Women, Poker & Sexism

I recently wrote an article called ‘Poker’s Going All High Heels, Lipstick and Handbags.” The purpose of the article was to disclose that the 7th Annual World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE) was hosting a €1k ladies bracelet event. The feedback I received was fairly negative, and I was accused of being sexist and offensive, particularly in the way I structured my first paragraph.

Learning About Sexism“If you are female, have a great figure, look aesthetically pleasing to the eye and have the intelligence and the time to learn how to play poker then what are you waiting for? There has never been a better time to find a spot in the poker circus. It’s going women crazy and I for one think it’s a great thing.”

It was a sweeping statement that I made without conscious thought, but the benefit of hindsight reminds me that I wrote it in order to portray the hyper-sexualized nature, of not just the poker industry, but also the world.

Being a half-caste Chinese Englishman who was brought up in the Welsh Valleys I have been the subject of discrimination. I used to cry in bouts of rage about being different, and the fight against that discrimination made me the man that I am today. I abhor discrimination, but as is proved by that paragraph it seems I also contribute towards it.

“I actually feel that I’m part of a generation where women are not only given equal opportunity in a lot of regards, but are expected to live up to an independent ideal.” – Melanie Weisner

I am constantly making jokes about the standing of females in a male dominated world. I have passed this off as fun, and not sexist in the least, but I have never stood in those high heel shoes (see how difficult this is) and seen things from the female perspective. In the past week I have reached out to a lot of women who call the poker industry their home, and it has made me realize that as a writer I do have a responsibility to choose my words carefully.

One angry reader said, ‘If you really do hope that more women enter the game, you are going in exactly the opposite direction for that to happen.’ I reacted by saying that it wasn’t my job to attract more women to the game. My job is to write to the best of my ability and then pick up the paycheck. A view that is shared by TV Presenter, Michelle Orpe, who said, “The poker media are not trying to attract more woman into the game, they are trying to make as much money as possible.”

Of course I was wrong. As a writer it is my job to create compelling content in an attempt to intensify the likelihood that it will be read by as many people as possible. This means that the aim of the article is always to attract more people to the industry, and the last time I looked females were people.

“My favorite part about poker is still its democratic structure; the fact that a CEO, a librarian, and a janitor can come together at the tables and have theoretically equal opportunity to win.” – Xuan Liu

I believe we exist in a hyper-sexualized culture that exists purely because it rests on the illusion of equality. It is this illusion of equality that leads me to make jokes at women’s expense and then offer up the defense that it’s the woman who has the problem for taking umbrage with my article and not me for writing it. Despite a lot of progress there are still strong stereotypes of the gender roles of man and woman, and I am strengthening these stereotypes, through my writing, therefore holding back progress of greater equality.

“We bear the children; we feed them and nurture them and the males provide and protect them, “Said Michelle Orpe before continuing, “I am attracted to a strong man who is capable of looking after me and our children. I wouldn’t call this submissive, it’s just nature’s way, and there is nothing wrong with nature. That doesn’t mean I am not perfectly capable of taking charge, and looking after myself, of course I am, but I want my man to be a man.”

“The man is the head of the house, but the woman is the neck that turns the head – Tatjana Pasalic.

Sex is everywhere you look and there are a lot of TV shows that inspire the need to change your appearance in order to get on in life, particularly if you are a women: America’s Top Model and the British show Ladette to Lady are both shows that give off the impression to young girls that it’s better to look good than to think good.

“I think that there’s a tendency for women to be glorified more for their beauty than for their playing ability. If a woman is beautiful and a good poker player, sometimes others will focus on her beauty, which will lead some to think that somehow detracts from her playing ability.” Katie Dozier.

“I don’t really understand what the ‘theory of hyper-sexualisation’ is, but obviously poker is a male dominant world and if you want to work in it as a female – if you don’t feel comfortable with men looking at you – you probably shouldn’t do it,” said the sideline reporter Laura Cornelius, “Vanessa Selbst is one of the most talented, and well known, female players in the world and I have never seen her wear a low cut top or make up.”

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a historian, said, “Before World War I, girls rarely mentioned their bodies in terms of strategies for self improvement or struggles for personal identity. Becoming a better person meant paying less attention to the self, giving more assistance to others, and putting more effort into instructive reading or lessons in school.”

How things have changed.

“One of my favorite quotes is from Anais Nin”, said WPT host Lynn Gilmartin, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as WE are.”

I love that quote and can identify with it wholeheartedly. The way I see things physical attractiveness does give you an advantage in a lot of industries because sex sells, and the marketing departments capitalize on this. That doesn’t mean, however, that good looks alone are going to guarantee you success. Tatjana Pasalic uses a culinary analogy to make her point.

“Let’s say we’re making a cake. The icing and the decoration might make the cake look delicious and you want it, but when you bite into it you find it’s dry and tasteless. It doesn’t matter how nice that cake looks. You aren’t going to eat it again.”

“I use my appearance to my advantage specifically because I am able to employ it well – but this is more than just looks; it’s also about an ability to speak well, be charismatic and engaging, and have a good visual presence and aesthetic – not just necessarily be pretty or sexy.” – Melanie Weisner.

“It certainly helps to be attractive in front of an audience, but it’s probably even more important to be knowledgeable and engaging in the long-run.” Xuan Liu.

The problem is, as Michelle Orpe so eloquently puts it, “people are attracted to attractive people.” So I don’t think for one minute that the poker industry is going to stop using female sexuality to sell its product, but that doesn’t mean that writers, such as myself, have to draw so much mindless attention to it.

I guess I wouldn’t be male without a defense or twelve, but I do often write about the sexual attractiveness of male players as well as female players. If I am covering a hand involving Patrik Antonius, Martin Jacobson or anyone else who has an attractive mug, then I am probably going to refer to their attractiveness in my writing because I write what I see. In this instance you won’t hear any males pouring scorn on my sexist approach, but instead the stereotypical approach may be to call me gay.

Surveys have shown that nearly three-quarters of female adolescents are unhappy with their body weight, more than a third are dieting, one in five eleven year olds is trying to lose weight and most six year olds would prefer to be thinner than they are. In 2006, a survey showed than one on four girls were considering plastic surgery by the age of 16.

“I was always an ugly duckling. At school I had teeth so goofy I couldn’t shut my mouth over them, I had really frizzy hair and I few warts on my hands. I was the butt of many jokes. I became more attractive as I got older and my life completely changed. Has becoming more attractive helped me in my career…yes of course it has.” Said Michelle Orpe.

These sorts of statistics help pull down the veil of the illusion of equality, and it humbles me. I can see how my choice of words in the aforementioned article can lead to concern for many women that would like to enter the poker industry. I apologies for that, but the experience has made me a wiser writer as a result. And isn’t this the point? We don’t all have to stand on ceremony and just accept whom we are. We can learn, we can adapt and we can change.

So I’m calling on all of you writers who slip into the ease that sexuality can bring you when writing about female poker players, to try and be more aware of the potential damage just a few lines of ink can cause. It’s true that there is an argument that glamorizing and applying focus on sexuality might bring just as many females into the industry as it drives out, but there is a bigger picture at work here.

A picture that contains equal rights for men and women in general.