With the release of Battle of the Sexes this past weekend, audiences are taken back in time to a pivotal event in history that shook gender inequality right to the core. It was a moment in time that inspired an entire generation to mobilize a cultural shift. With debates raging about equal pay and gender inequality, the movie—a dramatization of the 1973 tennis match between women's star Billie Jean King and tennis pro turned professional provocateur Bobby Riggs—appears poised to bolster the point that women are treated poorly. But instead, the movie has an important message for how equality must be gained: by men and women working together.
At the beginning of the film, approximately two years prior to the infamous 1973 showdown, Billie Jean was considered the top player in women’s tennis and its top earner. She was the first female athlete—not just tennis, but ANY female athlete—to earn more than $100k within a year, more than $600k today. That may seem like enough to satisfy anyone, but King had a gripe—she discovered that the male tennis players would be compensated eight times that of the women, despite bringing in equal sales and attendance to the men. She threatened to start her own union and tournament, just for women. Jack Kramer, the USTA promoter, responded by threatening to kick them out of the USTA, freezing their abilities to participate in any of the grand slam tournaments.
But Billie Jean kept fighting. Her reputation was one of an athlete who thrived under pressure. As handy as this fearless drive was in her tennis career, King kicked this asset into overdrive when she was told she couldn’t do or have something in equal parts as a man.
As a young girl growing up in the 1970s, with my bell-bottom jeans frayed from my bike chain and my freckled face covered in a thin sheen of dust and sweat as I trail-blazed my neighborhood in my banana boat seat bike, Billie Jean gave me hope that I could expand my options beyond being a secretary or housewife. She inspired an entire generation of women to ask for more. There was genuine hope for the very first time that we could be compensated just like our male counterparts.
But what makes King's story captivating on screen and in real life is that even though it took her beating a man to make a point, her feminism was never about putting men down or being better than them. It was always about equality—pure and (not-so) simple. Still today, we struggle in our definition of what gender equality means, and I think Battle of the Sexes was a good reminder that it truly isn't about two opposing sides.
With assistance from promoter Gladys Heldman (a very witty performance by Sarah Silverman), King does go rogue. She creates a union and tournament circuit for women. The battle for pay equality takes full effect. As the film portrays, her then-husband, Larry, also makes for a great feminist role model. He was equally as supportive and interested in gender equality and encouraged King to take a stand.
Fortunately, this is one area that has seen improvement since those early-'70s heydays of male chauvinism. More and more men over time, like Larry, have lent their support and voices to gender equality. Still, today we sometimes seem to focus our attention acutely on a few sexist men, all the while losing sight of just how much true feminism requires men and women to work together.
The film's production team is a perfect modern example of this. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the directing team behind Battle Of The Sexes, wanted the same equality King fought for on their set. “On our movie, there was a distinct effort to pay everyone equally,” said Dayton. “Our crew was a really great mix of men and women in all departments. Our editor is a woman. Our production designer is a woman. The sound mixing team, both women.” The movie, itself, as well as what happened behind the scenes are an homage to strides that have been made thanks to King and others.
For King, it’s always been about women having the same exact opportunities, respect, and treatment as men. No more, no less. Not better than men, no hatred towards men. For me personally, King makes for the perfect role model in the feminist movement because she always makes that point very clear.
This film has come along at a perfect time. The story is inspiring and uplifting, funny and sweet, with a little bit of something for everyone. I cannot describe how inspiring King was to women and to little girls like me at the time of her famous "battle." Now, decades later, I'm happy to be reminded of that spirit.
As Billie Jean, herself, once said, “That's the way I want the world to look: men and women working together, championing each other, helping each other, promoting each other—we're all in this world together." I couldn’t agree more.