Tennis star Billie Jean King — winner of 39 Grand slam titles — knows what it’s like for both women and LGBTQ+ athletes to confront discrimination in their sport. It was King who beat Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes match, an epic victory that was felt way beyond the tennis world.
King herself credits being an athlete with successes outside of sports too. “Subdominant groups know a lot about the dominant groups, because we have to navigate their terrain all the time,” she said in a recent interview with Vogue. “That’s another reason I like girls to get into sports — it helps them navigate our real-life culture, especially business culture. Ninety-five percent of women in C-suites identify with being an athlete — it teaches you teamwork, leadership qualities, supportive roles, leadership roles — all of those things are important things to help you get through your day, even with your own family.”
Yet despite landmark victories like King’s, women continue to be confronted by sexism on the field and off. At the age of just 19, Olympic gold medalist Yulia Lipnitskaya retired from her sport, figure skating, because of the insane pressure put on female skaters to be thin. Trans athletes continue to fight to compete in the gender category they identify as, and the discrepancy between what male athletes and female athletes are paid is still (STILL!) staggering. This year’s Forbes’ list of the 100 Highest Paid Athletes included one woman: Serena Williams.
That’s why now is the perfect time to revisit King’s inspiring win, which directing team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton have done in their new movie Battle of the Sexes, which stars Emma Stone as King and Steve Carrell as Riggs. Already a major festival circuit success, the film opens in theaters across the country on September 22. We spoke to Faris and Dayton about the discrimination King fought against and how women and the LGBTQ+ community can look to King for motivation to continue to fight today.
Brit + Co: The film touches on both the subtle and overt ways sexism existed for women in that era. There’s the obvious things like the huge gap in pay and prize money and the cracks about women’s “inferior biology,” but there’s also men saying things like “Atta girl!” to grown women and — the scene that literally made me cringe — ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell putting his hand around Rosie Casals’ neck while she was a commentator at the match (which happened IRL and in the film). Why was it important to you to show both these kinds of sexism?
Valerie Faris: Sexism was a little more buried — it came out in these more insidious ways where people think they’re being nice to the “little lady” and now it’s gotten okay to just come right out and…
Jonathan Dayton: “Grab her by the pussy.“
VF: Yeah. For our president to say that it’s shocking, but it was just as offensive then. We were interested in the more subtle ways it was expressed. Howard Cosell was known as a liberal guy, but to see him do that, to us, was shocking.
JD: We liked that we could show what really happened, that we didn’t need to editorialize, that we could just lay it out. And I can assure you that most people in that period thought nothing of it. Thankfully, today, it’s a little more shocking to see.
VF: And he calls her “Little Rosie Casals” and “little lady” — how much more clear can you be about the power struggle? We didn’t have to dramatize it; if anything, that was part of the challenge: How do we balance this so it doesn’t feel over the top or overt in a way that sometimes movies do? We wanted it to be as close to what it felt like to live in. It was hard to recognize in some ways because women had been suppressed for so long and it was just starting to be talked about — the second wave of feminism, Ms. Magazine was just getting started, Roe v. Wade had just been passed, there were protests in the street, so it was still kind of new.
JD: The ‘60s was when it started, but in the ‘70s it really reached the culture, instead of being the counterculture. The Supreme Court gave women the right to choice that year.
VF: And we’re still fighting to protect that.
JD: It’s shocking again. It’s shocking all over again.
You mentioned Trump. What is it like making and promoting a film like this in the current political climate — an LGBTQ+ love story, a story about sexism and discrimination — were politics on your mind when you were making it?
VF: It was still the primaries when we started working on the film, and we knew Hillary, most likely, would be running against a man. We didn’t know who yet, but we knew the time would be ripe for this kind of story. And it would be interesting to look back and say “Look what’s changed.” We sort of assumed we’d have a woman president so… it was a very different outlook, but I think we would have made the same film.
JD: I’m a big fan of Dan Savage and It Gets Better and on some level, and we talked a lot amongst ourselves and with Billie Jean about how the reason we wanted to make this was to tell this love story. A lot of people knew about the match, but what was truly interesting was that at the same time, Billie Jean was acting on this feeling she had, this truth about herself. There was the most famous woman in America and she’s doing this thing that’s her truth but could cost her so much.
VF: The idea of having to keep that secret while she was under such public scrutiny leading up to this match…
JD: We all agreed that if this movie could make people feel just a little more empowered to acknowledge their truth, that would be important. It was a tricky thing, because there were certain forces that said “Just make a sports movie.”
VF: We did testing and people were like “We don’t really like the lesbian love story.”
JD: And we were like “Sorry, that’s what it is!”
Having worked on bringing this story to the screen and being so keenly aware of what Billie Jean accomplished and how long ago that happened, how do you feel when you hear stories in the media about women, particularly women in sports, who are being discriminated against on the basis of gender — I’m thinking about the new LPGA dress code where women aren’t allowed to wear a wide variety of athletic wear, or in Canada where the women’s national hockey league only began to be paid for the work they do this year (and it’s still basically only an honorarium).
VF: Or the WNBA. There’s nothing close to parity. Parity is a huge thing. Wealth inequality is a really big issue that covers gender issues; it covers racial discrimination… there’s no middle class anymore. So those pay disparities are part of that. Women suffer a lot from that, so do a lot of minorities.
JD: It’s the BATTLE of the Sexes. It’s one battle — but the battles are still being fought. Someone was saying to me that true equality in pay will be another 125 years from now, based on how fast things are moving.
VF: And the fact that a woman, that Hillary didn’t win, it uncovered a level of sexism that we didn’t realize existed. In a weird way it’s good to have it exposed so we can now address it. It’s like we’ve found the tumor and now we can deal with it. It’s disheartening because you feel like change has happened and then you go, “Oh, wait. Maybe it’s only happened in these pockets.”
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(Images via Fox Searchlight)