by Ryan Hsu
In 1973, former No.1 tennis player of the world, Bobby Riggs challenged the current female champion Billie Jean King in the controversial event known as the “Battle of the Sexes.”
The event was hyped for potentially conflicting examination of gender roles, as well as ageism in sports. The 29-year-old King defeated 55-year-old Riggs in a series of three matches, winning them all (6-4, 6-3, 6-3), in what became one of the most-watched televised sporting events in history.
By popular convention of its era, men were considered “physically superior” regardless of age. Although Riggs, an admitted male chauvinist, was 26 years older than King, was considered the favorite to win the match. Despite being retired since 1959, he believed he could still beat any female tennis player, based, as he said, on “the fact” that a woman is simply inferior to a man. He believed this was also reinforced by his previous No. 1 status.
The end result proved him, and the rest of the world, wrong. In the match, the myth of women’s physical inferiority was challenged, and the traditional male domination in sports was then viewed with a certain skepticism. The arrogance displayed by the male athletes at that time (exemplified by Riggs challenging King to a series of matches in spite of the age difference) became a hotly-contested issue in the media.
Following the match, the male pride and ego suddenly became the material for jokes by many in the pop culture. The “Battle of the Sexes” gave women’s sports respect that they deserved and provided fuel for the rising Second-Wave feminist movements, which broadened the debate to include issues of sexuality, workforce and other legal inequalities. It also gave hope and inspiration to generations of female athletes to come. The concept of “woman power” became widely acknowledged and accepted.
Following her major victory, King was the first female athlete to be chosen as Sports’ Illustrated “Sportsperson of the Year,” and she won over $100,000 for the match. King went on to found the Women’s Professional Tennis Association, and later she also became an activist for the gay rights movement after retiring from tennis.
Her biggest impact and contribution, however, goes beyond sports. “I wanted to use sports for social change,” she has stated. The event changed not just how women were viewed in sports but also influenced how generations of men think about women, allowing for the advancement of women in society and sports.
The “Battle of the Sexes,” movie opens in theaters today. The film’s runtime is just over two hours, and it has a PG-13 rating.