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Battle of the Sexes: Just How Much Has Changed?
Image Credit: Battle of the Sexes - Fox Searchlight Pictures via Facebook.

Battle of the Sexes: Just How Much Has Changed?

25 October 2017 Nicola Freedman

Starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as the larger than life Bobby Riggs, Battle of the Sexes is at once an entertaining and empowering biopic, and stark reminder of institutionalised misogyny.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the message.” – Billie Jean King
 
Women in sport have long been relegated to the side-lines. However, in tennis biopic Battle of the Sexes, the archaic notion that women are physically weaker, and somehow “less than” is addressed head on. The 1973 gender challenge saw the then 29-year-old world female tennis champion Billie Jean King and 45-year-old Bobby Riggs, a former world No.1, go head to head. A media sensation, complete with  bombastic photoshoots, the match was watched by 30,000 in the Houston Astrodome stadium and 90 million on television. While the winner was set to pocket $100,000 in prize money, far more was at stake. The film traces the build-up to this now iconic match, and provides a snapshot of the gender politics of the time.


Image credit: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

King, who had just created the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) to advocate for equal pay, was risking her career in taking on Riggs, a self-proclaimed “chauvinist pig” eager to prove masculine superiority. Indeed, in the wake of the sexual revolution and the rise of female empowerment, feminism itself was seemingly on trial, as Riggs opportunistically tapped into the anger and fear of those who felt threatened by a shift in the status-quo. That King fought so fearlessly for equality, and under immense pressure, is a testament to her unwavering belief in ensuring that progress be made. It was, and remains, an empowering message for women everywhere.
 
Sadly, the struggles women faced in 1973 still resonate today, perhaps more so than ever. Although significant strides have been made – tennis is one of the few arenas where women have been victorious (prize money at the Majors is now equal) - the majority of female athletes still earn a fraction of what their male counterparts make, and continue to be seen as second-tier entertainment. In the film, head of the Association of Tennis Professionals Jack Kramer’s (Bill Pullman) claim that, “men are simply more exciting to watch” is a banal truism. Yet just last year, women’s contribution to the game was called into question at the BNP Paribas Open when CEO and tournament director Raymond Moore stated that female players “ride on the coat tails of the men”. Meanwhile in June, retired tennis champion John McEnroe claimed that Serena Williams, who has won 23 grand-slam singles titles, would rank “like, 700” on the men’s circuit.


Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/ 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

While the film’s uplifting ending (including a cut to a woman waving a ‘Billie Jean for President’ poster) certainly advocates the positive influence of the match, it is important to note that despite the passing of time, in many respects little has changed. Vicious gender politics played out dramatically in the recent U.S Presidential election, while powerful men have made headlines this year for repeated cases of sexist behaviour and sexual abuse. And of course women continue to strive for parity, whether it be in sport, the workforce, or the home.
 
As the fight rages on, Battle of the Sexes is ultimately a stark reminder that institutionalised misogyny remains a persistent problem in our society, on and off the court.
 
Battle of the Sexes screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival, and will be released in the UK on 24 November
 

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