‘The Battle of the Sexes’ looks at the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, focussing on tennis and the conflicts on and off the court of Billie Jean King. This insightful documentary is named after the series of tennis matches involving ‘chauvinist pig’ Bobby Riggs who at the age of 55, claimed that he could easily defeat any female professional as he believed the female side of the sport was far inferior. When he issued an open challenge to any woman who wished to take him on, all eyes turned to Billie Jean King who was a pioneer at that time.
As the title suggests, this contest was developed by the media not just as a tennis match, but a battle between men and women, and the documentary uses this aspect of the marketing well, giving the archive footage a boxing promotion vibe which brings striking visuals and laughs, particularly during ridiculous Riggs segments. This poses the fascinating question of whether he really was the sexist fool and compulsive gambler he seemed to be or was it all an act? Was he in fact an intelligent businessman, carefully plotting to make money from his bold outbursts? Either way, his actions led to a spectacle which advertised the sport to millions and arguably put tennis where it is today. The match itself was set up as if it was a Rocky Balboa duel, with use of extreme close ups, slow-mo sequences and a dramatic score. Though being a documentary, the outcome played out years in the past long predetermined therefore the footage drags at times, failing to achieve the intended suspense.
At this time off the court, Billie Jean King and the other key figures of the women’s game were fighting another battle as they were dissatisfied with the smaller prize money awarded compared with the amounts dished out in the males game. Dubbed the ‘Original 9’, they refused to take part in the tour and in turn bravely set up a tour of their own, the ‘Virginia Slims Circuit’, each playing for only one dollar apiece. This debate is carried out mostly through the talking heads of BJK, Virginia Wade, Margaret Court amongst others, and offers a nice balance to the film, providing a tidy structure and a steady pace.
In the aftermath of the contest between King and Riggs which is the built up finale of the piece, there is a neat summary involving the players of the modern era including Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters which aids in showing the impact Billie Jean King has had on the game, and on woman’s sport in general. The only problem I have is that although a lot of ground is covered, the character study of Billie Jean King herself is only glossed over. Perhaps as she was not only the star but also one of the people involved in the making of the film, details of her mysterious personal life was held back. The issues of her marriage and her sexuality are merely touched upon, but are not investigated fully, which in fairness may not be of relevance to the key subject matter but would offer a greater understanding of the human being and her relentless courage. Despite not being as hard hitting as King herself, ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ is an eye opening historical account, executed with style.