basketball are more exciting than long distance swimming, ballet, and gymnastics,” although that gets closer to the truth. No, the most pernicious message is that everything in society at large that men enjoy and are good at is more important and valuable than everything women enjoy and are good at. Fantasy football is serious business, figuratively and literally, but fan fiction is a silly hobby for teens (despite the ludicrous success of Twilight and Fifty Shades). A man (or woman) can sit and watch football all afternoon and be admired and respected, but a woman (or man) who watches Project Runway all afternoon is belittled for wasting time.

    I’m not saying that Project Runway and its ilk are objectively better or worse than football (I happen to enjoy both) – I’m saying that generations of men in power have woven the idea that sports, war, hunting, and all things projectile and penetration related are the most important, exciting, and admirable elements of life. With the advent of the internet, we’re seeing the rapid growth of powerful (i.e. profitable) subcultures where the creative combination of elements (cooking, writing, music, make-up, design, one could even argue reality TV is a creative combination of personalities) is valued more than various depictions of projection, collision, penetration, and explosion (Dragonball Z comes to mind, a series of phalluses ejaculating at each other with rising intensity).

    In these subcultures, we catch glimpses of what a society that valued activities centered around collaboration, combination, and creation might look like. Please note that I am not pulling a James Damore and claiming that women favor collaboration and creation and men favor competition and explosion solely due to biology – for one thing, I think it’s obvious that women cam be equally as competitive as men, for another there is a huge variety in tastes and personalities among both men and women, and for another social forces have amplified and altered slight biological tendencies in ways we don’t fully understand.

    Obviously, some women enjoy collision and explosion from time to time, but on average, living in the world that we live in, men seem to enjoy it more. Tennis and all other popular professional sports were invented by men for men to play. Once upon a time, men decided that playing tennis was important and valuable. We are at a stage where the institutions that men built have reluctantly opened their doors to women (even the most important ones – business and politics, although the line between the two is blurred). The message of the film is that women in these institutions should be respected as fellow professionals (I agree with the message, but dislike the way the movie hammers it home so bluntly).

    So, even if the film and the real life event don’t have anything significant to say about relative skill at sports, they have something important to say about earning respect as a member of a slowly transitioning institution and they hint that gaining that respect is not sufficient to completely change society. It’s a step, but it takes many women at the executive levels of these institutions to change their fundamental structure, and even then, it will take years to undo generations of sociological hard wiring, and even then it will take decades to redefine which of our institutions are held in high regard, and even then it will take centuries for women to build their own unique mainstream institutions from scratch. Focusing on the “feel-good feminism” or “he’s better/she’s better” sports aspects neglects a larger perspective and longer road.

  • When a friend of mine was a teenager, her mother offered to buy her cigarettes so that she could lose weight. My friend, who had asthma, asked if her mother would prefer that she be thin and dead.

    A moment of silence followed. According to my friend, her mom had to think about it before answering.

  • Bluejay

    in some of those other matchups you mentioned the men were by design handicapped

    Some, but not all. Women won in 1933 and 1985 (and of course 1973) in what were, as far as I can tell, non-handicapped matches. And beyond tennis there are women who have won on equal terms. Pamela Reed, Danica Patrick, Gertrude Ederle, and Kelly Kulick didn’t need handicaps to win in their sport, using the same reflexes and skills and facing the same challenges as the men.

    The larger issue isn’t which particular athlete wins which particular contest on which particular day; it’s the way we as a society talk about it. It’s telling that when the man loses, he gets the benefit of excuses: he’s too old, or the game was handicapped, or he wasn’t taking it seriously. When the woman loses, it’s… because she’s a woman. And when she wins, it always has to be qualified: she was in her prime and he wasn’t, or she won but she only BARELY won, or she wouldn’t have won against some OTHER guy, and so on.

    This is what MaryAnn is pointing out — that women’s achievements are always qualified as lesser. We EXPECT the man to win, and when he doesn’t, we find every reasonable excuse and mitigating circumstance to explain it. We EXPECT the woman to lose, and when she doesn’t, ways must be found to diminish her victory.

  • Ugh.

  • It was a money-making stunt – period.

    For Riggs, sure. Not for King.

    It doesn’t take a thing away from King to say that Riggs in his prime would have crushed her

    I’d love to live in the same world you do. But I live in the world in which men are considered neutral and women are considered Other. If that were not the case, we would not have, for instance, the NBA and the WNBA.

  • All of this.

  • Robert P

    It was a money-making stunt – period.

    For Riggs, sure. Not for King.

    ??…. As I understand it, she won the 100k purse. Riggs got a 50k endorsement from the Sugar Daddy people. Nonetheless, it was a stunt. It couldn’t possibly have shown that the top women tennis players were the equal of the top men because they aren’t. They weren’t then they aren’t now. Why does this fact of reality apparently bother you so much? Sports fans get why the women don’t play against the men but they’re still great players, their matches against other women still generate a lot of interest.

    If that were not the case, we would not have, for instance, the NBA and the WNBA.

    You seriously don’t accept that it’s for a legitimate reason? You’re convinced it’s only because of some social conspiracy?

  • Robert P

    Why would men’s and women’s leagues/associations/divisions bother you any more than the fact that there are weight divisions in various sports? A lightweight lifter or wrestler isn’t going to compete against a superheavyweight.

  • The point is that the extra qualifier only appears in the title of the womens’ leagues (NBA vs. WNBA, NHL vs. NWHL).

  • Your posts seem tangential,given that neither King nor the Williams sisters were asking to play with the men. The issue is around recognition and pay equity, which presumably requires comparable audiences and revenues for men’s and women’s sports. I’m curious on where you think the audiences are going to come from, given that for most people time and money are limited. Are women’s sports being “undervalued” by existing sports fans (mostly male) that watch other sports, or by the people that elect to pursue other activities in their leisure time?

    I follow the NBA (and not much else), but unless they shorten the length of the season (something that would be fine with me) and move the WNBA out of the summer (a time when I would rather be outdoors enjoying the weather), I don’t see myself following the latter league (though I do know that the Sparks and the Lynx are in the finals).

  • Robert P

    Ah, so the beef is the W, L etc.. I think for the simple fact that the men’s leagues/associations existed first and that there’s a financial/business structure relationship and benefit from it.

    So you’d be happier if women’s leagues/associations existed with no affiliation with the NBA, LPGA, etc.? The thing is they have the marketing and promotional power of the larger business entity behind them. The on-tv sports are all about $$. They don’t exist period if they don’t turn a profit.

  • Danielm80

    There’s room on the TV dial for ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNews, ESPN+, ESPN Deportes, ESPNU, the Longhorn Network, and the SEC Network, among other channels.


    I don’t think it’s lack of time that’s discouraging sports fans from watching women’s games.

  • I’m not sure what you’re trying to argue. So ESPN runs a bunch of niche channels. There are also all kinds of cable channels specializing on various non-sports-related themes. They still compete with one another. Or do you want to argue that people automatically find more time to watch television as the number of channels increases?

  • Danielm80


    I’m arguing that people who like sports find the time to watch sports—lots of sports, in fact—even though there are plenty of other leisure activities they could be pursuing, and plenty of other channels on the remote. If they wanted to watch women’s sports, it’s not lack of opportunity that’s stopping them. So maybe other social factors are involved.

  • *Headdesk*

    Someone that denies that time and money are limited has no understanding of economic issues. Whether or not you want to concede the point, increased popularity of women’s sports necessarily involves reduced popularity of something else, whether it happens to be men’s sports or some other activity, since time and attention *are* limited.

  • Just because King won prize money does not mean that she engaged in this as a stunt, or to make money.

  • Why don’t we rename the NBA the MNBA? Men are not the default human, and women are not the Other.

  • In this film, King’s demand to be paid the same prize money as the men is based on the fact that the women players were drawing the same crowds the men were.

  • Fair enough. I wasn’t thinking of the WTA, where there’s been parity for a long time. I was thinking of newer leagues like the WNBA (which isn’t so new anymore) or the NWHL. Or even NCAA, where there continues to be big differences in the viewership between, for example, men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

  • Robert P

    Strictly speaking I don’t think there’s anything in the rules of the NBA and I’m pretty sure Baseball, the NFL, the PGA, the NHL that says women can’t participate. Woman have participated in PGA tour events. If a woman came along who could be competitive it seems it would be a guaranteed moneymaker for their sport.

  • Robert P

    As per my mention below, as it turns out a lot of the “men’s” associations/leagues don’t actually exclude women by official rule. The only thing excluding them has been performance level. While I feel it’s a safe bet there’s never going to be a female NFL lineman women *have* tried out for the NFL as placekickers and women have participated in PGA events. Maybe someday one of them will make it.

  • Yeah, and there are also MASSIVE differences in the levels of promotion, marketing, investment, etc.

  • Based on your name, I’m gonna guess that you’ve never been a girl/woman who tried to enter a male space.

    I have. It’s not fun.

  • There are already a number of established incumbents that are better situated to promote their own leagues. You can promote any product you want, but there still has to be a market for it to matter. I’m asking where the market for the WNBA is going to come from. Contrary to Danielm80’s ridiculous stereotypes of sports fans, most fans I know (including myself) only follow a few sports with any regularity. And in addition to the incumbents, there are also other sports that attempting to grow their audience (e.g. male lacrosse). So again…do you imagine that the WNBA is going to pull fans away from existing sports or pull in new fans?

  • Danielm80

    Once again: If you believe that male sports fans aren’t interested in watching female players, what social factors might have caused that sort of response?

  • Possibly the same social factors that contribute to women being much less likely to watching sports than men. [1] But there’s an intertwining of cultural factors and history that have led us to the current moment, and the reality is that men’s professional sports are well-established, while for the most part women’s are a relatively new phenomena. Any attempt at growing out women’s sports is going to have to deal with that current reality.

    [1] http://demographicpartitions.org/demographics-of-sports-fans-u-s/

  • Danielm80

    What a strange coincidence that our society put so much effort into developing sports for men and so little into sports for women. Maybe we just didn’t have enough leisure time.

  • Robert P

    I’ll bet if, for example, a woman makes it into Major League Baseball she won’t have to deal with a fraction of the b.s. that Jackie Robinson did and would likely have financial opportunities that he never had. Look at Danica Patrick – a talented if not dominant driver who also happens to be photogenic she’s made a fortune in endorsements, ads etc. A talented woman in a traditionally male sport by virtue of her uniqueness is going to bring attention to the sport which in this day of corporate sports is certainly going to be welcomed.

    I don’t think you really want the leagues renamed with a masculine modifier because it would be a symbolic barrier. In many sports at least in the US there isn’t a “No Girls Allowed” sign over the door. Unless someone can show me evidence to the contrary in modern times in the US, I believe if a woman comes along who performs at the level of the men at the pro level she’ll be in.

    If you look at sports like auto and horse racing where it’s not all about size, strength & physical speed there have been a number of women participants.

  • Yeah…because sports are the only possibly way to spend leisure time.

  • ” However, the big takeaway is this: if we want to see female athletes
    receiving more recognition, we need to become women’s sports fans


  • Danielm80

    Yes, that article makes a lot of the points I’ve been trying to make all along. It’s possible that we’ve been furiously agreeing with each other the whole time but at least one of us made his points so badly that the message got muddled. If I was the one, then I apologize.

    My main point is that lots of men refuse to watch women play sports not just because they’re lacking in leisure time but also because we live in a sexist society that, for generations, has discouraged and ridiculed female athletes.

    If you’ve been making the same argument, then we’re in agreement. I think. If not, then I honestly have no idea what you’re trying to say.

  • What I’m interested in is the future (short- and medium-term) prospects for women’s professional sports, given the current state of the industry. But I think is the wrong forum for it. Apologies.

  • amanohyo

    I hated this script – not because it was uniformly awful, but because every time it started to do something right, someone spouted some didactic platitude hammering home exactly how the audience was supposed to feel about what was happening. The almost ASMR-inducing initial haircut scene is perfect, the setting, costume design, acting, all on point. The contrast drawn between the casual, publicity-stunt driven attitude of Riggs and the deadly serious mood of King is a little heavy-handed, but I appreciate the effort that went into showing that beneath the clownish exterior, Riggs was serious about trying to prove something to himself. The lesbian love affair never escalates to histrionics which seems to be true to life and is also a good choice stylistically for a movie that centers on a calm, intensely determined central character.

    It’s just the writing. No one talks like a human being for more than a few seconds before they start opining on the social and historical significance of their actions, delivering pithy one-liners at an annoying high frequency. The villains and heroes are clearly delineated without any subtlety or shades of grey. The most interesting character on paper is Riggs, but even he’s reduced to a one-vice pony. Some of the camera work is beautiful, it’s just a shame that every time a character opens their mouth, a clumsily told feminist morality tale is shoved into the audience’s face. I agree with the message of the film. I am a proud feminist. I did not like this movie, although, along with It, I think it would be a fantastic movie to watch with your preteen or teen children.

    My hope is that one day, there will so many based-on-a-true-story films with female protagonists that this kind of edgy-as-a-doughnut, feel-good edutainment won’t be forced to weigh itself down with so many ideological badges. I’m happy to have bought a ticket and am a proud supporter of this movie in theory (Zeus knows we’ve had plenty of mediocre cinematic celebrations of famous [and not-famous] male historical figures), but in practice, it’s not my cup of tea. I want characters to be given the room to be human beings, and audiences to be given the room to make up their own minds. Less Ayn Rand and William Golding, more Dostoyevsky and George Eliot. Less Hawthorne, more Melville.

    On a lighter note, there is an extended scene where King’s husband is the spitting image of Fred from Scooby Doo (down to the amount of personality he possesses). So heads up all you Fred/Velma fanfic writers out there, your day has finally come.

  • LA Julian

    Yes. The ads were certainly subtexting that cigarettes were a good way to get thin/stay thin, reinforcing what ‘everybody knew’…

  • LA Julian

    It’s Joanna Russ on ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’ but for ‘writing’ you can substitute [activity]…

  • there are also other sports that attempting to grow their audience (e.g. male lacrosse).

    By your argument, this is pointless. There is no room left for more sports. Or are you suggesting there is only room left for men’s sports?

  • Ah, so it’s a feminist thing that we have the NBA and the WNBA? Got it! Thanks for setting me straight.

  • I’m saying that given the saturation of the market, it’s not going to be easy to grow new sports (either men’s or women’s) without finding new fan bases (or peeling fans from existing sports). The biggest untapped potential market for sports are women (roughly 70 percent of the NBA audience are men).

  • Robert P

    I consider it self-evident that when the NBA started it was a different era. Women had only been able to vote for 25 years. So far there’s never been a woman capable of being competitive with the men but there’s obviously an audience interested in seeing women play as evidenced by the WNBA’s existence and sustained profitability – and the LPGA & women’s pro tennis. You don’t see this as a positive?

    I’m incredulous that you of all people would genuinely want an explicit label of exclusion applied. Whatever attitudes you think exist, in various sports the door is open if a woman comes along who can compete at the level of the men just as women -have- entered the “boys club” in pro auto racing.

  • Robert P

    …women’s achievements are always qualified as lesser. We EXPECT the man
    to win, and when he doesn’t, we find every reasonable excuse and
    mitigating circumstance to explain it. We EXPECT the woman to lose, and
    when she doesn’t, ways must be found to diminish her victory.

    I think you’re kidding yourself and flying in the face of reality. It isn’t because of expectations – in this day and age with a large pool of players and highly evolved training and understanding of the science of sport there are essentially -0- times a female is going to beat a top male player in the kind of sports that involve a head to head contesting of fitness, strength, skill and agility.

    Billie Jean King was a superb athlete who was in her prime, playing a guy who was several decades past his and in only okay shape for his age. If she’d played a 55-year-old John McEnroe it would have been a completely different and much shorter story.

    Women’s sports have been around for some time now and for some time the top women like golfer Annika Sorenstam have been totally focused on performance optimization. Science being used is old news – nutrition, supplemental conditioning, psychology, video and computer analysis of mechanics to squeeze every bit of performance.

    An optimally tweaked pro-mod car isn’t going to beat an optimally tweaked top-fuel car.

  • amanohyo

    You’re correct – in all but a few sports (long distance swimming, gymnastics, equestrian sports, shooting sports, driving sports, being some exceptions) it would be ridiculous to expect a professional woman to beat a professional man without some significant handicap.

    That’s not the point of the match in this film – King explicitly states that it is not about whether or not men are better than women at tennis. It’s presented as a matter of personal pride and pride in the professionalism and validity of women’s tennis, and by extension a matter of respecting and valuing women’s and men’s contributions equally. A male colleague is ridiculing the most important thing in King’s life for the sake of spectacle and profit, and in the process is feeding a narrative that equates absolute skill at a sport (which just happens to correlate perfectly with the possession of a penis) with value as a human being.

    That narrative is what I hoped the film would question. It does mention that the crowd sizes are equal, suggesting that women’s and men’s tennis are equally entertaining/profitable. It does not question why absolute skill at a sport should be connected in any way to respect as a human being or even entertainment value. The classic, “yeah, but I could still kick your ass at (insert sport here)” dick-waving justification for unequal treatment is reinforced by the film.

    Sure, the best female athlete can beat a lot of men. Yeah, the best male athlete can beat all the women. So what. Is it only hard numbers that entertain? Is a 160 mph tennis serve more entertaining and valuable than a 130 mph serve? Is a 10.5 second 100m more entertaining, valuable, and worthy of respect than a 9.6 sec 100m?

    In the scientific, stat-based, hyper-competitive culture of most professional sports, it’s taken for granted that better numbers equal better person, but professional sports are competitions staged for entertainment purposes. Women’s tennis (and golf) is equally as entertaining and inspiring to me as men’s tennis. It’s one of the few sports to have a mixed gender event. In a world in which all athletes were encouraged, celebrated, and promoted equally throughout their lives, would all genders be equally entertaining across every sport? No one knows the answer until we try.

  • Bluejay

    I think you’re missing (and also proving) my point. My point is about how we TALK about these matches. When a woman wins against a man, the conversation immediately goes to “Well, she won, and that’s great, but that doesn’t REALLY mean she could have beaten a hypothetical man in top condition. It doesn’t REALLY mean that women are the equal of men in sports.” That’s the angle you yourself took right off the bat, and continue to take: “Sure, let’s celebrate amazing female athletes, but NEVER FORGET that they’ll never be as good as the best men.”

  • Danielm80

    People are still insisting that women aren’t biologically capable of doing math. Even if a whole team of women wins the Super Bowl, people will say it was a fluke.

  • Bluejay

    And it may or may not be a fluke (I’m sure Robert P will respond soon to explain the hypotheticals), but whatever the actual outcome, the point is that the conversation will IMMEDIATELY be about insisting on male superiority.

  • Bluejay

    I didn’t make the connection, but you’re absolutely right. It’s even all on the cover.

  • RogerBW

    See also: when a “women’s” film does well at the box office, the conversation immediately goes to “Well, it made money, and that’s great, but that doesn’t REALLY mean it could have beaten a really good man’s film released the same weekend. It doesn’t REALLY mean that audiences want to see films about women.”

  • Bluejay

    Yep. As LA Julian has pointed out, it’s pretty much Joanna Russ’s book as applied to everything.

  • AA

    Yes, the biggest problem across the board in all politics is the existing control of assets and how control of those assets get passed on. Paying one group higher than another as a matter of course, inherently hurts the whole by undermining the idea of unbiased meritocracy. Pushing the group median to a higher level is our goal as a society, and pushing the majority at the cost of the minority often hurts that. I’ll definitely watch and celebrate this individual battle which has and continued to be a seminal moment of inspiration for both sides of the group.

  • You have an event that is marketed and framed as being the “Battle of the Sexes.” Presumably King and Riggs must represent some aspect(s) of their respective sexes, and I think it’s fair that we ask what aspects those are. Arguably King is representing “female tennis excellence.” I don’t see how you could make the same argument for Riggs at his age, though he was clearly representing “male chauvinism.” Certainly some of the satisfaction of the outcome was seeing that chauvinism get its comeuppance. And yet for some reason, you get upset with anyone that wants to add qualifiers in the *specific* case of a completely contrived event. Could it be that these battle of the sexes matches, which by their very nature invite comparisons, aren’t the best way to promote women’s sports?

  • Bluejay

    Arguably King is representing “female tennis excellence.” I don’t see how you could make the same argument for Riggs at his age

    Again, excuses for the losing man. :-)

    you get upset with anyone that wants to add qualifiers in the *specific* case of a completely contrived event.

    How do you know I’m upset? And Robert P mentions other athletes and makes general statements about male and female athletic ability, not just limited to this one event.

    Could it be that these battle of the sexes matches, which by their very nature invite comparisons, aren’t the best way to promote women’s sports?

    Hmm, I don’t know, what do you think? Clearly you have an opinion. Best state it right out; I’d prefer that to patronizing rhetorical questions.

    And did I claim anything about “best ways” to promote women’s sports? My argument has been along an entirely different line, which doesn’t seem to be the line you want to talk about. If you want to talk about the future prospects of the industry, be my guest. (Though I believe you said you thought this was the wrong forum for it.)

  • My main point, which I think was clear, is that a match framed as a “Battle of the Sexes” will by its very nature lead to questions of whether the participants are truly “best-of-class.”

    Your comments refer to “these matches,” (i.e. battle of the sexes) rather than general perceptions of male and female sports. As I noted before when I said your earlier comments were largely tangential when it came to issues of recognition and pay equity, I don’t see any indication that female athletes have much interest in direct comparisons with male sports.They’re generally more interested in relative comparisons (i.e. where they stand in their own sports relative to their male counterparts).

    And no, I don’t see much value to battle of the sexes matches, given that the women’s sports I’m aware of that are being promoted commercially are female variants of established male sports (soccer, hockey and basketball).

  • Bluejay

    a match framed as a “Battle of the Sexes” will by its very nature lead to questions of whether the participants are truly “best-of-class.”

    And since it’s so difficult to determine whether any particular athlete is best-of-class, these matches are best viewed as specific contests between specific people, not necessarily representative of entire genders. And yet people will go ahead and make claims about entire genders anyway. Which is what I was talking about.

    your earlier comments were largely tangential when it came to issues of recognition and pay equity

    Pay equity is an important issue, but I never mentioned it in any of my comments. I agree that my comments were tangential to something that I wasn’t talking about in the first place. Clearly YOU would like to talk about pay equity, so go ahead!

  • Robert P

    How would you like the match to be talked about? Apparently you want to ignore all aspects of reality and declare without qualification – “She beat a man so therefore women are the athletic equal of men.”

    “But it was really just a sideshow event and…”

    “No, no – you’re trying to make excuses – she beat a man.”

    “He’s been out of the game for decades and is old enough to be her fa….”

    “No excuses – she beat a man – point proven!”

    “What point do you think is pro…”

    “No! She beat a man!”

    “Why doesn’t she play John Newcombe or Stan Sm…”

    “Excuses!! She already beat a man! It makes no difference which one.”

    The “angle” I took was addressing what I see as an inaccurate assertion by MAJ – what the match was supposedly meant to prove – “the question of whether female athletes were the equals of their male counterparts” and that this has supposedly been diluted because of alleged steps backward suffered by feminism – because “The Man” is always trying to keep a sister down.

    She doesn’t clarify what she means by “equal”. Equal as in equal interest generated or equal as in equal athletic abilities?

  • Robert P

    Arguably King is representing “female tennis excellence.” I don’t see
    how you could make the same argument for Riggs at his age, though he was
    clearly representing “male chauvinism.”

    I guess it would really annoy Blue to point out that there’s a strong possibility that Riggs threw the match to get out of hot water with mobsters he owed money to and made a killing himself betting on Billie Jean.

  • Bluejay

    Apparently you want to ignore all aspects of reality and declare without qualification – “She beat a man so therefore women are the athletic equal of men.”

    I have repeatedly said and said that the issue isn’t which specific athlete wins or loses, and that these contests don’t definitively settle any larger claims about gender (in either direction). You keep not hearing it. I’ve made my points; you go ahead and enjoy your imaginary conversation.

  • Bluejay

    Not annoyed, because my point isn’t about who wins or loses any particular contest.

  • Robert P

    Again, how do you think people ideally should talk about the occasional man against woman contest?

  • Bluejay

    I like how MaryAnn talks about it.

    I like how ESPN talks about it.

    I like how the NY Times reported it.

    In none of those pieces are broad claims made about the physical superiority of men or women. But they recognize that a woman’s victory IS important, as a blow against sexism and chauvinism, as an inspiration to girls and women, as a prod to society to give women’s sports more respect and infrastructural support, and as a reminder for us to take off our cultural blinders and recognize and cultivate ALL talent, regardless of sex (or race, etc), because that’s better for all of us.

    When Obama (whatever you think of him) won the presidency, it didn’t mean that all black people would be better presidents than all white people. (Of course, the reverse isn’t true either.) But it struck a cathartic symbolic blow against our nation’s racist history (even if, alas, that racism continues), expanded our imagination of who COULD be president, and inspired minorities by showing that this was now within the realm of the possible. When Lauryn Hill became the first hip-hop artist to win Album of the Year at the Grammys, it didn’t mean all hip-hop artists would always be better than all rock or country artists. (And the reverse also isn’t true.) But it signaled a greater cultural acceptance of hip-hop as a genre EQUALLY worthy of respect. Arguing “Well, Obama wouldn’t have won against a different white candidate” or “Well, Hill wouldn’t have won if Country Superstar X had put out an album that year” is kind of wildly missing the whole point.

  • trina85

    That “disapproving player” was Margaret Court, former tennis champ, current homophobe making headlines in Australia for her opposition to same-sex marriage (we’re having a referendum on it here at the moment). The movie portrayed her more respectfully than she deserves.

  • I’m incredulous that you of all people would genuinely want an explicit label of exclusion applied.

    What I want is for the world to stop acting like male is the default and female is a deviation from it.

  • Let’s wait until there is a truly level playing field before we decide definitively that there’s no way a woman could ever beat a man. When even a top-ranked badass athlete like Serena Williams is subjected to horrendous abuse, that is a disincentive for women to dedicate themselves to sports. When female athletes are still judged more on their looks on their athletic abilities, that is a disincentive for women to dedicate themselves to sports. There may well be women out there who could beat men at their own games, but the whole universe is telling them it’s not worth the beating they would take, not on the field/court/whatever, but in the culture.

  • You seem very intent on “proving” that women can never be any sort of equal, by any sort of measure, of men.

    This attitude is precisely the one that the 1973 match and this movie are trying to highlight as ridiculous. That “an inaccurate assertion by MAJ” is in fact an assertion of the movie. You can disagree with it if you want — and clearly, you do disagree — but your dismissal of the knocks that women and feminism are *constantly* taking indicates that you really do not understand anything about the respect and the dignity that women have been fighting for since *at least* the middle of the 19th century.

  • Well, it does make a point of Court’s disapproval of King’s sexuality.

    Sorry to hear she’s still being awful. :-(

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