Directed by Ava DuVernay
As I finally make my way into the start of the new ESPN Nine for IX series, I think I should pause for just a second, take a step back and evaluate everything this series is about. Forty years ago, Title IX was passed, which took a huge step forward towards equality for women in this country. To celebrate, ESPN has formulated this series of films which reflect on women in sports, a realm in which they are often not seen or treated with equality. I am a 25 year old man, so my gender may play a part in my viewpoints throughout the series, though my intentions are for them to be insightful, fair, and hopefully contribute to the conversations these films are meant to spark.
The series started off with a bang, with a wonderful short, Coach, which highlighted the strong will and passion of C. Vivian Stringer, a successful college basketball coach. Now, moving on to the full hour format, the series turns its attention on an iconic figure of women’s tennis of the last 20 years, Venus Williams. But what the film and its director, Ava DuVernay, focus on is not Williams’ tremendous success on the tennis court, but rather her cultural impact and significance that came off it. Equal pay for equal jobs is a very important aspect to gender equality, and for the longest time, women tennis players were not compensated the same as their male counterparts when winning a major title.
Tennis icon Billie Jean King began the battle back in 1968, when she was awarded just 37% of the amount given to her male champion counterpart at Wimbledon. King is a perfect example of a strong woman who fought for her beliefs, and managed to make a significant impact on the female world, convincing the United States Open to agree to equal compensation for women and male champions. However, the progress ended there for King, though the battle never ceased. That is where the Compton, California raised Venus Williams comes in. DuVernay makes it a point to let us know just how significant Williams was on the court before we could understand he efforts off of it. A black woman coming not from privilege, as is the traditional route to championship tennis, Venus was an outsider whose style of play revolutionized the women’s game.
To insert my own opinion on the matter, I must agree with the efforts of King and Williams. When looking at equal pay gripes, I have to determine the value of the work of each side of things. When it comes to women’s tennis, I must admit that the entertainment value, the draw of the sport, is equal to that of the men’s side, even if the women do play only a best of 3 and the men play best of 5. Quality of entertainment trumps quantity and I think John McEnroe presents a wonderful analogy: you don’t pay more for a three hour movie than you do a two hour movie; nor is there a guarantee that the longer will be of greater quality. A counter example would be the LPGA tour vs. the PGA. Today, the LPGA is not as big a draw as the PGA, so I would not agree with equal pay in that sport, yet. But tennis is a whole other ballgame. At times I would even say that I tend to favor the ladies game to the men’s, though that is personal preference. The performance of television ratings and ticket sales is not personal opinion. Women should make the same as men for major championships.
The most stirring aspect of the film is the person of Venus Williams, as it should be. Her grit and determination on and off the court is significant, and should be remembered by tennis fans and feminists alike. At a time when some of the popular players shied away from the responsibility of leading the movement, Venus rose to the occasion with pride and resolve. Throughout her accomplished career, Venus overcame many hurdles. Through it all she was a great champion for the game, winning 7 singles Grand Slam titles, 13 doubles Grand Slam titles, and an additional 4 Olympic gold medals to boot. But through it all, her greatest achievement, her lasting legacy to the game of tennis, will be her ability to fight and get through to the Wimbledon officials, who finally agreed to equal pay for men and women in 2007. In fitting fashion, Williams won Wimbledon that year.
*** – Very Good