Battle of the Sexes: A movie review

You guys know that I like to write funny things.  I like to write heartfelt things about love and God and butterflies. Okay maybe butterflies are a bit dull.  I rarely get on a soapbox.  But today, I feel like delving into something that I just can’t shake.

Last night I watched “Battle of the Sexes.”  I took my 14-year-old bonus daughter.  I am all about women’s empowerment, showcasing how a woman in a man’s world broke barriers and succeeded. I am a lawyer, and have had to face my own gender barriers working my way up the ladder.  I understand the frustration of being paid less, considered less, working harder and under-appreciated.  And I love tennis.  I was prepared to watch Billy Jean kick ass and take names.

And as an aside, although I am a heterosexual woman, I do understand that people are attracted to different people than I am, and in the era of the 1970’s it was not as understood or accepted to be gay.  I can understand and have sympathy for how hard it would be to live in an era where you feel misunderstood and unaccepted, ridiculed for being who you are.

But what I saw in this movie was not just a lesson in women’s empowerment, or how hard women before us worked for equal rights.  What I saw was an attempt by screenwriters/directors/producers to show that infidelity is sometimes, under the right circumstances, when someone is “living their truth,” – okay.  If it’s following your heart and if it’s simply because society won’t accept the person you truly love, we can all just wink and say that it’s fine.  Because love wins.  Our hearts want what they want.  It’s sexy to see illicit and almost irresistible love scenes.

I refuse to accept this narrative. 

The fact is, infidelity is never okay. Despite the excuses and circumstances. Despite the fluttering of the heart. The commitment of marriage is more than just paper. It means something.  There are times marriages end, and new relationships can blossom after that first joining of the flesh has healed.  They can start on solid footing, rooted in shared experience and commitment to each other.  But when a relationship starts in secrecy and lies, usually no good will come about as a result. Why is this lesson not revealed? Are people to experience the hard truth in real life but watch how different it turns out in an imaginary screenplay?

It pained me to see Billy Jean make feeble excuses of “this feels wrong” and “what would my husband think” and then give in to her own desires.  I get that affairs happen, and people make mistakes.  We are all sinful human beings and make some terrible mistakes. But instead of using this narrative, that we are all flawed and have to live with consequences of our own actions, or even showcasing the fallout due to these actions, it was almost glorified.  In real life, kids are hurt.  Hearts are damaged.  Trust is broken.  Baggage is created.  Drinking ensues.  The fact that Billy Jean was having feelings for a woman somehow made this action justified.  It’s not an affair if it’s a woman loving another woman.  Her clothing designer, clearly gay, was basically saying “hang on – someday we will be able to love who we want” and everyone seemed to cover for her as she carried on this extra-marital love affair with the person she was not married to.  And when her lover returned in the end after a short hiatus, it was a romantic gesture.

This is not about gender for me.  It was about how a story is portraying an affair to be acceptable.  How Billy Jean repeated that “her husband was a good man.” And yet she continued to make decisions that hurt him, over and over again. I would be equally as uncomfortable if she had an affair with a man.  Betrayal on any level is simply hard for me to watch.

At one point in the movie, her husband showed up unexpectedly.  The clothing designer gives her a heads up, but her husband discovered what was happening regardless.  This blond, nice-looking, affable man was almost a heroic, angelic figure that didn’t get upset, wasn’t heartbroken, wanted her to still be successful, and at the end smiled at Billy Jean’s lover as if it was all okay.  When Billy Jean was sick, he even offered to call the lover in to make her feel better. He was like an emotionless Ken doll that just smiled through it all as if it were nothing. He continued to stand by Billy’s side, believing in her, standing by her, as if this was just a minor distraction. Not once did he raise his voice, act hurt, scream or yell, act heartbroken.  Despite one scene where he hung his head as he walked out of the room, no major problems resulted.  And at the end of the movie before the credits rolled, it showcased how Billy Jean divorced her husband, married a woman, and everyone was happy. From what it seemed, especially because the movie-goers don’t know that much about Billy Jean in real life, you just assumed she married the woman she had an affair with. It indicated her husband remarried and had a family, Billy Jean was the godmother, and all ended up well.

Billy Jean won the match!  She found true love! Everyone cheered! And the bowl of popcorn was empty.

In real life, away from the allure of Hollywood, affairs rip apart families and marriages.  They tear at people’s egos and self-confidence. They can emasculate and wound.  There is therapy and tears and a complete re-building of the spirit.  This is not an action born from love, but born from selfishness. In real life, the woman that Billy Jean King was with filed a lawsuit over what she considered lost profits, and it publicly outed King as gay, which caused King to lose a massive amount of money in endorsements.  This woman who, in the movie was supportive and “only wanted the best for Billy Jean,” sued King to try and get half her estate, argued she devoted her life to King’s career and got nothing in return.  This was not the beautiful end that the movie displayed.  And the woman that Billy Jean ended up with permanently was not the woman she had an affair with, although that’s the way it appeared in the movie.

I firmly believe that a relationship rooted in secrecy and lies never has the foundation to create a life-giving and stable relationship long term.  It matters not to me if it’s a woman or man, what matters is that the choice was made over and over to ignore vows, eviscerate trust, and continue to disrespect the man she promised to love and honor and obey until death.

Sometimes people make hard decisions, like not walking down a path they might have chosen under different circumstances.  Because making good decisions is not always easy. But it’s necessary to teach our children to stay true to commitments, not believe the lies that Hollywood is telling us about blindly following what we feel at the time to be good.

Despite this, my 14-year-old bonus daughter loved the movie, found it empowering and uplifting, and left with a bounce in her step.

We were quiet as we walked to the car. But I couldn’t sit there and say nothing.  I expressed my pain for the infidelity, the secrets, the allure of what in the movie seems good but in real life can be horrific. I also expressed how being a feminist does not mean men are evil, or that all men are like the men in this movie, and how her father is an amazing feminist and supporter of equal rights and that’s one of many reasons I love him.  And there are times when in fact I defer to him as the head of the family, and this isn’t always wrong in a healthy supportive relationship.  She said nothing in return.  I don’t know if my words had any effect.  I felt like I was just babbling.

There were some good moments in the movie about women being brave and standing up for equality.  Stick it to the man who think’s you’re a pig.  I’m a woman, after all.  But, the infidelity, in my mind, overshadowed this. And for this I was sad.  As a woman, as a professional, as a human being who has seen the pain of this issue.  We have to live in this world, but we don’t have to be hoodwinked by it.  We have an obligation to set the record straight when we see something as clearly off-based and off-kilter as this.

I’m glad women like Billy Jean King fought for equal rights for all of us.  And I think people love who they love, and can have very healthy and strong relationships with anyone they choose if they start off in truth and dignity.  But I’m not glad when films glorify relationships based upon secrecy.  What is in the dark will always at some point find the light, and when it does it can rip apart and ruin lives, souls, and relationships.  This is truth, not a movie script.  In real life, it doesn’t always have a happy ending.

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