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'Battle of the Sexes': We've Come a Long Way, Baby

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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Watching Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's "Battle of the Sexes," about the events leading up to the famous gender war/tennis match on Sept. 20, 1973, between woman's champion Billie Jean King and former great Bobby Riggs, I tried to remember what I thought at the time. I like to think I applauded the dispelling of prejudices and welcomed the renaissance it boded for the human race. Surely I didn't opt for the he-man stance, afraid what it might mean to my manhood if a female bested a male in something other than childbirth. Nah, I couldn't have.
It's mindboggling. While the more advanced, higher-educated segments of the world's populace have more or less embraced the equality of the sexes and championed it for the betterment of their societies, others dogmatically resist it, as they do with most other progressive realities.
Gosh, what's the big deal, a chromosome here or there? It makes me no great humanitarian to believe that little Brittany should be given every educational and supportive opportunity in order that she might one day cure cancer or eradicate world hunger. I just want to better the odds.
While anthropologists and social historians might disagree upon the actual turning point in American chronology when it became obvious that Women's Lib would become not just a hopeful wish, but a manifest imperative, "Battle of the Sexes" aptly celebrates the idea. Putting forth a responsible piece of sociology, it is both seriously edifying and whimsically smart in its depiction of a mindset now as out of date as the elephant bellbottoms some of the dramatis personae are seen wearing. While at it, the film tackles another intolerance that needs nullifying.
Once referred to as "The love that dare not speak its name," a subplot, every bit as revolutionary as the story's sports-related cause célèbre, movingly etched in a behind-the-scenes discretion to underscore its taboo nature, delves into Billie Jean's much later divulged homosexuality. Seen now, yesteryear's culture not only seems curiously antique, but prompts what this sort of historical eye-opener inevitably brings to mind: Under what other crazy, passé misconceptions are we still living? In short, "Battle of the Sexes" is really a metaphor for a far greater conflict.
Perhaps it goes back even before the Sumerians, to Oog and Oop, neighboring cavemen once-upon-a-time divided over progressive Oog's invention of the wheel. While Oog maintained it was now much easier to haul home the wooly mammoths they killed, reactionary Oop feared that no longer dragging the behemoth through the jungle would weaken them. Thus it only figures that marital difficulties followed when Oop's wife, Mamie, discovered how to cultivate some rather tasty vegetation outside the cave. I think it was broccoli rabe. So thanks, Mamie.
In short, it is hard to relinquish traditional attitudes, even if honest evaluation and hindsight show them as not only outmoded but detrimental to the commonweal. It's called misoneism, a fear of the future. Truth is, the old, when it's no longer effective, must be compartmentalized. Cherish the memory if you wish. But seeing as we have only the future before us, it takes emblematic events like the tennis tussle between firebrand King and hustler Riggs to alert us, as Dylan so astutely noted, that "The times they are a changin'."
Playing out these changes at center court in illustration of the multilayered process it takes to continually distance ourselves from the muck and mire of our primeval past, Emma Stone and Steve Carell are superb as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Coupled with the directors' savvy sense of history, their example dramatically informs how the progress of our species depends on the teaching and learning of reason. 
We suspect that even wiseguy male chauvinist Bobby Riggs knew in his heart that anything less than total gender equality would spell defeat for humankind.
Nonetheless, in the great American entrepreneurial tradition of spotting and filling a need, even if it's something as socially obnoxious as pandering to male phobic prejudice, Carell's Riggs epitomizes the inherent hypocrisy available to our less virtuous profit seekers. But happily, or there'd be no watershed tale to tell here, he meets his match in King's guardian at the gate of destiny. While she humbly dismisses her iconicity, it's intriguing when she matter-of-factly corrects a colleague, noting that the alleged witches of Salem weren't burned, but hanged.
Doubtless the positive affirmation of this educative and amusing film spells good news for lucky students whose enlightened, civic-minded teachers will wisely take time to show it in place of their day's lesson. All of which has me peering back into the blur of yesteryear, and wondering how I'll respond when asked, "Daddy, what did you do during the 'Battle of the Sexes?'"
"Battle of the Sexes," rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton and stars Emma Stone, Steve Carell and Andrea Riseborough. Running time: 121 minutes
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