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Seeking Détente in the Battle of the Sexes

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Rating: 2.5/5

Battle of the Sexes is the latest movie to weigh in on the ongoing discussion on gender equality. It centers on the highly publicized 1973 tennis match between 29-year-old female tennis star Billie Jean King and 55-year-old past-his-prime former champion Bobby Riggs.

King (played by Emma Stone) was one of the United States’ first public personalities to live openly as a homosexual; the first part of the film focuses on her struggle with her sexuality as she enters a relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) despite being married to Larry King (Austin Stowell). The film addresses a number of big topics, perhaps biting off more than can be properly digested in a running time of just two hours, but one key issue, inherent in the film’s title, is that of gender equality.

King battles for pay parity for women, who earned eight times (and sometimes 12 times!) less in prize money than their male counterparts. Second wave feminism was well underway by this time, focusing on issues such as workplace rights and sexuality. In this climate of increasing female concern for a stronger voice and rights, King led a number of female players to leave the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) and start the Virginia Slims Circuit competition because of this massive disparity in prize money.

Although the film is set more than 40 years ago, the gender pay gap issue is still alive today. In my own nation of New Zealand, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1972, but current research shows that women are still paid 16 percent less than male colleagues who contribute the same value. In some industries, such as finance, insurance and telecommunications, the gap stretches to more than 40 percent.

Enter Riggs, a 55-year-old former champion with gambling issues and a self-professed “male chauvinist pig.” Riggs (played, as one reviewer puts it, as “pathetically needy” by Steve Carell) sees a chance to get back in the spotlight and argues that the female game is inferior. Riggs had won Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championships in 1939 and came out of retirement to challenge top female players, contending that they wouldn’t able to beat an old man like himself.

Riggs originally challenges King, pitching the idea of the match as, “Male chauvinist pig versus hairy legged feminist, no offence.” King declines, but after Riggs easily defeats the world no. 1 Margaret Court 6-2 6-1 in under an hour (in what became known as “The Mother’s Day Massacre”), King takes up the challenge.

In a lively press conference, Riggs opines, “Don’t get me wrong. I love women in the bedroom and in the kitchen. But these days, they want to be everywhere. They want to be doing everything. Where is it going to end?” In one pre-match interview, Riggs revels in his “male chauvinist” persona, saying things like, “The male is king, the male is supreme, I’ve said it over and over again.” While this type of discourse may have been bluster on Riggs’ part, it represented a very real mind-set for many in his time—and still does today.

While Riggs is waving the chauvinism banner, King’s husband Larry warns her lover Marilyn, “We’re both just sideshows. If you get between her and the game, you’ll be gone.” King’s husband realizes that he is second-fiddle to the game itself. Both Riggs’ language asserting male superiority and King’s view of “spouse as sideshow” are a far cry from the biblical principle of mutual submission to one another, “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21), the One who voluntarily relinquished his power, coming not to be served but to serve, laying down his life for us (Mark 10:45).

In his classic work, Celebration of Discipline, Christian writer Richard Foster points out, “The biblical teaching on submission focuses primarily on the spirit with which we view other people. Scripture does not attempt to set forth a series of hierarchical relationships but to communicate to us an inner attitude of mutual subordination.” The idea of mutual submission removes any thought of gender superiority.

In our age of personal rights and love of power, submission is seen as a sign of weakness, something to be resisted. Submission is what a UFC fighter does when he’s dominated by a stronger opponent; the weak roll over and submit, they tap out. This idea of submission is incredibly challenging for us because it challenges our notions of power, and at the heart of submission is the deliberate surrender of power.

Those in power in the Greco-Roman world could expect submission from their subordinates, but Paul’s appeal takes an unexpected twist, in that Christ’s followers are to submit to “one another”. He subverts the normal usage of the term to express the belief that all followers of Christ should “give way” to one another, preferring one another in love within the Christian community. The apostle Paul provides this pattern of behavior for all relationships within the body of Christ, and so challenges the hierarchical structures of their time—and ours.

In a fallen world, as one commentator puts it, “to love and cherish becomes to desire and dominate.” However, if we can follow the Spirit’s leading, we will enjoy a life in which both male and female are honored as God’s image bearers, and rather than being dominated or overshadowed, we can live a life in which we give way to one another, preferring each other in love. Because both male and female bear God’s image, there is no justification for discrimination in any form—whether in pay, significance, or status.