*Contains some mild spoilers for Battle of the Sexes
Battle of the Sexes (2017) has been advertised as a tennis movie, which is unsurprising given that it’s a retelling of the infamous 1973 match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). But in the midst of all of that tennis, there is a surprisingly beautiful queer love story that hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention as the numerous clips of Bobby Riggs spewing misogyny.
It’s 2017 and it’s frustrating to feel surprise when a queer romance is portrayed well onscreen, but Battle of the Sexes is almost exhilarating at times because the relationship between Billie Jean and her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), is portrayed with such delicacy and respect that it’s easy to forget about the tennis completely and instead focus on the film’s refreshingly queer gaze.
It would be easy for Battle of the Sexes to fall into tropes typical of queer cinema. After all, it dances around many themes that are all too common (and increasingly tired) when it comes to chronicling the gay experience: gay panic, sexual confusion, and homophobia. Not that these are unimportant, quite the opposite, but the way they are interpreted needs reconsideration and new life. Billie Jean is a married woman, her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), is, in her own words, “a good man.” She is undoubtedly confused by her own longings and frightened, a fear made manifest by her tennis rival, Australian champion, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who describes Billie Jean’s rumored lesbianism as sinful and immoral.
But Battle of the Sexes reclaims these stereotypical narratives by carefully shifting how these tropes play out. Billie Jean certainly experiences panic in her burgeoning relationship with Marilyn, but there is also a sense that she is aware of the inevitability of her desire. She is scared because she knows that being openly queer will lead to the loss of her career and, to a lesser extent, her family, but she also recognizes that what is happening between her and Marilyn is important and undeniable.
The depiction of Margaret Court is also notable because while it may seem that Bobby Riggs is supposed to be the villain, it’s Court’s homophobia that makes her an unsympathetic figure. When she loses her own tennis match with Bobby Riggs, the women of the film are devastated, concerned that her loss will set the Women’s Liberation Movement back, but for an audience that knows Court frowns upon Billie Jean, it’s difficult to feel any compassion for her.
The great love of Billie Jean’s life is tennis and her laser focus on the game stands in stark contrast to how she is depicted when Marilyn appears on camera. Their first scene together takes place in a hair salon. It’s an obvious safe-space for women as they discuss their upcoming tennis tournament and their dissatisfaction with their male lovers. Marilyn is present the entire time, slightly out of focus, darting about Billie Jean as she cuts her hair, but it is only when Marilyn makes a quip about men that Billie Jean turns from her friends and really focuses on her. And that’s when the tone of the film changes entirely.
The camera finds Marilyn in close-up, the focus is on her eyes, her lips, her wrist. Billie Jean is suddenly surrounded by this woman. The scene is sensual in the literal sense of the word, visually the tight close up shots of Billie Jean’s eyes meeting Marilyn’s in the mirror are claustrophobic. The soundtrack swells in what quickly becomes familiar as the film’s Billie Jean and Marilyn love theme. Billie Jean asks about Marilyn’s perfume and the camera lingers on Marilyn’s wrist and hands, there are numerous shots of Marilyn gently touching Billie Jean’s hair. Their meet/cute is not so much ‘cute’ as it is all-consuming. Marilyn is omnipresent in Billie Jean’s world because the camera makes it so. There is nowhere else to look, nowhere else Billie Jean, and by extension, the audience, is invited to look. Marilyn appears fractured, a collection of body parts that only come into view when Billie Jean looks at her. And it’s that look, Billie Jean’s dreamy gaze that elevates their relationship from a subplot to the heart of the film.
Their one love scene is again shot in close up. Marilyn removes Billie Jean’s glasses, her armor, her identifier, and it is only then that Billie Jean lets go and allows herself to take what she wants. Like their first meeting, the scene does not focus on the eroticism of their union, but rather the intimacy of the exchange. This is not about nudity or cheap titillation – for a film that spends a lot of time on the chauvinist rhetoric of Bobby Riggs and his ilk, it’s a testament to the sensitivity of the filmmakers that Billie Jean and Marilyn are given an extraordinary amount of dignity in their moment of truest vulnerability.
The real love triangle of Battle of the Sexes is not between two women and a man, but rather, between Billie Jean, her love for tennis, and her personal struggle with her sexuality. Larry and Marilyn could be ciphers, both blonde and blue-eyed and inherently kind. They cannot compete with Billie Jean’s dedication to her sport and her cause, but they serve as a visual representation of Billie Jean’s internal struggle. Larry knows her better than anyone. He ices he knees and accompanies her to business meetings. But it’s Marilyn that she seeks with her eyes, Marilyn who sometimes blends into the crowd until Billie Jean looks for her with a gaze that brings her into sharp focus.
As the film ends, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who is both the designer of Billie Jean’s uniforms and her queer fairy-godfather tells her, “Times change, you should know, you just changed them.” And that message feels especially relevant when juxtaposed with the image of Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough nestled together in bold black and white on a recent cover of Out Magazine. Battle of the Sexes does not get trapped by its historical setting, it looks to the future and sees a world Billie Jean King had a hand in creating. And it does this by celebrating its heroine’s queerness, making it as integral and important to the plot as her tennis serve.
All photos via Twentieth Century Fox