Battle of the Sexes: A Guide to Talking About the Movie with Your Kids

by Regan Solmo, Girls Leadership New York Board Chair

Battle of the Sexes (September 22, Fox Searchlight Pictures), starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, tells the story of Billie Jean King’s triumphant victory over Bobby Riggs in a 1973 exhibition tennis match called “The Battle of the Sexes.” Riggs (Carell), a loudmouth champion and self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig,” challenged Billie Jean King, who was top-ranked on the women’s circuit and already fighting for equal pay for her female peers. The movie follows the two during the run-up to the match, and effectively chronicles the media spectacle that was whipped up by ABC Sports to settle if men are truly “faster, stronger, and more competitive.” Meanwhile, King (Stone), married to a man, is grappling with her sexual identity, and slowly coming to terms with being gay.

Billie Jean King Bobby Riggs image courtesy
Billie Jean King Bobby Riggs image courtesy

Battle of the Sexes deftly captures the mood and humor of the ‘70s; the period costumes, facial hair, music, and overall look are engaging throwbacks. The sexism, too, is shown as part of its time, portrayed as casual and light (a slightly less intense “Mad Men”)—but the underlying reality that women were just not taken seriously, on the court and off, is painful. Men are constantly referring to women as “honey,” “little lady,” and the pain of that constant objectification and belittling is evident in characters’ faces, even minor ones. (Riggs says at a press conference with King sitting right next to him: “Don’t get me wrong, I love women, in the bedroom and in the kitchen.”) Also, King’s inner conflict and closeted personal life wreaks havoc on her game, and she is shown having to push her emotions aside in order to focus on the upcoming match (she was playing not just for herself, but for Sisterhood in general). There is one key scene where she finally lets all her emotions out, alone, and it’s powerful.

This is a movie that, while depicting one specific situation from 43 years ago, engages a timeless subject: Equality requires hard work, and often difficult situations. It’s a fight that pioneers like Billie Jean King took on for all women, and with women still not paid equally to men in many professions, one that continues today.

Key questions:

  • Have you ever had to push hard for what you needed or wanted?
  • Were you afraid of being seen as “too aggressive,” or “pushy”?
  • How did you deal with those feelings, and did you do it anyway?

Girls are raised to feel that their job is to focus on the needs of others, not their own. They’re socialized to not ask for what they want. And when they do finally ask, they are often penalized for being too aggressive. According to a 2006 study by Girls Inc., 8 in 10 women believe that girls are under a lot of pressure to please everyone—and 91% of these women dislike that this is true. Whereas men are viewed in society as strong, confident leaders when they take a hard line in negotiation. Billie Jean King is shown repeatedly negotiating hard with Jack Kramer, the powerful head of the Association of Tennis Professionals, demanding he pay the women tennis players the same prize money as the men. King is not afraid to call his bluff, twice, and he ends up backing down. (“When we dare to want a little bit more, just a little bit of what you got, that’s what you can’t stand,” she says to Kramer before walking away.) She provides a model for knowing what you want, and being unafraid to push for it, for herself and on behalf of others. In this way, she proved herself to be a leader for all women in sports, and was closely watched by women all over the world when “The Libber” beat “the Lobber”.

Further questions:

  • In the movie, Billie Jean King is shown as having found her voice, and being largely unafraid to use it, even while internally conflicted and perhaps afraid.
  • Still, she is depicted as being confident. What do you do if you’re not confident about using your voice?
  • How do you practice asking for what you want?

Girls Inc’s study also says that girls face different stereotypes and concerns than boys. Girls are expected to be the nurturers and caretakers—84% of girls and 87% of boys believe girls are “supposed to be kind and caring,” whereas 88% of girls and 94% of boys believe that boys are “supposed to be able to protect themselves and others.” This societal expectation leads to girls not feeling confident to speak up for, and advocate for, themselves. Girls Leadership’s online resources, workshops, parenting talks, and book clubs aim to help girls get over this fear, and to realize that the more they practice speaking up, the easier it will be to find their voices. On Girls Leadership’s homepage, and on the walls of our headquarters, are the words we hope every girl will live by, every day:

…”It starts as a whisper, that voice.
But the more you listen to it and use it
The stronger it gets.
And every time you open up, it shows others that they can too.
That’s leadership.
That’s influence.
That’s all kinds of powerful.”

Learn about Girls Leadership’s partnership with Teneo Strategy and the Billie Jean King Leadership Institute to design and field our latest research study “Closing the Gap: Understanding How Girls of Color Become Leaders”

Main image credit Fox Searchlight

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