#FrancisOnFilm: Battle of the Sexes

18 October 2017

Battle of the Sexes is a feel-good movie that’s slickly-made and well-acted. It’s a happy ending movie on just about every level, including some that weren’t so happy in real life. King wins the tennis match against Bobby Riggs. Larry, King’s then-husband, supports King’s tennis career, tolerates her developing understanding of her sexuality, and ends up with a happy second marriage with King the godmother to his children. Riggs reconciles with his wealthy wife. The women’s tennis tour makes a lot of money for its participants, promoters, and not incidentally Virginia Slims. Jack Kramer is the sexist villain who disrespects women as tennis players and women’s tennis as an economic attraction—and who is vanquished by King. King’s relationship to Marilyn Barnett is portrayed without a hint (not even in the “what happened” lines at the end) of the palimony lawsuit she brought after their break-up and the endorsements King lost from it.

Reactions to the movie have been strikingly divided in ways that reveal far-reaching conflicts about equality, sexuality, and sports. Manohla Dargis in The New York Times regards it as enjoyable if superficial entertainment with a political message. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone judges the political overtones as forceful and directly relevant to the 2016 election. Roger Ebert is disappointed that the movie “does not hit as hard” as King herself did, even though it “illuminates the difference between fighting for equality and battling to hold on to perceived superiority.” Slate reviewer Dana Stephens is more critical, albeit not only of the movie’s failure to explore the eventual bitter end of King’s relationship with Barnett but also of the movie’s failure to show more sports scenes. On the other hand, Heather Hogan for Autostraddle judges that the movie is “triumphal” for sports movies and for lesbian women.

One reviewer—Sonny Bunch in the Washington Free Beacon, an avowedly conservative website—takes Battle of the Sexes to task for failing to explore the controversies about whether Riggs had deliberately thrown the match, calling the movie a “parody” of empowerment and “cinematic malpractice” that’s designed to preach feminism rather than enlighten. Bunch’s review is right to call attention to the controversy and to the movie’s failure to address it, but it’s right for the wrong reasons. Bunch seems to think that Jack Kramer might have been right—that women’s sports just might not be as good as men’s and that King’s victory was a sham. But there are clear alternatives. One is that women’s sports are better—different, to be sure, but better in the values they evidence and the forms of competition they embrace. Another is that perhaps many sports today are misconceived because they are divided by gender or indeed for many other reasons.

From the ancient Greeks, philosophical writing about sport has been rooted in theories of virtue and the good. Discussions in this genre regard sport as a form of human excellence. Sport develops physical skill, mental concentration, and teamwork. Its goal is the best of human nature. On versions of this view, excluding or marginalizing women in sports is shutting them out from opportunities for excellence. (Or, like the Jack Kramer of the movie, it expresses a judgment that half of all humans are incapable of a distinctive form of human excellence.) Recognition of the importance of opportunities for excellence was critical to Title IX’s prescription for equal educational opportunity, including in college and school sports.

These virtue-theoretic accounts of sports also typically hold essentialist views of human nature. That is, they think that there is an ideal human form, perhaps represented physically by the Discobolus attributed to the Greek sculptor Myron. The ideal is, moreover, an ideal of male perfection. On this view, the ideal form of tennis is male tennis: with a thunderous serve of more than 160 mph, a quick volley, and powerful overheads: slam, bam, thank you ma’am. Margaret Court exemplified a female version of this ideal that paled in comparison even to an over-the-hill male tennis player who had never exemplified the masculine ideal of tennis but had dinked his way to Wimbledon and US championships and a world number 1 ranking. No wonder Court succumbed to Riggs in the “Mother’s Day Massacre” that preceded the battle between King and Riggs. She was trying to play the male game, even against a poor exemplar of the form, and she’s portrayed as crumbling under the pressure. But perhaps there might also be non-essentialist views about the forms of excellence exemplified in sports. Battle of the Sexes depicts the support for one another of the women on the tour, and how they exhibit deep friendship even as competitors. It depicts the focused self-discipline of King as she trains for the match with Riggs despite her difficult emotional life. And it shows women as beautiful, graceful, and powerful bodies in many different sizes, from the diminutive Rosie Casals to the nearly 6 foot Margaret Court. The women on the tour achieved from very different backgrounds, too: Rosie Casals learned to play tennis on public courts in San Francisco, Evonne Goolagong under the conditions of discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait people in Australia, and Jane (then Peaches) Bartkowitz learned to play after finding a racquet in the bushes in her home town of Hamtramck, Michigan.

The Women’s Tour represented a separatist approach to equality. The women were forced into it as a protest to disparities in prize money. But then, and now, tennis displays a more integrationist approach to equal opportunity than many other sports. The major tennis tournaments feature men’s, women’s, and mixed events—although the mixed doubles final, played last, often seems like an afterthought. Other than the Olympics, sports like golf that permit women to enter the men’s events even though very few do, and sports such as ultimate Frisbee that are explicitly designed to include both male and female players, most sports are rigidly separate. And the tennis tournaments and the Olympics feature parallel rather than combined play for the most part. Almost twenty years ago now, Tamburrini and Tännsjö explored the possibility of genetic engineering to produce women who were like men to compete on equal terms in sports designed for male bodies. But surely if we think seriously about sports as forms for the realization of human excellence, even just human physical excellence (although sport is far more than that), there are many ways in which we could design competitions that bring men and women together. At the very least, we should think seriously about the essentialist assumptions about male and female perfection that have dogged sports design for millennia.

Or perhaps it all just boils down to money, cash for entertainment, especially when physical risks are involved. In the end, that’s what Jack Kramer thought: that sports should be organized as money making ventures. Kramer made a great deal of money himself and was a crusader for the professionalization of athletes. But, as portrayed in Battle of the Sexes, he also thought it was justifiable to pay women less than men because fans would not pay as much to see women play. Kramer was proved wrong in tennis, but similar assumptions appear to pervade sports even today. Players on the US women’s national soccer team right now—yes, in 2017—are paid less than men, despite winning a “bump” after filing a complaint with the US Equal Opportunity Commission. FIFA, the international soccer body, gave German soccer $35 million for winning the World Cup in 2014, while the U.S. Soccer Federation received $2 million for the women’s win in 2015. In fact, quite a lot of sports boil down to money today. Robert Nozick, defending libertarianism in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), thought it was just fine if people chose voluntarily to pay Kareem Abdur Jabbar quite a lot so they could watch him play basketball. Many people today think it is just fine if fans pay a lot to watch people who have voluntarily put on weight and gained muscle mass turn themselves into concussion-causing missiles. Perhaps of note for those who object to paternalism for adults but believe it is permissible for minors, US Youth Soccer now prohibits heading for players 11 and under and limits it greatly for players 12 and 13; evidence is mounting that youth football players suffer lasting effects of brain injuries from learning to tackle before age 12.

Battle of the Sexes is an enjoyable two hours at the movies. But it should also be a source of discussions about what equality might mean in sports and the role of sports in society more generally. After all, it originated against the background of Title IX, Roe v. Wade, and many other developments that remain under attack today.