“The Battle of the Sexes” is a reminder of where we’ve been and where we are destined to go.
The film — starring Emma Stone as tennis champion and feminist juggernaut Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as retired player and chauvinist clown Bobby Riggs — provides its audience with an accurate depiction of progress as we know it: excruciatingly difficult, but worth it in every sense of the word.
This difficulty was revealed early in the film during a spat between Stone’s King,World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (played by Sarah Silverman) and Association of Tennis Professionals backer Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman).
King and Heldman were outraged by the unfair pay proposed by Kramer for the Pacific Southwest Tennis Tournament, where the women were intended to make eight times less total prize money than their male counterparts. When asked why, however, Kramer babbled out an unsurprising response worthy of an eye roll.
“The men are simply more exciting to watch,” he said. “They are faster […] and they are stronger […] and they’re more competitive […] It’s not your fault, it’s just biology.”
In response to Kramer, the two women, along with eight other female players, boycotted the unfair pay by launching a tour of their own. The commencement of the Virginia Slims Tour set the groundwork for the Women’s Tennis Association.
Contrary to Kramer’s original reasons and beliefs are the results of the 2017 Women’s US Open. According to Sports Media Watch, the women’s final between Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys amassed 1.9 million viewers, while the men’s final featuring Rafael Nadal attracted 400,000 fewer.
Without Heldman and her “Original Nine,” one can’t help but question whether both the WNBA and U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team would have come to fruition.
While Game One of 2017 WNBA finals enjoyed a 20 percent increase in viewership, and the USWNT is responsible for playing in the most-viewed soccer game in the States, both institutions still aspire for equal pay.
The players of the WNBA are being paid 25 percent of the league’s total revenue, while the NBA’s players earn a revenue percentage twice their female counterparts. Following a federal complaint filed in 2016 by the USWNT, the women secured a new collective bargaining deal this April, increasing their pay by a 30-percent margin, but this still doesn’t yield equality.
In addition to her fight for equality on the court, the film portrays King struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, at a time when anything queer cost an athlete sponsorships and their careers. While LGBT conversations today are much more out in the open rather than in the closet, many can still relate to King’s strife today.
In a discussion with Stone and Andrea Riseborough — who played King’s hairdresser-turned-lover Marilyn — the tennis star wanted young people to get a “glimpse of the early 70s and the challenges, especially for the LGBTQ community.”
But it is worth noting that while King was outed in 1981 and lost all endorsements, corporations have turned a corner. The World Economic Forum reported in January that 91 percent of companies in Fortune’s 500 have policies protecting their employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
While the film berates a narrative of hope, the story’s main event appears oddly too familiar. It portrays an allegory: A very qualified woman competes against a buffoon of a man. Many have drawn comparisons to the 2016 election, including Stone herself.
Riggs, a puppet of misogyny, is just putting on a show with giant endorsement deals and nude photo shoots. The film embodies the process needed to end not only his performance, but the pantomime of the Riggs-like-character in Washington.
If we’ve learned anything from King’s story and the convincing performance from Stone, it’s to persist.
“It just takes generations, it doesn’t happen overnight,” King said in an interview with former USWNT player Julie Foudy and Stone.
Progress cannot be denied, but there are still more mountains to move, and it is Stone who advises how.
“If you are in a position of privilege, speak out,” she said. “If there are people going through adversity […] it is so important to speak out to use your voice, to learn from people’s stories, to get to know people.”
“Everybody Talks” is a radio show on WRUR’s the Sting that highlights women’s involvement in sports and the social issues that surround athletics. You can listen to it every Friday from 1–2 p.m. on thesting.wrur.org.