LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE And The Politics Of Winning

On competition as a thematic device in BATTLE OF THE SEXES directors’ repertoire.

A tiny Olive Hoover squints at her fuzzy television screen from behind her thick oval eye glasses. A beautiful made-up brunette smiles out broadly from the brightly lit box back at her, delicately placing her perfectly manicured press-ons to either side of her face, as an announcement drums out in the background, fans cheer, and a sparkling crown touches down upon the grinning girl’s head. Tara Dawn Holland, a.k.a. Miss Kansas, has just been crowned Miss America. Suddenly, the footage is paused, rewound, and played again. The camera shifts to awkward little seven-year-old Olive, who carefully drops the TV remote onto the floor, before standing up to mimic her hero, placing her own tiny hands upon both sides of her beaming, ear-to-ear expression, and doing her best to look shocked, but graceful. This is Little Miss Sunshine, and in this world, there are only two kinds of people: winners and losers.

Winning and losing – directing duo Valerie Farris and Jonathan Dayton are collectively carrying quite the torch for this thematic device. Their new film titled Battle of the Sexes tells the real life story of Billie Jean King (played in the film by Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carrell), two world famous tennis players who competed in one of the most talked about matches of all time, penning male against female in a game that came to be recognized for much more than light-hearted sport. Talented player and proud male chauvinist Bobby Riggs won an array of awards in his prime, including three world championships, the 1939 U.S. National Championships, and a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame years later in 1967. However, despite his myriad accomplishments, Riggs still felt he had something to prove – mainly, to the opposite sex – and made a habit out of offering rising female tennis stars to play against him for the shockingly profitable prize of $100,000. After much persuasion, he finally got Billie Jean King, a woman arguably as famous as Riggs who also just happened to be the founder of the Woman’s Tennis Association, to agree to spar off in a skirmish that came to be known as much more than a competition – it came to stand as a turning point in both female driven sports and the entire women’s liberation movement.

Years ago, however, long before Farris and Dayton were tackling legendary tennis players and directing Academy award winning Hollywood starlets, they directed a feature which told a story about an average family lost in the throes of life’s many brutal beauty pageants, displayed most literally through their daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin)’s taking part in California’s Little Miss Sunshine competition. Olive was born with an aggressive spirit, perhaps due in large part to her father Richard (Greg Kinnear)’s nonstop pushing of his “9 Steps” plan, and his insistence that there are only two types of people in the world – winners and losers. While he’s busy pouring all of his savings into this pitch, lecturing at schools and hoping to make it big with a book deal, his aging father Edwin (Alan Arkin) has made a habit out of locking the bathroom door at home, crunching up powered heroin and snorting it through his nose as he blinks blindly into oblivion. Meanwhile, Frank (Steve Carrell), Richard’s brother-in-law, stares out coldly from a glazed over hospital window, wrists wrapped with gauze, his plan to take his own life thwarted, while his sister Sheryl (Toni Collette) holds him and cries. Each character, in his or her own way, is fighting their own battle; participating in their own individual beauty pageant, each rivalry presented with its own rules. Even Dwayne (Paul Dano), the angsty teenager of the house, with his dyed black hair and his adorably adolescent dedication to Friedrich Nietzsche, has unwittingly become involved in his own competitive sport by engaging himself in a vow of silence until he fulfills his goal of becoming a pilot and flying jets. As much as he claims to hate everyone (as he writes angrily on his little pad when forced into conversation) and as much as he tries not to be like his father Richard, he displays the same ruthless ambition as the man who raised him, and inadvertently becomes just another member of the family looking for their own way to win.

Throughout the film we are reminded periodically that Olive’s grandfather is the one who is teaching her the dance routine she will display at the competition; it’s not until the final act that we finally see the moves unveiled. By this time, a few things have happened – Olive has, for the very first time, realized that she may not look exactly like what society deems as “beautiful”. It wasn’t until she entered into the contest and witnessed first hand all of the meticulous grooming and tanning and dieting and preening that she realized maybe she wasn’t cut out to be queened the most gorgeous girl in the room. Now, as she watches the tiny contestants prance around in two piece swimsuits with flat stomachs and heavily cosmetics, she begins to see herself in a different light – begins to understand why her fervently ambitious father Richard warned her about eating too much ice cream. For the first time in her life, Olive begins to suck in her stomach and compare herself to girls who couldn’t hold a candle to her fiery spirit, all because she doesn’t look just like everyone else.

It’s around this same time that Dwayne learns that he is in fact colorblind, and slowly comes to terms with the fact that he can’t go to flight school and be a pilot like he always dreamed. Likewise, Frank, who has struggled with thoughts of suicide ever since the boy he loved left him for another man, comes face to face with his own trial of self-doubt when he runs into his lost lover and watches him ride off into the sunset with the scholar who bettered him in every single aspect of his life. Richard’s book deal goes from being a ‘sure thing’ to an unsellable, passed over product, and during their long journey across state lines to bring their little girl to her much anticipated event, the family loses Grandpa Edwin, as he passes soundly in his sleep.

As much as they’d all like to give up, calling it quits just isn’t an option anymore – they’ve come too far for that.

Speeding down the highway in a van that’s missing a clutch and whistling an inconsistent and irritably unstoppable honking horn, the Hoover family swings into the Redondo Hotel at the very last minute, the whole gang in tow, letting nothing stop them from entering Olive into the competition, not even a late check-in time and a stiff grandfather in the trunk. Quirky, clumsy, and overflowing with rough edges, the Hoovers make it just in time to watch their little girl dance – and what a sight it is. Olive rips off her Velcro pants and swings them into the crowd, gets down on all fours, crawling and growling at the audience, before jumping to her feet and enthusiastically pumping her hips to the tune of Rick James’ “Superfreak” – the whole crowd is stunned – including the Hoovers. They knew that Grandpa Edwin had a tendency toward uncouth, unwoke, politically incorrect opinions and controversial comedic comments, but now they’re watching their youngest shake it in front of dozens of families and God himself. Pageant Official Jenkins is beside herself, to say the least. She begins frantically screaming at the Hoover family to pull their daughter offstage, wildly gesturing her hands, eyes bulging out of their flabbergasted sockets. Finally, Richard runs up to the platform next to little Olive, but it’s not to pull her down – it’s to dance alongside her. Soon, the whole Hoover gang is up on the starry lit stage, wiggling and jumping and swinging their hips at the crowd, proud to be who they are, proud to be the weirdos in this stuffy, immaculate dance hall, and most importantly, proud of themselves and of each other, for they are the real winners, because they don’t need to live up to anyone else’s standards to be happy. They are all the champions of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, because they are true to themselves, and no one, not even the man who hands out the trophies, can take that kind of success away from them.

Flash forward eleven years later where directors Valerie Farris and Jonathan Dayton are releasing a film about a different kind of competition – the Battle of the Sexes. However, if you’re aware of how the real life story of the tennis match turns out for the characters of the directing duo’s latest endeavor, then you’ll know that this story features a woman who becomes a winner in a much more literal sense. Whereas Little Miss Sunshine was about coping with the fact that life’s many tournaments don’t define who you are on the inside, Battle of the Sexes tells a tale of a sexist man pitted against a tough woman which actually turns out in the protagonist’s favor – Billie Jean King slays Bobby Riggs with the kind of talented efficiency that would make Serena Williams’ mouth fall agape. Still, as exciting as the turnout is, this movie is about much more than a sports competition. King wasn’t just fighting to prove an arrogant man wrong, or even just to prove that women can be just as great as men in athletics. King fought for the chance to be herself in a world where men would try to make her feel bad about herself. To feel like she is somehow lesser than they are just because she was born with different chromosomes. To feel like her sexual orientation is something to be ashamed of. Billie Jean King didn’t just win one for womankind, she won against all of the men who never took her seriously, and all of the judgmental side-eyed glances, because in the end, she learned not to just be a talented tennis player, but to be herself.

It’s over a decade later, and Farris and Dayton are still teaching us how to be the real winners – how to accept who we are, and fight to remain an individual in a world that is forever trying to force us to conform to its idea of normality. Be it beauty pageants, tennis tournaments, or the competition we create within ourselves when we compare our spirits to that of another, the only way to truly win is to be happy with who we are, and not let anyone try to change us for the sake of fitting in.