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Why you should all see The Battle of the Sexes

2013 June 27
by Zoe Strimpel
Kicking ass in the legendary match against Bobby Riggs. This made me hanker for 1970s feminism.

Kicking ass in the legendary match against Bobby Riggs. This made me hanker for 1970s feminism.

Earlier this year I had lunch with Susan Brownmiller in Greenwich Village. Brownmiller, if you don’t know, was one of the key 1970s feminists, not as famous anymore as Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, but perhaps even more important than them. She got rape laws changed in America thanks to her incredible and relentless book Against Our Will.

As I gazed at her over my Greek salad, listening to her authoritative drawl, I developed the distinct impression that she wasn’t all that interested in the topic of feminism today. When I pressed her on this, saying, “you seem bored whenever I mention feminism”, she said simply that she supposed she was a bit, since in her view she and her colleagues did the great stuff in the 1970s – abortion laws, rape laws, sexual harassment laws….

Brownmiller’s view is not a popular one today, nor necessarily a fair one, but it did make me think. And when I saw Zara Hayes’ and James Erksine’s brilliant documentary tonight, The Battle of the Sexes, her point came back to me – the kinds and styles of battles women were fighting in the 1970s are not familiar to my generation. These were battles of suspense, drama, fortitude and open conflict, fought against overt, smug, manipulative  and institutionalised chauvinism.  I’m not saying that the battle’s done and women should stop moaning – not at all. Violence against women is still rife as are subtler forms of discrimination. But the sheer warlike ingenuity exerted by the activists of the 1970s is more inspirational than anything I’ve seen recently round these parts.

The film unleashed in me a gushy wave of gratitude. Because of those women and their predecessors (who faced major risks in their activities) my friends and I today can start our own businesses, get credit cards without our husbands’ signatures, preface our names Ms, get abortions, sue for harassment and file against rape (though too often ineffectually) and compete seriously and with due remuneration in (still too few) athletic tournaments.

Actually, the only sport in which prize money is equal for women and men is tennis. And that’s where Battle of the Sexes comes in and the work of tennis champ Billie Jean King. This film is the story of three things: the feminist movement’s roiling crescendo (I still love the site of bra burning), the birth of the Women’s Tennis Association, and the tennis match between former Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King on September 20, 1973 in a Texas stadium of 30,472 spectators and 90m viewers worldwide – on which Riggs had secured £100,000 winner-takes-all prize money and bet lots more beside. This is the enthralling, air-punching crux of the film.

The Battle of Sexes challenge emerged from a culture that saw women’s achievements through their appearance (athletic or muscular female bodies were anathema) and in which an ad for a Kenwood blender called Chef read: “It does everything except cook – that’s what wives are for!” Riggs wanted to show that men are the “kings” and women only “queens” – even at 55, he was sure he could beat any woman at the game. He rallied supporters around the country wearing t-shirts that said: “I’m a chauvinist pig!” Every bit the King of this setup, Billie Jean at first refused to play as, being on his terms, it had no obvious merits for either for her cause or her career. But with the chance to do something major for the women’s movement, and win £100,000, she ultimately agreed.

The film pulls the three elements together beautifully in just the way that skilled documentarists are able – lots of cool footage of heady protest scenes, Billie Jean’s adorable cleverness and tirelessness in the formation of the WTA and her kick-ass suspenseful victory in the match against Riggs. Three-part structure done to perfection.

I watched Billie Jean and her cronies and they just sounded so cool in the face of so much infuriating ballast – rhetorical and institutionalised – that I felt myself wondering what modern feminists could do that would be that awesome or if the terrain has changed in such a way that they there is nothing, as Brownmiller seemed to think. I don’t think Brownmiller’s right, but I think the potential for meaningful spectaculars has diminished considerably and that is a shame.

As a final note, the (numerous) men in the audience loved it too – and laughed along with the women, maybe even more, at the outrageousness of the things commentators in the 1970s said about women, showing how far (on some levels) we have come. I thought so, anyway.

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