Abstract

The 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs provides an example of what I call “sport spectacle.” I define “sport spectacle” as a staged encounter in which the institutions of sports and media conjoin with the activities of individual athletes and the gaze of interested audiences to co-produce narratives in which athletic endeavors reflect, shape, or intervene upon social will in material and symbolic ways. Sport spectacle involves a contested co-production of meaning about a sporting event's social importance that occurs before, during, and—through the rhetorical processes of public memory—after the sporting event. I analyze how King and Riggs understood the match within women's movement discourse and the cultural evolution of tennis, in addition to how King and others have treated the match as a cultural touchstone that can be redeployed in public memory. Recent films When Billie Beat Bobby (2001) and The Battle of the Sexes (2017) offer very different characterizations of King's role as a social movement actor and the Battle of the Sexes as a social movement act. While When Billie Beat Bobby credits King with wide-ranging transformation of women's lives in a universe largely devoid of political context, The Battle of the Sexes anachronistically champions King as a closeted LGBTQ+ icon with a more nuanced understanding of sport spectacle as a transformational gathering that prepares spectators for political contestation. This case study contributes to a growing body of scholarship that attends to the nuanced rhetorical dimensions and political contexts of spectacle.

You do not currently have access to this content.