More than 40 years have passed since the epic match between tennis greats Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Now, the new film Battle of the Sexes chronicles the events leading up to the match, including the personal and political wars simmering beneath the surface.
In the movie, which opens in theaters on Friday, September 22, King (played by Emma Stone) finally concedes to a match with the gleefully chauvinistic Riggs (Steve Carell) who aims to prove once and for all that women "belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order."
While Riggs might have argued the match was all in good fun, for the audience of 30,000 in the stadium that day and the 50 million viewers watching in their homes, a showdown between the two was significant considering the women's lib movement was at its height in 1970s America. This match would determine where women truly belong.
Ahead, Billie Jean King talks to Refinery29 about what it was like to watch the movie years after the event, how far underrepresented groups have come since then, and why men are the ones who feel they have the most to prove.
When you look at Battle of the Sexes, what feels truest to life?
"I think it caught the essence of the time, the essence of my life, and what I was dealing with. I think the movie caught the essence of what Bobby Riggs was going through, too. I think they caught the essence of what we were dealing with on and off the court — off being probably more interesting in some ways, I think.
"I thought Steve Carell did an amazing job of capturing the different layers of Bobby, and the authenticity and accuracy of him as a human being. And I think Emma captured who I am. It's kind of eerie actually. If I have my head down, not watching, just listening to the dialogue, her voice sounds exactly the same [as mine]. I don't enunciate well; she got it just right. And she got the phrasing, the tempo, all that in my speech patterns. She must have worked really hard on that."
What was it like to advocate for something like equal prize money for women in the 1970s?
"Actually, I was always advocating for both [men and women]. For instance, I tried to get the men and women [tennis players] together to be one association, or in one union. The men rejected us all the time, so we went to Plan B. If I had had my way, I would have had us be as one. That's the way I want the world to be. That's why I have the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative where everyone's involved, not just women.
"If we do something for women, people, especially the media, label us as doing something just for women. I think that really hurts us because it keeps our marketplace half as large. I think it's important for women to realize each one of us is an influencer, not just for [other] women, but for everybody.
"When I'm up there, I'm trying to get equality, period. We are far behind as women, so obviously the spotlight is on us — and rightly so, because we don't have the same opportunities. But it's very important to have everyone included in defining and making this happen. If you're a male CEO, and you have the power to get equal pay for equal work, you should do it. It's the same for women, too. It's just the right thing to do."
What do you think is key in getting people to realize they have that power?
"Right now, we're concentrating on the workplace because we feel that is really important. We want people to be their authentic selves when they come to work, or their authentic selves in general, in their daily lives. We want women on boards, and we want to see more women in C-suites to make sure there's inclusion always and forever. Those are still things we have to break down.
"If you notice in the movie, one thing that really stood out is how white it is. Everyone's white. And it really reminded me that even though we're trying to change things, how slowly these things happen. I mean, if you go to the U.S. Open now, or watch our tour, the WTA, you'll see that changing slowly but surely — although it's not enough for me, personally.
"Serena and Venus really help. I think Nadal helps. Any time you have a champion from a different country, you know, it really helps to get more people to watch. You need champions in every place, from every group."
I love that you mention Nadal. Andy Murray has also been very outspoken. He often corrects journalists in interviews when they fail to give people credit, saying, "No, I'm not the first, or the only, to do this. I think you might be mistaken."
"It's very sweet. People should know their history, but most people don't anymore. The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. Young people are going to shape the future, but it helps to have history behind that baseline of information, to help you know what needs to be done.
Venus Williams, who has also fought for equal prize money in tennis, has cited you as someone who was influential to her. What has that been like seeing her take up your cause?
"Venus was the leader in getting the majors to give equal prize money. I've known both Venus and Serena Williams since they were about 9 or 10. They were at a clinic that World Team Tennis gave; that's where I met them in Long Beach, CA, where I was born and raised.
"I'll never forget because Venus, at 10 or 11, was already a foot taller than I was. I was also their captain in Fed Cup, which is international team play for women, and they were rookies and were probably on four or five teams over the years when I was captain. Our job was to mentor and help them, but they're really great. They've transcended our sport and got more and more people of color in, which I really love.
"Watching Venus and Serena has been a huge joy in my life — to see how well they've done. I'm just thrilled at the way that they've stood up and led off the court as well."
What do you think about the fact that both of them are still being challenged in terms of women's ability to compete in tennis?
"It's always the guys bringing it up. We don't bring it up; the women never do.
"What we always said, and it's even in the movie, is not that we're better than them. We're just as entertaining, but we never said we're better. They have androgens we don't have, so we're not going to beat the top guys; we never said we're going to. [John] McEnroe just wants a match with Serena, that's why he keeps bringing it up. The guys keep bringing it up because it's about them. Have you ever noticed when a woman athlete competes in a male arena how much attention we get? Like when Annika Sörenstam tried to make the PGA Tour at the Colonial at Fort Worth, TX? I watched it on purpose, and every frame was her, except for like one or two minutes, and that's just because she was playing against men.
"Why shouldn't a great woman who plays against another great woman get as much attention as Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King? We still have a long way to go."
The film also spends a lot of time examining what it was like you to juggle your personal and professional lives. You were also a forerunner in terms of being an openly gay athlete. What do you think about this portrayal of the difficulty ambitious women have managing their personal lives?
"I was trying to figure myself out. I wasn't clear what was going on, and I thought they did a good job [in the film]. I was trying to figure out who I was, and I think people can relate to that.
"Of course ambitious women can have a personal life. It's just that ambitious women need to get the right guy, or the right girl, or the right whoever — someone who doesn't mind it, and in fact, they admire it. When you're with somebody, you should admire each other, and what they do with their life. It's only insecure people who have trouble with the other one doing well."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.