Movie review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

My timing of watching this movie was perfect, though not intentional—a few days after the anniversary of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs that took place on September 21, 1973.

Movies that depict an historical event where the end result is well known can go horribly awry or lead up in anticipation to a critical moment. Battle of the Sexes is more the latter. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when watching the actual tennis match—the match seemed to be beside the point. But the events leading up to the match unfolded in a way that kept my attention.

What was amazing to me was watching a twenty-something woman so self-possessed and strong-willed to be able to go up against the established tennis tournament and a middle-aged male tennis superstar. Not that Billie Jean isn’t portrayed as having some doubts, but the movie shows her of having the stamina and will that I do not quite remember having in my twenties. Sure, all twenty-somethings have the strength that comes from naivete concerning how the world works—the young take on the world in ways that older generations do not. The latter are often too beaten down to fight against the way of the world or are too complicit in it to attack it.

The movie covers the period of time that spans when Billie Jean started a rival women’s tennis tournament circuit to the match against Bobbie Riggs. In between we see her struggle in her personal life and with her personal identity. Although not too far removed in time, Billie Jean came of age and rose as a star tennis player in a world that did not respect or reward female tennis players (or women in general). The language used about and to women in the movie is a stunning reminder of how much things have changed in less than 50 years.

The crap that women put up with so that we enjoy a better world is humbling. I am not sure that I would have had the inner strength to put up with what women in the 1970s (not to mention earlier eras) did. To constantly struggle is exhausting. But either you struggle against a system, or you submit and let it destroy you.

It was satisfying to see women form a rival tennis tournament when the official tennis organization would not take their demands for equal pay seriously. I am sure what they went through was no bed of roses. They had no idea of the outcome of their endeavors or that they weren’t ending their careers. But bless them for their struggle.

It was even more satisfying to see Billie Jean go up against the arrogant Bobbie Riggs….and win. The outcome was less than certain at the time, even though there was a 25+ year gap in their ages. It’s hard to imagine a 55-year-old man as being at the height of his athletic prowess, but that is what the male establishment decided to throw against women who dared to question their place and financial position in the world. ­

From the vantage point of several decades later, it seems odd that such a battle needed to take place. My reaction though is telling about how far we have come. Watch the movie for the great acting as well as the snapshot of the era that it depicts. And then see for yourself if you are not impressed by what women went through to move the ball forward.

Thank you, Billie Jean and team mates. You fought for women to be taken seriously and compensated equal to men. Without your struggles, I would be unable to watch Battle of the Sexes and marvel at the progress made. Much still needs to be done, but we wouldn’t be where we are without you.

Angry women

Quote

“I hate to say it, but often when women show anger, it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed onto emotional issues perhaps, or deflected onto other people.” ~ Dr. Fiona Hill, in her Capitol Hill testimony on a meeting with Gordon Sondland. Sondland testified that Hill was angry at someone else, not him.

Movie review: Divide and Conquer (2018)

It was with some trepidation that I watched Divide and Conquer. Not due to the quality. (The documentary was outstanding.) But more the subject matter. I was a bit ignorant of Roger Ailes, but I knew enough to know that I would rather not know him more.

The documentary is a fascinating look at his history, both personally and professionally. Interviews with childhood friends and professional colleagues reveal what made him tick. I’ll cut to the chase—though none of this will be surprising—he lived in a world consumed by fear and anger. And paranoia. (His office was built to protect him from bullets and other attacks. I immediately thought of Scott Pruitt from the Trump administration.)

What a sad life to be controlled by fear and anger. Even sadder is that he infected the country with these emotions through the immense control he wielded.

He rose to positions of power with The Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s. After honing his media and manipulation skills there, he moved on to be a self-proclaimed media advisor to Nixon. Arguably, Ailes was the man responsible for getting Nixon elected by controlling and spinning his look on TV.

He continued to work as a political and executive coach for numerous campaigns across the country. Many of the power brokers in Washington, DC owe their political careers to him, including Mitch McConnell. (McConnell is not portrayed as the brightest bulb in this documentary.) Ailes helped the Bush, Reagan, and Trump campaigns.

In the 1990s, he seemingly moved from political coaching to news. He started America’s Talking, a talk show that was presumably a news show. A few years later, NBC sold the show to Gates, thereby creating MSNBC. Ailes was furious. He ultimately got his revenge by creating Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s backing.

Divide and Conquer then focuses on the power, control, and manipulation that occurred at Fox News. Ailes surrounded himself with men like him. Murdoch protected him, Ailes protected the men he hired. The common thread surrounding them was the blatant abuse of power, sexual harassment of women, and promoting women or giving them jobs in return for sexual favors. It turns out, birds of a feather do flock together.

Various women are interviewed about the sexual improprieties that were rampant at Fox News and committed by Ailes. Some were paid off and silenced through settlements. Former workers at Fox News came forward with allegations. Finally, after decades, the dam broke. Women came forward, including a model (Marsha Callahan) from decades earlier who recounts in the documentary what happened to her, how she had to speak up when women were coming forward, and how her son was proud of her for speaking up and supporting other women. The #MeToo movement in action.

Several women were almost employees but denied employment after they did not welcome Ailes’ advances or agree to his transactional propositions for sex with him and other high-level men in the organization. One woman (Kellie Boyle) recounts that after she did not agree to sleep with Ailes in return for doing business with him, she was blacklisted around town; no one would meet with her or hire her. Her career was ruined. Ailes had that sort of power.

(Side note: It was painful to hear words coming from these women’s mouths that reflected the passive role society teaches women to play. Boyle mentioned that when Ailes propositioned her, she tried to get out of the situation without turning him down right there. Why? She didn’t want to risk offending him. Risk offending him, I thought? What about him just offending you? But I recognized this societal training. Women are taught not to offend and to appear accommodating. I do hope that his indoctrination of women is ending with the current generation of girls. It does no service to girls to teach them to be polite and accommodating, especially when their physical, emotional, or psychological safety is concerned. End of soapbox.)

Ailes was your typical bully, seen clearly when he moved to a small town in New York and preceded to try to bulldoze the town council and influence the elections by flooding them with Republican candidates. He strangely bought the town’s newspaper in 2009. (Well, maybe not so strangely. According to the documentary, Ailes seemed to be in a sad competition with Murdoch. Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal. Ailes bought the Putnam County Courier and Putnam County News & Recorder.)

In the end, Murdoch didn’t stand by him when the noose tightened around Ailes about the sexual harassment allegations. His career ended with him being locked out of Fox News. Ironically, he was taken down for sex improprieties—Fox News made its name on the sexual improprieties of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He died a year later from a fall in his house.

Unfortunately, his legacy didn’t die with him. We are stuck dealing with the aftermath of the world that he created. A world of fear, anger, and conspiracy theories. A world of divide and conquer. We are stuck with the political creatures that he created over the last four or five decades. The social and political turmoil in the US has his fingerprints all over them. Divide and Conquer will help you recognize his fingerprints.

Podcast review: Uncivil

Stumbling across the podcast Uncivil was like finding a jewel. I was excited by the promise of this podcast: a historical look at the untold stories and different perspectives of the Civil War.

Uncivil discusses long-forgotten or never recounted events from the Civil War, events that were mis-recounted or distorted. Its goal is to uncover the myths of the Civil War and reveal the fragmented nature of the Civil War monolith that we were taught. The hosts, journalists Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika, examine a variety of topics, such as who fought in the war, the origins of the anthem of the Confederacy, the existence of spy rings, and the use of paper money to undermine the Confederacy.

The first episode appeared in late September 2017 but then as suddenly, the podcast stopped producing episodes in late 2018.

I discovered this podcast not long after it stopped broadcasting. I gorged on all dozen or so episodes in brief succession. And then experienced withdrawal after no more episodes were forthcoming. It left me wanting more and wondering why it was no longer being produced. Surely, they didn’t run out of material?

The podcast was even recognized for its excellence. It received the Peabody Award in 2017 for the episode The Raid. How could Uncivil shine so brightly and then vanish?

To quote Chenjerai Kumanyika from his acceptance speech for the Peabody Award, “Now more than ever, we need to recover untold histories…we need to recover the histories of black people, indigenous people, brown people, queer people, feminists who are participating in an ongoing resistance. In other words, we need to see history for what it is. A fight for the future.”

Fortunately, I have encountered Chenjerai Kumanyika elsewhere (as a guest host in the On Scene podcast in a serial discussion of Whiteness). But I would love for Uncivil to start back up.

Podcast review: Backstory

I am not entirely sure how I came to know about Backstory. I think I wasn’t getting enough history from the various podcasts I listen to. I started trolling history podcasts and stumbled across Backstory. Hmmm. “…a weekly podcast that uses current events in America to take a deep dive into our past.” I was intrigued and decided to give it a shot.

Fast forward to the present. I look forward to Backstory every Friday. What topic will I be learning more about? The 1918 flu? Taxidermy? Puerto Rico? Socialism? The topics are diverse and fascinating. Each podcast is a collection of snippets across time in America’s history.

Their topics are often timely. They are always informative. The episode on the history of blackface and minstrelsy was fascinating…and humbling. I learned ways that discrimination has permeated our culture up to the present day that I wasn’t aware of. And I better understand the horror that is blackface. (I highly recommend that episode to understand the depth of discrimination that white America has remained ignorant of.)

The podcast is made possible thanks to the generosity of Virginia Humanities. Stories are recounted by historians of different American eras: Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Joanne Freeman, and Nathan Connolly. Often they bring their own experiences to the discussions, such as childhood experiences with beach culture while growing up in southern Florida, California, or even Tennessee.

Far from dry and dull—and I have tried lots of other history podcasts—BackStory is an enlivening look at topical history. The historians interview various people and introduce stories from different times and places. They make history come alive. I learn something and am entertained at the same time. And as their website describes it, “BackStory makes learning about history like going to a lively cocktail party.” That is actually kind of true.

If you are interested in American political, social, or cultural history, give BackStory a shot. I doubt you will be disappointed.