We were such idiots then.
That realization is, if you are a guy, an unavoidable hazard of seeing the new movie, “Battle of the Sexes.” The film, in which Emma Stone and Steve Carell recreate the 1973 tennis face-off between “women’s libber” Billie Jean King and “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs is, for those of us who lived through that era, a rocket blast to a past that now feels as alien as the surface of Mars.
The men in the tennis establishment use terms like “little ladies” and “gals” as they casually demean one of the greatest players of that era and you cringe because while it grates your ears now, you remember how unremarkable such language once was. You heard it and didn’t think twice. Heck, you didn’t think once.
The blind sexism of that time is captured nicely in an episode of “All in the Family” where Gloria tells this riddle: A father is killed in a car accident, his badly injured son is rushed to the hospital, the surgeon enters the operating room, takes a look and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” How is that possible?
Forty-four years later, the answer seems so obvious: The surgeon was the boy’s mother. But in 1972, it was anything but obvious to Archie, the arch-conservative, and Meathead, his liberal son-in-law. Both were flummoxed, as was a certain 14-year-old future columnist.
Repeat: We were idiots then.
One flatters oneself that we have changed some since. Then one hears about a photographer taking “upskirt” photos last week of Natalie Morales as she posed on the red carpet.
That’s bad enough, but what makes it worse is that Morales —the actor, not the TV host of the same name — was attending the premiere of her new movie — wait for it … “Battle of the Sexes.” So at, of all places, a celebration of women’s empowerment, this unnamed paparazzo angled a lens to get a crotch shot of a woman that he (she?) later apparently sold.
The South Florida-born actor confronted the photographer head-on in a righteous Twitter rant and follow-up statement. She slammed the shooter for his — and let’s be serious, it’s probably a guy — “disgusting, horrifying” job and declaimed our culture’s tendency to “tear down women and reduce them to a sum of body parts…”
“Well,” she declared, “you cannot tear me down. For the record, I was wearing underwear. You can’t actually see anything. But if you could, I wouldn’t be embarrassed. It’s a vagina. We all came out of one.”
To which yours truly can add nothing save, perhaps, a quiet “Amen.”
The incident forces us to reconsider how sanguine we should be — or deserve to be — about the progress we’ve made since 1973 in simply taking women seriously. The sexism captured in “Battle of the Sexes” seems neon now, as obvious as a fireworks explosion in a broom closet. And there’s a danger some of us — particularly men — will take from that a sense of blithe assurance that we’ve, well, come a long way, baby, in making it a less ubiquitous thing.
But consider that here in our supposedly enlightened era, pundits offered cackling commentary last year on how Hillary Clinton sounded like a nagging wife, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi can’t finish a thought without being cut off by men, any woman who dares proffer an opinion online faces threats of sexual violence and death, and some clown just poked a camera up Natalie Morales’ skirt without her knowledge or consent.
So yes, to see this movie is to marvel at what idiots we were then. But it’s also fair to wonder what idiots we will seem 40 years from now.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at [email protected]