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    We’ve Come a Long Way … or Have We?

    By Louise “Lou” Fischer

    I recently saw the new movie Battle of the Sexes, an upbeat and engaging story about the 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. I love sports movies, movies with lesbian backstories, and movies set in the 1970s—my formative years—so this was a win-win-win.

    Women playing tennis in retro 70s outfits! Love scenes with sporty women! Hooray! About half-way through the movie, I realized, “We’ve been duped; this is a movie about politics.” My quick review: it’s entertaining, Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone as Billie Jean King is fantastic, and the movie has flaws, such as trite dialogue, but was blessedly shot on 35-mm film instead of digital to give it a 1970s visual effect. It is worth the $16 to see it at the theatre—especially the theatres with the reclining seats.

    The “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match was my seminal moment of women’s consciousness-raising; the point at which I realized that, even though I was only 10 years old,  I was a “Women’s Libber.” (If I’d worn a bra, I would have burned it.) I vividly remember the media hype and circus-like atmosphere of the ABC production; the baby pig given to “male chauvinist” Riggs (I didn’t get the joke and my sister, Karen, was put off because pigs aren’t kosher) and the giant Sugar Daddy™ caramel pop gifted to King (I wanted one just like it, but I had braces on my teeth so Sugar Daddy™ & his children, Sugar Babies™, were off limits).  ABC heavily promoted the “TV extravaganza,” which gave the boys and girls in my 6th grade class a few weeks to stage our own battles of the sexes, in this case with words and some pushing and shoving on the playground during recess.

    The stakes for women were huge. Margaret Court had lost to Bobby Riggs in the “Mother’s Day Massacre” a few months earlier.  This is covered in the film, but they ignore that she was a loathsome homophobe and documented racist, because that would ruin a good story. Court’s loss to Riggs threatened to derail the advances made by the 1972 passage of Title IX and to shred the credibility of feminists who were working so hard for gender equality and equal pay. If King had lost, it would have damaged the women’s cause for years. This wasn’t just a tennis match, but a possible referendum on women’s rights, and vivid proof for misogynists that women are physically weaker than men and emotionally unequipped to handle pressure.

    Spoiler alert—as if you didn’t already know—King won the match and the movie has a happy ending. The screenwriters don’t give much screen time to King’s inner struggle with her sexual orientation, and the fallout from the relationship with Marilyn Barnett that ended badly. Her husband, Larry King, is portrayed as a good guy, and from all accounts that seems to be true in real life. It’s too bad we can’t also say that women were vindicated, ERA was ratified by enough states, and magic unicorns flew down on rainbows and brought women the full equality we so richly deserve. 

    After the movie, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was not just a movie about a tennis icon and an historic event, but rather a parable of our current political climate, especially the disastrous presidential campaign of 2016. In the movie, a competent, highly qualified champion has to prove herself by competing against a blatantly sexist male buffoon. Riggs’ male chauvinist persona gave tacit permission to men, and some women, to say out loud the very things that they were thinking, but were afraid to say. He was an overbearing, bullying media personality with a big ego and a bigger mouth to match. Forty or so years before Donald Trump belittled and disparaged Mika Brzezinski, Katy Tur and Megyn Kelly, Riggs firmly planted his “sexist troll” flag smack in the center of the burgeoning women’s equality movement. Sound familiar? 

    Riggs was an immature, arrogant and egocentric showman out for his own self-enrichment, who initially didn’t seem to care if he won or not. It was all about the “brand” and it was good for “business.” Billie Jean King was a pioneering feminist who risked her career and livelihood by breaking off from the sexist, male-run tennis establishment. Together with “the Original Nine,” she founded the Women’s Tennis Association to ensure equal pay and equal rights for female tennis players. With the weight of the world on her shoulders and the fate of women’s equality hanging in the balance, King had to rise above the entrenched hierarchy and fight for a righteous cause against a group of people who were battling to preserve their own perceived superiority. Still sounding familiar, isn’t it?

    I only wish the November 2016 battle of the sexes had the same outcome as the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes.”  

    Louise “Lou” Fischer is the Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and has served as an appointed and elected Delegate for the State Democratic Party. She is a San Francisco Commissioner and has served in leadership positions in multiple non-profit and community based organizations.