In 1973, retired Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (then 55) thought that he could beat Billie Jean King in a tennis match. Riggs was hoping to make the match a spectacle and quash all of the “nonsense” of women’s rights in sports. At the time, Billie Jean was one of the leading advocates for equal pay in women’s tennis, making her a perfect target for Riggs to take down. He propositioned King several times to compete, but King had refused. However, Riggs was persistent and, after many failed attempts to get her to acquiesce, King agreed. The tennis star met the known chauvinist in a winner-take-all contest at the Houston Astrodome—and won.
The film also depicts King’s relationship with hairstylist Marilyn Barnett in the midst of volatile gender politics. The newly released trailers give us a glimpse of Marilyn (played by Andrea Riseborough) and her secret affair with King. Clips show the couple talking about Billie’s struggles with the nature of their relationship, their eventual intimacy, and facing the reality of their time—the extremely homophobic culture that could have ruined King’s career. During the time following the Battle of the Sexes match, Billie Jean and Marilyn Barnett eventually ended their affair. Their relationship was later publicized after Barnett took King to court for refusing to give Barnett her Malibu estate. After this court case, Billie Jean came forward, admitting the truth about their relationship and about her sexuality.
It is not unlike Hollywood to completely gloss over a real-life character’s sexuality. So many iconic figures from the past have been inaccurately portrayed on the big screen. Their sexuality is usually only alluded to or, really, just swept under the rug. However, the movie looks like it will fully acknowledge and represent this same-sex relationship well. It will be exciting to watch one of the most famous women in sports beat a misogynistic, loud-mouth on screen. It will also be exciting to watch how Billie Jean dealt with the taunting, patronizing criticism of the 1970s sports world. What will be most satisfying, however, is knowing that it was a queer woman who made this incredible impact in the tennis world—and paved the way for gender equality in women’s sports.
Battle of the Sexes comes to theaters on September 22. Stay tuned for the Award and Out critique! In the meantime, get out there and watch it!