The so-called "battle of the sexes" has been going on since time immemorial. It is as silly now as it was way back when it began. I use superheroes to communicate science and in 2014, I published my first book for young adults Project Superhero.
The hybrid novel focuses on 13-year-old Jessie as a young female protagonist finding her way in the world and exploring her own potential and finding out what it would be like to become her hero, Batgirl.
Jessie finds out about a lot of great things and a lot of other things, like sexism and bias in how girls are portrayed in comic books and real life. And about how folks have some pretty weird ideas and stereotypes that persist in our society.
I was thinking about this last night while watching the 2017 movie "Battle of the Sexes". I was born in 1968 and the movie was set in 1973. Things have changed a lot in our society in my lifetime, but they have not changed enough.
Examples abound in the "Battle of the Sexes," but one scene I found particularly jarring is in a diner where all the female pros are gathered for dinner and talking about funding for their new tournament circuit. The manager surprises everyone with the news that she has a sponsor that is a tobacco company. She then hands out packages of cigarettes to all the players, chain smoking the whole time. While watching this scene I was struck by how you just don't anymore see smoking represented in popular culture like this. Yet you do still see and hear lamebrain, low-brow sexist commentary in sport and society.
Examples abound real life now. Case in point, enter Cam Newton who made a really dumb, demeaning and degrading comment to a female reporter when she asked a good question about a recent game. It is just ridiculous that this kind of thing goes on.
When I wrote Project Superhero, it morphed from a book about science and achievement into one about female empowerment. Jessie and I both learned a lot about women in society but our limitations remain constantly on view. We all need to do better.
In homage to these issues and the fantastic "Battle of the Sexes" movie, below is an excerpt from Project Superhero in which Jessie, her friend Audrey, and her nemesis Dylan learn about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
Anyway, their little chat rapidly became one big men-versus-women, no-holds-barred shouting match. It was as bad as “my dad can beat your dad.” Actually more like, “My mom can beat your dad.” Ha!
Dylan just said, “Men are better. At everything. So there.” “Wow, dude, nice argument. Logic much?” was Audrey’s fantastic retort.
Just then, Ms. King piped up. Apparently, she had been around the corner and had finally had enough of the witty exchange between Dylan and Audrey. “Ever heard of the tennis players Billie Jean King and
Bobby Riggs?” she asked, in that way teachers do when they know for sure you don’t know what they are talking about. But they ask it anyway just to give you a chance. Or to make it seem like you have so much to learn . . . or maybe just so they can feel smarter!
Me: “Errr . . .”
Blank faces all around. Dylan and Audrey just looked at each other. “Who are Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs?”
Finally, common ground, neither had any clue on this one.
“Billie Jean King was a famous women’s tennis champion who played from 1959 to 1990,” Ms. King informed us. “And, I know what you are thinking, but even though we have the same last name we aren’t related. Too bad! I would so love to meet her. She won almost 700 matches and lost only about 150 times. She was the real deal.”
That was Ms. King getting all hip and with it. And not doing too bad a job of it, really.
“While Billie Jean was winning all her matches, an older gentleman named Bobby Riggs came along and started saying bad things about female tennis players. Basically, he said he could beat any woman tennis player anytime, anywhere.”
By this point Ms. King was on a bit of a roll—she seems to do this a lot. So naturally, we got another question.
“Can you guess what Billie Jean did about that?”
“Well, I’d guess . . .” I surprised myself by getting involved and speaking up, but I wasn’t surprised that I got interrupted.
“She got destroyed by Bobby Riggs!” Dylan shouted over my hesitant beginning.
Apparently Billie Jean took Bobby up on his boast on a TV show called BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Kind of like reality TV but from back in the day. When TV was really real. (So says Mom.)
“In full view of TV cameras and millions of viewers, they played a best of five set match to see about men versus women. Guess what happened?” Ms. King, again with the leading question. Although this time I think she thought we might actually know the answer. Or at least I might.
So Audrey jumped in quickly. “I figure she beat Mr. Mouthy!”
“Bobby Riggs,” Ms. King said, smiling at Dylan, “lost each and every match.”
Dylan, who already didn’t look pleased, looked even worse when Audrey leaned in close and added two words: “EPIC,” and Audrey left a very dramatic pause before a clear “FAIL.”
Ms. King went down the hall, practically skipping after her fabulous teaching moment. Unfortunately for clear thinkers everywhere, Dylan didn’t get the message and he and Audrey continued to argue.
I'm sure the arguing will continue in fiction and reality but we have to keep working towards real progress. The never-ending story of the "battle of the sexes" could actually have an end if we really want it to.
(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)