That post title could lead to a number of topics, I suppose, but in this case I’m referring to the movie of that title, built around the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
The movie starts earlier than that, with a group of top women tennis players—led by Billie Jean King—protest the growing difference in the amount of prize money awarded to the top men tennis players versus the top women: the men were now earning 4, 8, or even 12 times as much as the women. Reason? The men’s game is just “superior.”
The women—initially a group of nine—decided to boycott the tournaments with such practices and launch their own tour, which came to be known as the Virginia Slims Circuit after their cigarette-making sponsor. In retaliation, the women are dropped from the US tennis association, which means they can’t compete in Grand Slams tournaments (Wimbledon, US Open). But also meant that those tournaments were lacking the top women tennis players.
Against that backdrop came the 56-year-old Bobby Riggs, offering a million dollars to a top woman tennis player willing to play him. Riggs needs the money debts, but also loves the attention, and plays it up by making the most sexist comments possible. First willing to take him on is Margaret Court, who gets rattled and loses fairly decisively. That’s when Billie Jean King decides she must take him on, and the publicity machine goes into overdrive.
When I told Jean we were going to see a “tennis movie,” he wasn’t exactly thrilled, but this movie doesn’t have much tennis. Most of it gives us a “behind the scenes” look at these historical events and the key people involved in them. Interspersed as well is the story (somewhat altered from reality) of Billie Jean King meeting and ultimately starting an affair with Marilyn Barnett, despite being married to a good man, Larry King. “There’s only ever been Larry,” she tells Marilyn.
When we finally do get some tennis, it’s to show the highlights of the Bobby Riggs / Billy Jean King match, one I found riveting, though I already knew who would win.
But the whole movie was well-cast (Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman) and quite interesting. (Jean liked the movie, also, by the way.) Bobby Riggs wasn’t portrayed as a pure villain (that would be Jack Kramer, the tournament chair), but a more nuanced characters with a troubled but loving relationship with his wife, and who was playing a part for the cameras rather than expressing true beliefs. The afterwards of the film notes that Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became long-term friends after their historic match.
The saddest thing is how relevant this still seems, even though these events took place some 44 years ago. Yes—with much thanks to Billie Jean King and her contemporaries—things have improved for women in tennis and maybe in a few other sports? (Golf?) But in so many others (soccer, hockey, basketball), they are still such poor cousins to the men, even when they are playing at a higher calibre (as with US soccer). Not too mention the continuing gender wage gap in almost every industry there is.
The battle continues.