Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: The ongoing battle of the sexes

Monday, December 11, 2017 - 5:44pm

I recently saw “Battle of the Sexes,” a movie about tennis star Billie Jean King beating self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs in 1973.

I didn’t think the movie was very good, but that’s not what I want to talk about. I want, instead, to point out that the film speaks specifically to the #MeToo campaign and the slew of disgusting men who have been exposed as such in the past several weeks. 

Riggs, who in an effort to drum up publicity for the match publicly made a series of overtly misogynistic statements about male superiority, functions as a stand-in for all of those men who have been defamed. Except he never tried to hide his sexism; there was never any investigation necessary. It was baldly out in the open.

Riggs — played by Steve Carell, who, when on camera, immediately evokes Michael Scott and the 40-year-old virgin such that I always am smirking as I watch him — is portrayed as a complete nut, stuffing his gullet with a vitamin regimen, alienating himself from his family because of his addiction to gambling, hijacking a Gamblers Anonymous meeting by offering to play blackjack, and, as mentioned above, publicly defaming King and all women. And, finally, he is soundly dominated by King in the match of his dreams, which he orchestrated.

Maybe one reason the movie’s power faltered was the film’s ostensibly neutral take on Riggs’s misogyny. The film shrugs off Riggs’s comments, at best as an effort to drum up publicity for the tennis match, or, at worst, as a product of Riggs simply being his old, wily self — “boys will be boys.”

Furthermore, despite the fact that Riggs does lose in the end, I left the movie theater knowing instead that Riggs — the figure of the overtly hateful man — wins. I see Riggs in all the men yet to be caught in response to the public testimonies of victims, alongside the #MeToo campaign. I see Riggs in Richard Spencer, a white supremacist political leader who might be allowed to come to our campus. I see Riggs in Roy Moore, accused of sexual misconduct and rape by currently eight women — many of whom were girls at the time of these allegations — whom our president has just endorsed in his senatorial election. I see Riggs, furthermore, in our president himself.

We might take the film’s title as a descriptor for our contemporary moment. This is a battle of gendered power dynamics, where men use women as coercible objects meant to please their perverse, selfish desires. Until we have collectively rooted out the dynamics that allow for these assaults to take place, we have not done enough — the Trumps, Moores and Riggses of the world continue to win the battle of the sexes. They maintain their positions of power, they continue to capture mainstream cultural attention, despite their publicly understood and despicable words and actions.

One potential problem with movies like this one, which fictionalizes a watershed historical event of social and political significance, is that they risk restricting the event and its implications to the past. We look at the past from our present squishy movie theater chair, eating popcorn and pointing backward — look at how things were. And look at how different they are now.

This dehistoricization restricts the opportunity for an honest engagement with our own time, in terms of the problems brought forth by the films themselves. It allows for complacency and acceptance for the injustices of our own time, for present-day audiences to fall prey to the illusion that human history is naturally, intrinsically a story of gradual, consistent increases in egalitarianism and equality. That could never happen today.

The movie itself does not engage in this amnesiac logic, nor does the film outwardly resist it. This may have been another reason it fell a bit flat: It seemed not to engage larger conversations beyond this one exhibition tennis match.

The work of using this film for contemporary cultural purposes, then, falls on its audience. I think we ought to understand “Battle of the Sexes” as an opportunity to understand how far we haven’t come. To understand the ways in which men like Bobby Riggs have not lost that battle, as the film’s dramatic final scene would have its audiences believe. And instead, we ought to interrogate the ways in which Riggs and his kind have remained staples of our culture, navigating their ways to positions of exponentially more power and prestige than Riggs, whose greatest accomplishments came as a tennis champion, long before the sport had accumulated the international following it has today.

This portrayal of overtly misogynistic public figures — as wily, unstable outcasts without any social capital, having derailed themselves with their prejudice — risks engaging the cultural amnesia I outlined above. It allows us to write off Riggs as a crazed figure of the past who has since disappeared, a name most people would not even recognize today. It allows us to dismiss this problem as one of the past, a product of our ongoing, consistent march toward a “more perfect union,” to perpetuate a notion of history that necessarily ends in some realized promised land, such that we equate the past and all the events that compose it with a less civilized and just time than the one we currently occupy.

Nobody would dismiss Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Al Franken, Matt Lauer and the rest as aberrations, last remnants of a system long faded. Which means Bobby Riggs still exists today, with the vital reinforcements of maximal fame and power.

The battle of the sexes, then, is ongoing. We must remember this.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.