Battle of the Sexes (2017)

“MacArthur Ashe, or Women Who Wear Glasses Sometimes Hit Great Passes”

One of the foundational areas of inquiry in mass communications research is the “media event,” a public spectacle covered on live television, garnering huge viewership. Mass exposure to the media event fundamentally transforms the real world into a narrative experience shared across identity positions typically policed and kept separate. In their seminal study, “The Unique Perspective of Television and its Effects” (1953), Chicago School sociologists Kurt and Gladys Lang observed that the television coverage differed greatly from the direct experience on the streets of Chicago of General Douglas MacArthur’s triumphal return in 1951 to Soldier Field, where he delivered a speech to the nation after having been ignominiously relieved of duty by President Harry Truman.

Figure #1: Parade on State St. during MacArthur Day in Chicago (April 26, 1951)

A few years later, Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation, televised and heavily watched both in the United Kingdom and the United States, allowed people from very different class positions privileged access to a domain seldom accessible to all but the elite. The direct legacy of the “Coronation Day” television show includes, of course, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981 (watched by three quarter of a billion people around the globe), and most recently, the wedding of Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle on May 19, 2018.

Figure #2: The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (May 19, 2018)

The concept of the media event extends beyond the lives of political powerbrokers, most significantly to television coverage of sporting events. A central thread of mass communications research argues that the modern Olympic Games–fundamentally a series of live sporting events staged specifically for television cameras—serves as the best example of global community formation in the modern world. In “The Living Room Celebration of the Olympic Games” (1988), Eric Rothenbuhler extends the work of the Langs to the world of sports. In their book, Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (1994), Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz position the Olympics alongside televised political events such as the funeral of John F. Kennedy and the international travels of Pope John Paul II.

We have entered a new phase of mass communications history in which original media events are now themselves re-converted into new audio-visual spectacles. Fiction films contextualize anew prior media events, which were themselves already pseudo-experiential events, pre-packaged as television commodities.

Such is the case with the excellent film, Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2017). The film chronicles a notorious American media event, ABC’s live coverage of a gimmick-laden tennis match between 55-year-old former champion Bobby Riggs and the 29-year-old, soon-to-be women’s tennis legend, Billie Jean King. Held at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973, over 30,000 live spectators came to watch the contest. The television coverage garnered approximately 90 million global television viewers.

Figure #3: Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) celebrates her victory at the Houston Astrodome (September 20, 1973) in Battle of the Sexes

In and of itself, “The Battle of the Sexes” media event, an attempt by Bobby Riggs to monetize male chauvinism, is merely a small blip in television history. Indeed, earlier in May 1973, Riggs had already beaten the number one women’s tennis player in the world, Margaret Court in straight sets in a similar publicity stunt. However, only 5,000 spectators attended the so-called “Mother’s Day Massacre,” and even though CBS provided live coverage, this earlier match did not rise to the level of a media event. Riggs rejuvenated his career as a huckster, landing his photograph on the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazines, but it was the match won by Billie Jean King that would be remembered as a groundbreaking media event.

The 2017 film, Battle of the Sexes features Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billie Jean King. The film deftly plumbs the reasons for the match rising to the level of a media event, dramatizing the sports component of the development of the women’s liberation movement. King and her fellow female players solidified their gains in equality of pay and prestige for women’s tennis, after a century of being treated on and off the courts as second-class athletes.

Figure #4: King and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) at a press conference promoting the “Battle of the Sexes” in Battle of the Sexes

Cannily, the film brings to the fore that which the actual media event kept hidden. At the formation of the new women’s Virginia Slims Circuit, King meets and falls in love with the tour’s hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Everyone involved keeps the lesbian affair under wraps. The tour’s gay fashion designer, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) aids King in trying to keep her affair from her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell).

Even when Larry finds out the truth, he realizes the importance of the woman he loves to the history of sports, refusing to out her. Indeed, in real life, King was only outed in 1981 by an alimony lawsuit filed by Barnett herself, after their relationship ended badly. That same year, Martina Navratilova came out at the height of her career, marking a milestone in gay liberation and sports history.

Figure #5: Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) designs new women’s tennis dresses for the Virginia Slims Circuit in Battle of the Sexes

The aesthetic highpoint of Battle of the Sexes occurs when King and Barnett first meet. The scene begins with public matters relevant to the media event which looms. The businesswoman helping King get the tour started, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) talks with the women about their precarious financial state without sponsorship.

In the background of the image, we see Barnett tending to King’s hair. As the scene proceeds, the film focuses increasingly on Barnett’s caressing of King’s hair. As the ambient sound is gradually replaced by subtle romantic music, the film produces a stunningly beautiful reverie of extreme close-ups on King’s face as she is wooed by Barnett’s skilled hands. Elegant balanced compositions juxtapose Barnett’s strawberry blonde hair and face against King’s jet black hair and practical eyeglasses, a prop which allows King to deflect Barnett’s claims about the tennis star’s true beauty.

Figure #6: A close-up on King’s face as Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) tends to her hair in Battle of the Sexes

This sequence in the film exposes that which the media event could not. As a public presentation of history, the Riggs-King tennis match concerned gender equality. The secret that lay behind this media event involved a fraught human being coming to terms with her sexuality amidst unthinkable homophobia.

Battle of the Sexes deftly tells the story of a media event which took place almost fifty years ago, demonstrating that what we think we know by watching television is not what has experientially occurred. Using vastly different tools, the film comes to the same conclusions as did the Langs about General McArthur seventy years ago: television grotesquely distorts the real in the service, not of the truth, but of its own ideological interests.

Figure #7: The mirror images of Barnett and King belie their inability to make their lesbian relationship public in Battle of the Sexes

Works Cited

Dayan, Daniel and Elihu Katz. Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994.

Lang, Kurt and Gladys Engel Lang. “The Unique Perspective of Television and Its Effect: A Pilot Study.” American Sociological Review. 18.1 [February 1953]. 3-12.

Rothenbuhler, Eric. “The Living Room Celebration of the Olympic Games.” Journal of Communication. 38.4 [December 1988]. 61-81.

–Walter Metz