After watching Battle of the Sexes with Emma Stone and Steven Carrell, it was obvious that the real battle Billie Jean King had to fight was to be taken seriously as a female tennis player. At one point in the film she was asked if she was a feminist. She said, “I am a woman and a tennis player.” Although it was and is a feminist issue, she wasn’t fighting for a name for herself but to be treated equally to that of the male tennis players. It became an issue for her when men were paid around $7k for playing in the tournaments while women were paid around $1k. Some reasons cited for this inequity, according to Jack Kramer (played by Jack Pullman) the tour promoter, include the old sexist reasons women did not get their fair share of money:
- audiences were more excited to watch men’s tennis than women’s;
- men were the bread winners in their homes, and therefore, needed the money; and
- females weren’t as good as male tennis players.
It was Jack Kramer’s condescending smile and sexist comments about women tennis players that forced King’s hand in pulling out of his tournament and forging an all-women’s tour with Sarah Silverman’s character and founder of World Tennis, Gladys Heldman.
King’s real battle wasn’t with Bobby Riggs. As she points out in the film, “he’s a clown.” And he was. It was infuriating to see a strong and talented woman fighting for equality in a male dominated industry and then to have a buffoon use her fight for equality as a means of feeding his gambling addiction. For him, that’s all this battle was: a means to an end. He did bring up a good point about the fact that he was a senior/retired tennis player who was paid less than the young women; part of the sexist rhetoric highlights his resentment of women who dared to claim they deserved more money than he had earned with his own tennis wins between the late 30s and 40s. But throughout the movie, he was the clown and not the real enemy to King and the other female players in her circuit.
The most pivotal fight she had to endure was with Jack Kramer and the paternalistic attitude with which he claimed to undermine female tennis pros simply because of their gender. As King pointed out to him, she was the sole bread winner in her family, so she should get the same amount of money as the male tennis players did, and the difference in payment was insulting. The best scene in the film is when she put him in his place by refusing to play against Riggs if Kramer insisted on commentating the game between them. She accused him of disliking women and treating them as inferior to men, and when he agreed with her accusations and believed in her refusal to play if he commentated, he stepped down.
This was the win for her, as Kramer was the battle she had to fight against. It was a fight for gender and pay equity in an industry owned by men and dominated by men, and Billie Jean King was a fearless contender in her battle of the sexes — not with Riggs — but with Kramer and all that he stood for in the 70s. In control of the purse strings of pro tennis players, he allowed his personal prejudices about men and women to define who was paid more and why, refusing to acknowledge that women were just as good as men in tennis and that they deserved the same amount of money for competing in the game.
Her gamble paid off when she won $100,000 after beating Riggs, but it also brought attention to the pay gap that affected women in every industry. In fact, it is still an issue today, and King gives us the courage to stand up for ourselves even when we have everything to lose.