“Battle of the Sexes”: A Hillary Clinton Movie in a Donald Trump World

The year is 1973. A highly publicized tennis match, “The Battle of the Sexes,” is aired between incendiary sexist has-been Bobby Riggs and young up-and-comer Billie Jean King. The media circus of blatant chauvinism surrounding the match quickly fades, as King wins against Riggs in three sets, shattering a glass ceiling for female athletes and putting an end to the outrageous gender politics of the era. Or so it was thought.

Contrast 1973 with 2016, where competent, experienced Hillary Clinton loses the presidential election to Donald Trump, a demagogic businessman who exploits institutionalized sexism in order to draw greater crowds. One of the final glass ceilings suddenly becomes that much harder to reach. And the world’s assumption that modern sexism is ending comes to a screeching halt.

It is this brave new world in which Battle of the Sexes debuted, eight months after Trump’s inauguration. Through no fault of its own, the film loses its resonance, as an ending that was clearly intended to be a victory lap in a Hillary Clinton presidency becomes merely a wistful memory.

Don’t misunderstand me. If one were to keep a checklist of everything that makes a movie conventionally “good”– the acting, the direction, the script, the pacing –it would fill out every single one of those boxes. If one judges the film based solely on artistic merit, it is a resounding success. But the agenda that it clearly tries to push here appears unrealistic.

King (Emma Stone) takes center stage, working with a group of all-star female players to close the gender wage gap while simultaneously struggling with her own sexuality. Riggs (Steve Carell), by contrast, is a washed-up former tennis player and gambling addict who finds himself once again drawn to the court. In order to gain attention, Riggs makes inflammatory statements about women to any media outlet he can find, and challenges multiple women to exhibition matches in order to “settle the debate” about female athletes.

Stone and Carell both give measured, capable performances, and the film is that much better for it. It tackles and takes sides on major issues. But the film loses its impact when it begins portraying sexual discrimination as something ridiculous, a museum relic that children and mothers can point to and laugh at before moving on down to the Jim Crow selection.

Our current politics don’t reflect an end to sexism but a resurgence, as abortion policy and women’s health initiatives are now dictated by committees of white men. Battle of the Sexes is a victim of bad timing, released in a world where its gender politics border on fallacy. Through little fault of its own, it appears hopelessly out of touch.

Editor’s Note: The New York Times Learning Network recognized this story and one other review by Lincoln’s Intro to Mass Communications students among its top reviews of 2017 in its annual Student Review Contest. Among the 1,494 entries, sophomore Evan Reynolds’ review of the film Battle of the Sexes in the top ten, and freshman Archie Barnes placed in the top 25 with his take on Wu-Tang Clan’s new album, “The Saga Continues.” Reynolds’ review was posted on the New York Times website.