Billie versus Bobby – how one tennis match changed history

Reviewed: Battle of the Sexes.

Battle of the Sexes

Dir. James Erskine and Zara Hayes

It was the 20th of September, 1973, when twenty-nine year old Billie Jean King took on fifty-five year old former Wimbledon champion and chauvinist extraordinaire Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome.  A live audience of 30,000 and a televised audience of 50 million tuned in to watch the match, arranged off the back of Rigg’s boast he could beat any “girl” in the game – simply by virtue of being a man. "The Battle of the Sexes”, as it was billed, acquired epic proportions. It became the demonstrable challenge to male supremacy not only in the sport, but in life – with bespectacled Billie Jean (an outspoken feminist and key player in the Women Liberation Movement) as the harbinger of equality. It was agreed the match would be played to a man-sized five sets. King won in a straight three.

This new documentary, directed by James Erskine and Zara Hayes, presents the event (still the most watch tennis match of all time) within the wider context of social upheaval, sexual rights and the struggle for gender equality.

Crafting tension and pace from archive match footage - much of it readily available on YouTube - takes talent, and the interlacing of vintage b-roll, interviews and reenacted racket-thwacking is artfully done. At a trim seventy minutes, the plot builds briskly.  Pre-match publicity is convivial enough - the pair publically exchange threats to “scrape” each other “off the court” - but it’s clear this is no PR stunt. Riggs had previously challenged and beaten former World No. 1 Margaret Court, which he touted as a triumph over all womankind. “I had to win this match” King recalls. “I needed to shut Bobby up”.

Bobby Riggs presents himself readily for caricature: a buffoon and a small-time hustler, we see him sporting ‘sugardaddy’ warm-up jackets and spurting ludicrous sexisms from between his sideburned jowls. Riggs was a notorious bet maker and nurtured a gambling habit that cost him his marriage. He popped 450 vitamin pills a day, and hosted giggly over-the-nets with model and starlets.

“The male is king, the male is supreme,” he told ABC News. “I’ve said it over and over again and I still feel that way. Girls play a nice game of tennis for girls but when they get on there on a court with a man, even a tired old man of 55, they’re gonna be in big trouble”.

Troublingly, Bobby was cartoonish but still acknowledged. He voiced the fears of men across America – that female empowerment spelled the end of sex, hot dinners, poker nights and “duck hunting weekends with the boys” (Bobby’s words). Free the women and men will be “enslaved”, Riggs argued, shackled to routines of shared childcare and household chores, watching their manhood fade away like a muscle car pulling out of the driveway.

The rise of women’s tennis was an affront to the status quo. Erskine and Hayes simultaneously reconstruct the story of the Original Nine – a breakaway cohort of female tennis players who abandoned the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) in rebellion against entrenched inequalities. The Nine argued fiercely in favour of equal prize money for female players who, at grand slams, were sometimes awarded just a quarter of men’s winnings.

Lead by King, the nine approached Gladys Heldman – then editor of World Tennis magazine and the most powerful woman in the industry – to help organise an alternative tour. With American cigarette brand Virginia Slims secured as sponsors, the women famously signed $1 contracts and founded the alternative Virginia Slims Circuit. USLTA promptly banned them from all future events.

What came next is recalled as a kind of On the Road with rackets: over packed cars, empty wallets, camaraderie. The group played nineteen tournaments in places like Texas, Arizona, California - prize money was based on a how big a crowd they could draw. Fringe status, however, wasn't theirs for long. By 1971 almost forty players had joined Virginia Slims. Richard Nixon called King to congratulate her on a win in Phoenix: “This has gotta be your best year, don’t ya think?”

The film lets itself down only when crossing the line into girl-power fist pumping. Following the unification of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973, a deal agreed during a pre-Wimbledon lockdown in London’s Gloucester Hotel, we are treated to a montage of feminist milestone intercut with Helen Reddy performing “I Am Woman”.  The passing of the Sex Discrimination Act - “I am strong” – abortion rights - “I am invincible” - the creation of the ‘Ms.’ prefix – “I am womaaan”. The pairing lends these worthy achievements a lacklustre sentimentality.

Battle of the Sexes regains its footing when surveying the scene more delicately. It offers a vision late sixties/early seventies America which is both enlightening and grim. Recorded commentary and news footage more subtly invokes the era’s lead blanket sexism. Reporters refer blithely to women’s place in the home – players are even asked which will end first, their marriage or their careers? The tennis world refers to its players as “men” and “girls” – so implicit patronising it grates on the modern ear. Shameless critique of a female athlete’s appearance was knee-jerk. When Billie Jean arrives at the Houston Astrodome, one commentator call her a “looker” and jibes she could “vie for a Hollywood screen test”, if only she’d lose the glasses and grow out her hair.

As a result, watching King earn her final game is a genuine delight. Humble, talented and ruthless, her silencing it total. As a confounded Riggs puts it after matchpoint, “I underestimated you.”

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. (Photo: ESPN)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.