‘Battle of the Sexes’ is not a sad movie, but as the credits rolled I cried

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For Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, left), the future of half the population of the world rides on her shoulders in her ...

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 As a queer teenager, I learnt something pretty quickly. Years before I would find acceptance, belonging, and even love, I learnt to disappear.

If I hid, there was a chance I could be successful and happy. There was no way I could find a job I wanted to do or excel at what I loved otherwise. I saw no one that looked like me, let alone people like me who had stories of reaching the pinnacle of what they were highly skilled at.


Trailer: Battle of the Sexes

The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.

The people I did see were brutally unhappy. They were victims, left beaten down by bureaucracy, stripped of everything else that could define them outside how they had been broken and put back together by heterosexual saviours. To be an LGBTQIA+ person, and certainly a queer woman, is to be told from the earliest age that you will never belong, and you will certainly never be a hero. The world will not allow it.

Queer women have thankfully been able to find less death and more love on screen over the past few years. The campaign against the “Bury Your Gays” trope, launched after nearly 20 queer women were killed on television in the first four months alone of 2016, has seen a renewed push for changing the mindset of mainstream culture. There’s the movie Carol and the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”; tales of women finding each other and beautifully, tenderly, passionately falling in love.

But despite the fact these are stories that afford queer women happy endings, there are still few mainstream movies – ones that reach the people who need not only to see them but be seen – where a lesbian gets to unashamedly be a hero, to herself and to the world.

Enter Battle of the Sexes, which is (somewhat surprisingly) the balm for my soul, a rare story of a queer person being allowed to triumph without a caveat. As I watched the end credits roll, eventually getting up to leave, I found myself bursting into tears. Though it’s far from a sad movie.

Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King, the world No.1 tennis player for six of the 10 years from 1966 through to 1975. When a tournament was started among some of the sports’ luminaries that would see a male winner get paid eight times more than a female winner, she decided to hold her own contest with a bunch of teammates, touring America with an aim to liberate tennis beyond the country clubs.

Former champion-turned-exhibition player Bobby Riggs taunts her until she agrees to play a match against him for $100,000 prizemoney; dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, it became the most-watched tennis event of all time in the US.

For him, it’s a lark. For her, the future of half the population of the world rides on her shoulders, and that’s just what the cameras can see. “I can’t have you telling the American public what to read into every serve,” she tells a sexist commentator.

At the time it was widely known that King was a fierce campaigner for diversity in the sport as well as gender equality. Discovering tennis as a pre-teen in an after-school club, she noticed that the sport was nearly all white – from the dresses (which her family couldn’t afford), to the balls, to the people. In the same year of the Battle of the Sexes, she threatened to boycott the US Open unless parity in prizemoney was promised.

But while the King v Riggs showdown remains one of the most-watched sporting matches in history and her actions made leaps for equality in sport, the film’s focus is largely on one of the less talked about aspects – her sexuality and sense of self. Behind the cameras, King was falling in love with Marilyn (played here by Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser she met on tour.

There is something refreshing in these scenes and how they’re portrayed. For one it’s 1973, yet King is thankfully shown as the recipient of little punishment for being who she is. Her scenes with Marilyn are sweet and sensual, and while Billie Jean is exploring a very much buried part of herself for the first time, her sexuality is as much a part of her as tennis skill. She hoists a trophy triumphantly over her head at the end of the film, and meets Marilyn’s eyes in the crowd with a smile.

It goes without saying that this moment of a powerful, passionate lesbian triumphing on her own skill is exactly what I needed in the thick of the marriage equality postal survey. Homophobia in sport, and many other fields, is still rife. Any public display of solidarity – be it Macklemore singing Same Love at the NRL grand final, both football codes confirming that their vote is firmly a “yes”, or Coca-Cola painting a bottle on the iconic Kings Cross sign in rainbow colours with “SAY YES” next to it – has been declared a politicising stain somehow taking away our enjoyment.

But what these arguments against such shows of support in mainstream culture fail to acknowledge is how positively transformative they can be. Queer heroes, whether they be in sport like Ian Thorpe or the arts like Magda Szubanski, still struggle for the same acceptance as their straight counterparts. Their stories, if told to and embraced by the masses, have the power to be viscerally moving.

Whether real or fictional, there is a need for queer heroes who are successful while embracing their sexuality, especially now. The past weeks have echoed the ridicule I’ve experienced since childhood in every waking moment. I’ve felt again the need to hide in order to be happy, to obscure who I am in order to exist.

I see letters preaching the virtues of the “no” campaign in the houses of people I thought I knew better, and “VOTE NO” written across the most public of places. I am unable to escape debate about my rights no matter where I go.

On screen, it is rare that people like me survive and triumph while embracing themselves. We die brutally, we hide ourselves, and only then are we embraced. This film told me at the most crucial of moments that I am not limited to a sad story. I do not need to be saved. Finally, I found a queer female hero who is allowed to be herself.

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