Battle of the Sexes: the second wave on film

My ‘further reading’ list for the Second Wave course includes a short list of feminist films from the relevant period. Most are by European directors like Chantal Akerman, Marleen Gorris, Helke Sander and Agnès Varda; I don’t list any of the mainstream films, made for a mass rather than an arthouse audience, which were either feminist in spirit (think Thelma and Louise or Fried Green Tomatoes) or else represented ‘women’s lib’ from the outside–sometimes sympathetically, as with the 1980 hit 9 to 5, in which Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin do battle with their sexist boss, and sometimes not, as with the execrable Carry On Girls, in which some militant feminists disrupt a beauty contest in an English seaside town (it was made in 1973, and is as relentlessly sexist as you’d expect from the Carry On franchise).

But this week I’ve been pondering the mainstream representation of the second wave after seeing Battle of the Sexes, a new film which tells the story of the 1973 exhibition match where tennis legend Billie-Jean King took on–and decisively defeated–the veteran player and self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. In case anyone doesn’t know the context for this event, King was the leader of a group of women tennis professionals who protested against sex discrimination (and in particular, the derisory amounts of money women players competed for) by forming their own independent tour. Riggs, who in addition to being a former grand slam-winner was a gambler, hustler and general attention-seeker, saw an opportunity: on the pretext of settling the ‘should women get equal treatment?’ question he would challenge the top woman to play him in a public ‘battle of the sexes’.

I say ‘on the pretext’ because Riggs’s motives don’t seem to have been primarily political. For him it was mostly about the publicity and the money. For King, on the other hand,  the political stakes were high. Her eye was on the real chauvinists who ran her sport, and whose position had been strengthened when Riggs won his first match against a top-ranked woman, Margaret Court. Having previously refused to be drawn into what she called a ‘circus’, she now felt compelled to accept the challenge. Her victory did advance the larger struggle, in that the US Open announced later that year that it would offer the same prize money to both sexes.

Interwoven with this narrative is another, focusing on King’s relationship with a woman, Marilyn Barnett, and the personal struggle which was precipitated by her realisation that she was sexually attracted to women. In reality this story began earlier than it is shown to do in the film, and it also ended badly, in a way the film chooses not to mention. In 1981 Barnett sued King for a share of her financial assets. King won the ensuing court case, but since it made the relationship public knowledge she also lost millions of dollars in endorsements. She wasn’t ready to declare herself a lesbian: it was not until 1987, after she became involved with her doubles partner Ilana Kloss, that she ended her marriage to Larry King.

These are both archetypal 1970s feminist stories, one dramatising women’s battle for equality and recognition in the public sphere, while the other follows a woman’s quest for freedom to live and love outside the confines of patriarchal marriage. And I should acknowledge that they are told here in a way that is both sympathetic and entertaining: Battle of the Sexes looks good and is very well acted. If I weren’t teaching a course on the second wave I’d probably just recommend it as a decent feminist night out and leave it at that. But my current preoccupation with this period of feminism’s history led me to watch it more critically than I might otherwise have done. And I found myself thinking that there’s a rather persistent problem with the way second wave feminism has been packaged for popular consumption.

Generically Battle of the Sexes is a ‘comedy drama’. It has some serious moments (like the scene where King confronts the misogynist who runs the US lawn tennis association), and there is nothing funny about the lesbian romance plot. But the battle of the title is basically a joke, a circus masterminded by, as King herself says, a clown. According to the sports writer Richard Williams, that’s also what it was in reality:

Yes, there really were 30,000 spectators in the vast Houston Astrodome for a match which, in tennis terms, had no meaning at all. Yes, there were cheerleaders in hot pants, waving pom-poms. Yes, King really was conveyed into the arena by husky young men bearing the champion on a feather-bedecked Pharaonic litter (Riggs, wearing a jacket emblazoned Sugar Daddy, arrived in a rickshaw pulled by young women in tight tops, known as Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.)

This is pretty much what you’d expect from something billed as a ‘battle of the sexes’. What’s behind that familiar formula is the ancient idea that men and women are natural adversaries, locked in an endless struggle for supremacy which neither will ever definitively win, because they are also naturally bound to one another by desire and mutual dependence. And this is basically a comedic trope. From Aristophanes’s Lysistrata through Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to Carry On Girls, the eternal battle of the sexes has repeatedly been played for laughs.

On the face of it this is not the most obvious frame for a feminist narrative, nor is it one that gets used in stories about other liberation movements (will we ever see a comedy drama about Rosa Parks called Battle of the Races? I think not). Yet I can hardly think of a single mainstream film about the second wave which doesn’t draw on the comedic ‘battle of the sexes’ tradition. 9 to 5 is a classic example, while the more recent Made In Dagenham, a dramatisation of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike for equal pay in 1968, was praised for its ‘light’ tone and compared to the British comedies Calendar Girls and The Full Monty. Like them (if more gratuitously) it featured stripping, though one woman who had worked at the plant, Gwen Davis, told a newspaper that ‘we weren’t allowed to strip off, and we had too much pride to do it even if we were’.

My own favourite mainstream movie inspired by and released during the second wave, the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, is an exception to this rule, being not a comedy but a sci-fi/horror film. But most people reading this will probably be more familiar with the 2004 remake, in which the same story is reframed as a comedy–a darkish comedy, since it’s still about organised femicide, but a long way from the chilling dystopian vibe of the earlier version.

With the exception of the Stepford Wives remake, which I regard as a post-feminist mess, I quite like all the films I’ve just mentioned, and as I said earlier, I also enjoyed Battle of the Sexes. The fact that it’s based on a real ‘battle of the sexes’ which was as much a humorous publicity stunt as a serious political action means I can’t reasonably criticise the directors for approaching the story the way they did. But at the risk of sounding like the proverbial humourless feminist, I do feel the need to ask what it means for our understanding of the second wave that it is so often presented in this way, relying heavily on a trope with a long history of being used to trivialise sexual politics. As the New York Times pointed out in a 2006 piece about King,

Most civil rights causes are thwarted through fear, but ridicule has always been the weapon of choice against feminism.

The films I’ve cited may not set out to ridicule feminism, but why is it assumed that a film about it has to be jokey or ‘light’ when that doesn’t apply to films about other kinds of radical politics?

One answer might be that film-makers (or maybe the people who decide what films get made) think anything harder-edged would be too unpalatable for a mainstream audience to swallow. But they evidently didn’t think that about last year’s big herstory film Suffragette, a serious drama which did not pull its punches when it came to the brutal treatment of the campaigners or the unjust and oppressive laws to which women in general were subject. Maybe the difference is that the struggle for the vote (and other basic legal and civil rights) belongs to the distant rather than the recent past, and is generally seen in retrospect as a just cause. By contrast, the political struggles of the 1970s are still to quite a large extent unfinished business. And many people–some of them born long after the second wave–continue to dispute the justice of the demands feminists made then and are still making now.

In that connection I found it interesting that one reviewer (writing for, of all things, GQ) described Battle of the Sexes as ‘a prequel to the #MeToo campaign’. I imagine he was thinking particularly of some cringe-making scenes where a visibly uncomfortable Rosie Casals is forced to commentate on the King-Riggs match with her male co-presenter’s arm draped around her. In fact the film must have been shot well before the current sexual harassment scandal kicked off, and I suspect the rationale for these and other similar scenes was probably the opposite of what the GQ writer implies: not to point up the continuities between then and now, but rather to emphasise the differences.

This is another problem with the comedic framing of second wave narratives: by inviting us to laugh incredulously at the over-the-top, cartoon-like sexism which was prevalent in the past, it tends to block any recognition of the (many) ways in which things haven’t changed. 1970s sexism is amusing/ unbelievable in the same way as 1970s fashion (‘how could they say that/wear that in public?’) But like the difference between massive flares and skinny jeans, the difference between yesterday’s male chauvinist pigs and today’s MRAs is more about style than substance.

Ironically, recent events (not only the ongoing sexual harassment saga, but also the presence in the White House of a man-baby–a more malevolent and more genuinely misogynist version of Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs) make it possible to watch Battle of the Sexes in another way the makers probably didn’t intend: nostalgically. I don’t mean we should feel nostalgic for a time when women were second-class citizens and lesbians stayed firmly in the closet. But in 1973 feminists could feel that they were winning (and not just in the Houston Astrodome). They could see the male chauvinists as dinosaurs heading for extinction. Maybe the most important thing this film conveys about the second wave is that spirit of defiant optimism. If only we had more of it today.



Author: debuk

Feminist, linguist, writer