The struggle for women’s rights was marked by several high points, but few could be considered as pivotal as a sporting event that took place in September 1973. This exhibition tennis match between the legendary Bobby Riggs and women’s champion Billie Jean King is the topic of a major motion picture that was recently released and is appropriately titled “Battle of the Sexes.”
The film features Steve Carell, known primarily as a comic actor, and Emma Stone, who is fresh off her win of an Academy Award for “La La Land” and is today the world’s highest-paid actress. In terms of their ages, the two stars are an almost exact match for the two athletes at the time, with 55-year-old Riggs facing off against 29-year-old King. However, Stone had to consume high-calorie protein drinks to gain the weight needed for her to physically resemble the tennis star.
Played in Houston, the match was seen by an estimated 50 million television viewers throughout the world. King took the match 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3, and also won the prize of $100,000. The movie recounts the game, the struggles of King, of women athletes and of women in general. King’s situation was not helped by the attitude of Riggs, who once stated that women belonged “in the bedroom and the kitchen,” adding that these responsibilities should be dealt with “in that order.”
Stone had little experience in the game of tennis and needed help from both King and professional coach Vince Spadea. King spent plenty of time discussing the basics of the game with Stone at the final women’s match of the U.S. Open and lauded the young actress for her “amazing” performance, which she said captured both her “essence” and her “vulnerability” when she was a young athlete. Stone noted that, in addition to being entertaining, King’s victory over Riggs had some positive effects on the issue of gender equality. The event also helped to promote the game of tennis in general.
The battle for equality has moved into other areas, with the emphasis today on equal opportunity and equal pay. Quoting a recent study, King noted that women are today less likely than men to me hired and promoted for their potential to be successful. Sexism is still present in the field of sports, with tennis star John McEnroe recently stating that women’s champion Serena Williams might be ranked 700th as a male player.
King emphasized that female superiority was never an issue, noting that women never claimed to be better at tennis than men. Women were superior, at least on that late summer day in 1973.