Over the weekend, moviegoers across the United States had more access to ever than before to a lesbian-themed film: Battle of the Sexes. The film, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, tells the story of the famous tennis match between queer tennis legend Billie Jean King and male chauvinist tennis pro Bobby Riggs.
The sports biopic opened in 1,213 theatres across America, according to Box Office Mojo. That bests all-time theatre counts from other lesbian-themed films like The Kids Are All Right (994), Carol (790) and Grandma (1,061).
While the film certainly has some of the most frank and intimate moments of lesbian intimacy ever seen in a wide-release film, that’s certainly not what got the film to so many screens. The lesbianism was mostly hidden from the film’s marketing, which relied on Steve Carrell and Emma Stone to put butts in seats.
“On the one hand it’s awesome that [Sexes] is getting a wide release,” Kelly Kessler, associate professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University, told INTO in a phone interview. “But I don’t want to pat it on the back because of what it’s not.”
Kessler said that, while the film does have a lesbian theme, it relied much more heavily on its stars Carrell and Stone and its prestige sports biopic swagger to draw audiences than it did its queerness. That’s much different, she mentioned, than other films which required audiences to accept its lesbianism as part of the ticket purchase.
If you look at the string of high-profile lesbian films that didn’t crack 1,000 screens, like Carol or The Kids Are All Right, outright queerness is a part of their aesthetic. For Grandma, which did open in over 1,000 screens, the draw was Lily Tomlin herself an out lesbian and its awards prestige. But The Battle of the Sexes doesn’t bank on queerness to sell itself.
“The Kids Are All Right, that’s a different story,” Kessler said. “That’s a story about lesbian relationships. That is about those women in relationships and their family. It asks viewers to accept all those things in the premise. This movie does not.”
Along with the film rejecting lesbianism as part of its marketing, it also cast Emma Stone, for whom sex appeal and heterosexuality are a part of her magnetism. In doing so the film has taken the butch King and made her a femme woman in butch drag.
“The movie is pushing her aesthetic femininity more than Billie Jean King’s really was,” Keesler said. “It’s completely relevant that it’s Emma Stone. That it’s not even Ellen Page.”
In the end, the movie’s heterosexual selling points ultimately helped it exist.
“What do you want the end of the day?” Kessler asked. “Do you want the story to be made? Do you want it to be told and be able to do something?”
“If you want it a mainstream wide release,” she added, “What do you want to give up?”