On Watching Battle of the Sexes

It took me a week or so of nudging:

“Hey, you wanna go see Battle of the Sexes with me hon?”

“Nah, not really… can’t we just rent Wonder Woman again?”

I really wanted at least one of my kids to come see it with me, and my son is just not that into movies. But I hoped I could get the girl to go. I’d watched far more than my share of dystopian tween films for her.  I hoped I could  leverage that to get her to come see my pick.

“But you always tell me you like movies that feature bad-ass women! This is about a woman who is a total bad-ass! She was a total hero when I was a kid!”

“I told you I don’t like seeing movies from olden times!”

“It’s new, just came out! Emma Stone is in it! You love her!”

Eventually she succumbed to my annoying parental persuasion. We sat in the back row, and I watched my childhood flash before my eyes on the screen with my girl’s head resting on my shoulder.

My father was the wealthy son of an old oil family, prominent member of the yacht club, and an inherited membership to the white-only country club in town.

My mother was the daughter of farmers, Grange democrats. They met in college, which my mother had attended to get her “Mrs.” degree as the old joke went. To become a wealthy man’s housewife was a goal she had initially perceived as an ambitious one. It got her up and out of the farm-town, population 60, that she had been raised in, into  prosperous (and segregated) bedroom community outside of Minneapolis.

She joined the Junior League, and learned to sail, and cooked and cleaned and decorated the house. And my father sailed and played tennis in the summer, and coached hockey in the winter. They were pretty, and wealthy, and occupied the big house on the hill. And this is the world I was born into in 1964.

What my mother hadn’t anticipated was the depth of my father’s misogyny. His willingness to humiliate. His expectation that he would be served. His demand that he have the last word. His “white glove test” on the mantles and woodwork, to ascertain that they had been dusted sufficiently. His willingness to punish and withhold her “pin money” when she failed to meet his standards.

And there on the screen, were my father’s men: well-groomed and buttoned-down in their leather men’s club chairs, and there was Emma Stone, as Billie Jean King refusing to play for pin money, demanding that women athletes be paid the same as the men.

My father thought the notion of “women’s equality” was a hilarious idea, and “women’s libbers” were simply women who were too ugly to ever get a man to marry them.

He considered himself a raconteur, and always laughed loudly at his own wisecracks. I never got the joke.

He would mess up my shiny bowl cut and say: “This one here is too spirited and needs to be ridden with spurs!” to a circle of  yachtsmen on the dock or to a group of men after church. And they would all laugh but he would laugh the loudest and a little too long.

He encouraged his friends to call me “Beriberi,” a nickname which referred to the distended and bloated abdomens of children who suffered from B1 deficiency. “Hey there Beriberi! Look at that fat belly!” the friendly smiling men would tease and poke.

My mother’s body was targeted for her small breasts. “Flat as an ironing board!” he’d tease at the huge annual Harvey Wallbanger cocktail party they threw each summer. “Just a couple of mosquito bites!” and my mother would blush and smile and say “Now Rod, that’s enough” and wander off to restock the onion dip.

I wanted to be tall and slim like her. I thought it would rather be called Twiggy, instead of Beriberi. I thought my mom looked like Cher, lean and tan with strong shoulders and long black hair. But when we watched Sonny and Cher on the talk shows, Sonny made the same kinds of jokes about Cher’s small boobs. Maybe that is where my father got them.

My father’s favorite “Mom” joke went like this: “When I leave town, I feel like I should hang a sign on her… In Case of Rape: This Side Up!” And all the men would laugh and laugh, and usually one of the women would swat him playfully and say: “Roddy, you are just terrible!” but they would laugh too.

He might have stolen that crack from Phyllis Diller or Joan Rivers.

Except they would have told it about themselves.

When my older sister’s best friend asked my Dad for a recommendation for college, he wrote a “joke letter” first,  about how she shouldn’t be admitted because she was so flat chested, and then after she read it through first ashen and then blushing, he gave her the real one. My sister laughed, she laughed. Her parents laughed.

These were the jokes everyone laughed at, it was all just in good fun. But something about it made me feel surrounded, like I needed to suck in my tummy and hold my breath all the time. A man with spurs would come from the future to break my spirit, a circle of men could poke at my belly whenever they wanted, and there was no where to go, not even to college, where I would be safe from humiliation.

On the movie screen, Billie Jean King is falling in love with a woman, and my daughter leans over to me and whispers:

“Her husband is so nice! Why doesn’t she just tell him she is bi?”

“Because everyone had to be in the closet then honey. No one could talk about being gay back then. People thought it was a mental illness and sometimes it was a crime so everyone had to hide it.” I whisper back.

“EVERYONE?” she gasps, and I shush her back into a low whisper.

“Yes” I say as I cup my hand around her ear: “ All gay people, all trans people. Everyone who wasn’t straight.”

I think back to the 1970’s and wonder which ones of my parents’ friends were bound in a closet, as trapped as I felt.

I think about the segregation in my community, my father’s willingness to use the n-word when he was angry and sometimes even laugh and wield it as if it is a complement: “Dionne Warwick is the new super n*****!” He says, turning up the car radio when a Burt Bacharach song comes on.

I think of my daughter’s world, the adults she loves and who love her: a life filled with gay and queer folk and people of color, teachers, chosen aunts and uncles and god-parents. I think of her ability to understand and to instantly reorganize pronouns in relationships with queer and trans friends and family. I think of her willingness, as a kid of color herself, to call out racism, misogyny when it is transacted around her, or toward her. I think of how the day earlier, when I made an teasing off-hand and unconscious comment to her brother about how he should be sweet to me in public since girls will be mothers someday and they notice – she corrected me instantly: “Not all girls want to be mothers, or will be.”

“You are absolutely right honey, No one has to be a parent to be a complete person. I wasn’t thinking.”

Sometimes, shamefully, when I am tired and unfiltered, 1972 can still come out of my mouth.

She covers her eyes and buries her face in my sleeve when the actresses begin to make out – just exactly as she does when she sees straight couples kissing on screen.

And I remember this silly tennis match, this buffoon Bobby Riggs prancing around the court with a giant candy bar, Sugar Daddy, my favorite Halloween booty.

I did not perceive him as a clown as a child, probably because there was such a thin line between the jokes men made and the dominance that they asserted that I couldn’t tell the difference. I just knew he said mean things about girls. Like all the men around me.

We had watch Riggs beat Margaret Court a few months earlier – with my dad yelling and cheering loudly from the couch. When Court lost my father stood up and let loose a loud growling “YEEEEEEEEEESSSSS!”

He was always screaming at sports and the sudden eruptions made me jump.

And now Riggs was going to play Billie Jean King, who was a “libber.” My mother and I quietly watched. I was terrified that she would lose. This match was bigger. More grown-ups seemed to think that Billie Jean could win. I was scared to hope: If she lost it seemed to mean to me that I would never get out. That every exit was blocked.

My father’s cheers at every point Riggs won frayed my nerves. I sat on the floor, legs crossed on the oval braided rug. I didn’t like to sit next to him on the couch because I’d had dreams of falling between the cushions, of screaming as loud as I could and no one hearing me, the couch smothering me.

I prayed silently the way children do: “please let her win please let her win.”

I needed my father to lose. I needed her to unseat him.

I thought I might not be able to withstand watching her lose. He wanted me to stay. “She’s like you, she needs to be broken like a wild horse!” he laughed his wheezy laugh. “Barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen!”

So when Billie Jean King crushed Riggs – I saw for the first time that my father was crushable. I saw my father’s face crumple momentarily. He grumbled in defeat.  “A fluke” he mumbled, and switched off the set.

And there was oxygen. Air to breathe.

And I jumped and cheered and my mother told me to quiet down but I didn’t.

And I knew for the first time that there was absolutely a way out.

My daughter couldn’t possibly imagine the way that tennis match was like fresh rain in a drought.

And as the crowed cheered on the movie screen, my heart was filled with gratitude that there are oppressions that my daughter cannot conceive of alongside all those that she must contend with, and those she is vigilant about.

She cannot conceive of the bind her grandmother and I were trapped in.

My mother would leave my father in the summer of 1975. Seven months after the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which allowed women to begin to build their own credit lines. Divorce rates would skyrocket from twenty or so percent in the fifties and sixties, to a full fifty percent of all marriages.

When my mother left my father she had no credit rating. No bank account. No credit card. No professional resume. My father would complain bitterly about how was getting “gouged” by paying alimony and child support. He would reduce her payments, and ours, when she moved with us to California, and eventually take her to court attempting to eliminate all financial support.

She worked pumping gas and we were latchkey kids. She hired Jacoby and Meyers who advertised on television. Letters arrived in the mail from the expensive lawyers he had retained:  “Lindquist and Vennum.” Like villains from a spooky children’s book.

She didn’t win but she never looked back. And she never let anyone ever speak that way to her again, or to me.

She “took back” her own name. And I never after that considered giving mine.

And my daughter knows that whatever she decides to call herself in this life, that she owns her own identity.

My mother continued to struggle with bad men and bad decisions as she struggled financially, working low wage jobs for the rest of her life.

She was sometimes a bad-ass too, more often on my behalf than for herself. There was the time a high school teacher wrote me an “erotic” poem. He had titled it “To _______.” I showed my mother who read it silently. She walked to her secretary desk, and took out a piece of stationery, folded it in quarters and told me to give it to him the next day at school. Of course I read it: She had written in her perfect penmanship:

“Dear ______, keep your ____ far from my daughter’s _____ Or I will have you brought before the school ______.”

When people hear about such events, they are often quick to name this as “abuse.” But back in the olden times,  we had  no words for such things, and you cannot protect yourself from something you cannot name. There was no “sexual harassment.” This was years before Anita Hill, and “abuse” meant exclusively “beating” your wife. There was no public censure for misogyny. Misogyny was ubiquitous and endemic.

Every single girl I knew faced this reality in some form. If not at home, then at school or in the world. It was normal then. My mother was the aberrant one.

This was just the way things were.

And as we left the theater arm in arm, my daughter asking questions and chatting about the power of the Williams sisters I thought: These men are not gone. These men are in positions of power in every industry and every corner of our government today. Their contempt for women is just as thick and ugly. My daughter will still have to contend with them.

But heroes matter. So many have served as heroes, and feel defeated that white men like my father are still in power. Yet they have set emboldening examples to those who come up behind them. They have strengthened the legacy of liberation.

And now, there are literally millions of heroes. Millions of role models, women, LGBTQ folk & people of color who have claimed their power: Our kids have access to a pantheon of heroes.

You don’t just win by overthrowing oppression. You win by showing others that they are not alone when they stand up themselves.

And as we pulled into the drive way, I considered:

If that tennis game, that single act of heroism could change our lives, what liberation might grow from millions of heroic acts?

A long way, baby.  We’ve got a long way to go, but it is important to remember we have come a long way too.