Battle of the sexes, the movie featuring Emma Stone and Steve Carell has officially been released as of September 22 in the USA. The movie is about the legendary 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
Riggs was an American tennis player who had reached great fame in the 30s and 40s. He also was a controversial figure, a hustler known both for his gambling habits and for openly belittling women and attacking women’s tennis. At 55, already retired, he challenged top female tennis players to a match that would prove his point: That the world’s best female player could never beat a male player, even if he was past his prime. His first pick, Billie Jean King, declined but Margaret Court accepted the challenge and lost on May 13, 1973. That first battle of the sexes match was later called “Mother’s day massacre”, but in reality it was nothing short of a joke.
Margaret Court, who has since sparked a lot of controversy speaking against homosexuals in tennis, never seemed to have played that match for the right reasons. Her stance throughout the years has been effectively feeding the stereotypes which allow chauvinism and sexism to still exist in tennis. Including her absence from any joint effort to improve the way women’s tennis was viewed, like the one that lead to the creation of the WTA, by the “Original 9”. Bobby Riggs beat a woman who was just playing an exhibition game, to win a $10,000 dollar paycheck and a cover on Sports Illustrated and Time magazines.
Following that match, Billy Jean King could no longer refuse a Battle of the Sexes II. King didn’t view that match as a publicity opportunity, but rather as another chance to stand up for gender equality. And that made all the difference.
The case of systemic sexism all around us
Over 40 years later, sexism in tennis and –most importantly- in life is still an annoyingly current affair. In a world that gets so easily (and often hypocritically) shocked by stories like the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, speaking about sex equality is almost utopian. The systemic sexism, as comedian Seth Meyers put it, is an extremely complex and long-standing cultural issue, with countless everyday examples of misogyny, many of which are so commonplace by now, that they go unnoticed.
Body shaming. Street calling. Guilt and mockery over being single, not getting married or not having kids. Not making the same amount of money as your male colleague for the same type of work. Having your hormones blamed for any behavior or opinion that doesn’t comply with our paternalistic society’s norms. Having your femininity and sexuality questioned whenever you achieve something extraordinary in what is considered a “men’s” discipline. I’ve been told numerous times that I play tennis “like a man” –a comment meant as a compliment, for which I should be thankful. It wouldn’t be a stretch if I said that there have been times when I’ve been through every single one of those comments within the same day.
Those are just a few examples of everyday sexism, that comes from such a wide spectrum of social connections. From your own family to your boss, your coach, a friend or the random guy on the street, the intention might vary, but the end result remains. Women are –consciously or subconsciously- treated as something lesser, an entity that will never rise to that unreachable standard that is to be a man. And if they do, they are not feminine enough, as if their sex itself is a barrier to success, unequivocal respect and true greatness.
The real battle of the sexes in tennis
Unlike other sports, tennis has had a consistently open dialogue on equality and fight against sexism. With all 4 major tournaments now boasting equal pay for men and women, tennis is probably the most progressive sport in that regard. The gap is still there in most other tournaments, but equal pay is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender equality. The debate about the longer matches or the higher viewership of men’s tennis is just a diversion from what the actual discussion should be about and that is sexism. Unfortunately, for every Andy Murray pro-equality stance, there will be a Novak Djokovic statement, lightheartedly adding “hormones” as a factor to the equality discussion.
Serena Williams is a prime example of a female athlete whose achievements on the courts are extraordinary, yet she has been bullied over her body and femininity, in spite of them. Victoria Azarenka has been forced to withdraw from several tournaments this year, because of her ongoing custody battle. One wonders which of her male counterparts would have to make such an impossible decision between their career and their child, if it came down to that.
Petra Kvitova and Heather Watson caused embarrassed cringes when they explained how difficult it is to compete and train during menstruation, particularly when forced to wear “all whites” during Wimbledon. Shocking, right? Also, packing that extra ball somewhere underneath your pretty short skirt is something you need to get used to, as comfort in women’s tennis is never favored over pleasuring the eye.
The road to gender equality in tennis is rough and long, but as long as the discussion is kept open and ongoing, there is hope that we will reach the finish line at some point. Sexism in our society though, that’s a different story.