James Leroy Wilson's blog

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Battle of the Sexes Was Mental

The death of actor Ron Silver last week reminded me of a movie I stumbled upon last fall. It was a 2001 tv movie: When Billie Beat Bobby starring Holly Hunter as Billie Jean King and Silver as Bobby Riggs. The movie is a light-hearted comedy about the Battle of the Sexes tennis match in 1973.

Perhaps if this was a big-budget theatrical drama, other actors would have been chosen. Riggs and King were both Californians, but Hunter (Southern) and Silver (New York) don't completely eradicate their native accents. And despite the glasses and different hairstyles, they still look like Hunter and Silver. But this made the movie all the more charming; it seemed that the actors were having fun.

And was this "Battle of the Sexes" ever a drama? Riggs did it for the publicity, and the reason for the publicity was to cash in. Although he had physical gifts that, decades before, made him the best tennis player on the planet, he was at this stage in life a hustler who was expert at playing mental games.

That was the key. Whether or not a 30 year-old woman could beat a 55 year-old man in an athletic contest is beside the point. If he was 60, 65, 70, 75, of course she'd be favored. Why not at 55?

Because Riggs already had whipped Margaret Court, the #1-ranked female tennis player. And he won by taking Court out of her mental game, by charming her and then intimidating her. This was the key to the movie: King prepared for the match by scrimmaging with much younger male players. She was capable of beating him at the athletic game of tennis. But could Riggs take her out of her mental game?

I think that was what the movie subtly suggested was the issue. That a woman could beat a much-older man in an athletic contest does not prove that a "woman can do anything a man can do." That's why most sports are segregated by gender, and rightfully so. But can a woman overcome the mix of charm and sexism that can simultaneously disarm and discourage her?

It seems to me this was the key to the match, and the key to a genuine feminism, not the bogus kind where women run crying to the civil rights division of the Justice Department. King had to see through Riggs's charm, and his bluster, and realize that he was only doing it for the publicity, i.e., the money.

The lesson learned is that if women are to compete with men in any field, the biggest obstacle to overcome is not physical, but mental. And the key to success is not in beating the men at their own mental games - in being bigger jerks - but refusing to play those games in the first place. Refuse to be manipulated.

I think this was at the heart of the movie and to the Battle of the Sexes, and why it was a victory for feminism. Women don't have to be discouraged by the crap they take from men. They can beat them just the same. And they can insist they be paid their equal share.

Just as Jackie Robinson and Dodgers executive Branch Rickey did more for race relations than Congress and the Supreme Court ever could, so it is that the Battle of the Sexes was a significant, if symbolic, step for feminism. And no government had to mandate it or subsidize it. Riggs and King were in it for the money.

It's the invisible hand of Adam Smith: self-seeking individuals generate social progress.

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