Billie Jean King was a number one tennis player and won 39 Grand Slam titles. However, she is not best known for all her wins, but rather for one very specific win. This highly publicized and high profile match was, “The Battle of the Sexes” played against Bobby Riggs in 1973. This match raised the issue of gender equality and class within sports and reinforced the significance of the newly issued Title XI.
While Billie Jean had won three times as many matches as Bobby, she does not boast about this win. For example, she states, “He was one of my heroes and I beat him because I respected him” (Tedtalk 2015). But, the thing is, why do we still care about this match that happened 40 years ago? Just two years ago, Billie Jean prepared a TedTalk interview about the match and last week a new trailer for a movie about the match was released: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5ykcuAS1F4/ . Given Billie Jean’s significant success in match play, we are left wondering, why was this match distinguishable and why does it remain relevant today?
Prior to the match the world was watching Billie Jean. She remembered thinking: “If I lose, it is going to put women back 50 years” (Tedtalk 2015). While the men’s tennis tour had been going on for the last thirty years, the women’s tour had only been around for three years. As we know, Billie Jean won the match. The victory imparted many women with a new sense of self-confidence, empowerment and gender equality. This feeling was not limited to sportsbut carried over into the work place and other areas of life. For example, in years following the match, women were more likely to seek equal pay for their work and to request a raise they believed they deserved. Despite the progress made in gender equity in pay, that issue and others, have not yet evolved to complete equality.
As part of this continuation of seeking equality between genders, new media campaigns were released last year to empower women. These campaigns address several of the issues that Billie Jean discussed in her TedTalk and revolve around building the self-confidence of women. I have attached links from three ads. The first ad is focused upon a woman who is asking for a raise and was produced by “Secret” a female deodorant brand:
The second video directs people to act, “Like a girl.” A feminine product company selling pads and tampons created this advertisement:
The third video shows a woman playing soccer. We see that nothing can stop her, including her “day of the month.” The same tampon company created this ad as the one above:
While one may argue that these videos demonstrate the media’s acceptance of modern women’s strength and power, there are some cautionary notes here. First, each of these ads are for feminine products. These feminine products send a signal to society that women need these products to be deemed as acceptable. In particular, the ads for these products remind women of their gender differences, sending the message that we need to smell nice and manage our periods. Women are being told that because we have better smelling deodorants and more productive pads, we can overcome our limitations and participate fully in sports; however, these female centered products are not available to all women and call into question the ability of those who either cannot afford these products or choose not to use them to participate in sports.
Additionally, these commercials lack people of color. In my group discussion, it was addressed how media campaigns often use a token person of color to fulfill their “diversity” quota. The campaigns are not fully inclusive. Rather, these products seem to primarily portray white women. Margaret Hunter expands on this issue and states, “Images of white beauty sell much more than beauty ideals or fashions for women around the globe. Taken as a whole, images of white beauty sell an entire lifestyle imbued with racial meaning (Burke, 1996; Saraswati, 2010). The lifestyle that is communicated through these ads sells whiteness, modernity, sophistication, beauty, power, and wealth (Leong, 2006; Mahe, Ly & Gounongbe, 2004)” (Hunter 144).
Billie Jean explains, when she was twelve, she saw only “white shoes, white clothes, white balls and everyone who played was white” and so, “where was everyone else?” (TedTalk 2015). To achieve greater diversity since her historic win in 1973, Billie Jean worked to include all women with tennis and sports, not just white women or women with the means to play. When she won the match against Bobby, she gained a platform to advocate for women’s rights. As the result of her efforts and other activists, there has been some progress. For example, Billie Jean created her foundation, the Women’s Sports Foundation after receiving her prize money. Similarly, there are programs like Tenacity in Boston that provide some level of diversity within tennis. These programs help to provide facilities and support in lower income areas.
Despite some measure of progress through Title IX, the issues facing Billie Jean remain prevalent today, women’s image in the media and the opportunities for women to play sports formally still focus upon men and our feminine qualities. Billie Jean’s win in 1973 is still important in 2017 because it shows both what women can achieve and what they have yet to achieve. Women should have the right to equal pay as well as equal opportunities in sport and in life. Perhaps it is more understated today, but the battle of the sexes continues.
“Always #LikeAGirl.” Video file. YouTube. Accessed June 26, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs. “Battle of the Sexes I Official Trailer | FOX Searchlight.” Video file. YouTube. Posted May 16, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5ykcuAS1F4/.
Burke, T. (1996). Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hunter, Margaret. (June 2011). “Buying Racial Capital: Skin – Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World.” The Journal of Pan African Studies 4.
Leong, S. (2006). Who’s the fairest of them all? Television ads for skin-whitening cosmetics in Hong Kong. Asian Ethnicity, 7 (2), 167-181.
Mahe, A., Ly, F., & Gounongbe, A. (2004). The cosmetic use of bleaching products in Dakar, Senegal: Socio-economic factors and claimed motivations. Sciences Sociales Et Sante, 22 (2), 5-33.
Saraswati, L. A. (2010). Cosmopolitan whiteness: The effects and affects of skin whitening advertisements in a transnational women’s magazine in Indonesia. Meridians,10(2), 15-41.
“Secret Deodorant | Raise | #StressTest.” Video file. YouTube. Posted April 10, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ilSeJ6B5ro.
“This tennis icon paved the way for women in sports | Billie Jean King.” Video file. YouTube. Posted October 1, 2015. Accessed May 21, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2yka9lyvMA.