We are pleased to introduce a new series to the Bad at Sports blog. Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Shawnee Barton as the first participant in this series with her post, “Thoughts on Feminism and Poker” . Shawnee is currently working on a project in which she keeps a roaming blog on other blogger’s sites. She also will be in the show ” Artist: Unemployed”, a solo installation at LivingRoom Gallery in Chicago, on November 20th. Check back in the coming weeks to see other contributions to the series.

Guest post by Shawnee Barton

Thoughts on Feminism and Poker

The last time I was at the underground poker club on Ashland and Division in Chicago, it was 3 a.m. when I noticed that there was porn on every television in the card room. The porn wasn’t on at 9, 11, or even at 1 a.m, but apparently social conventions left at 3. This club has since been robbed and moved to another location, but when it was still in business, 3 a.m. was also the time when the tiny female server in an even tinier black dress stopped serving cocktails.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what I should wear to work, and by “work” I mean the poker table. The media clearly rewards female poker players who show cleavage. If I want to be famous in the poker community, which is a lucrative aspiration, getting my own little black dress would certainly be a shortcut to one measure of success. Unfortunately though, showing some skin can have consequences at the table.

One of the easiest ways to spot a bluff is to watch someone’s chest to see if the person stops breathing. People naturally have a freeze/flight/fight response to stress, but because poker players can’t run away or smack the guy across the table, they will often just sit there frozen and hold their breath after bluffing. Similarly, when people are excited (like when they look down and see pocket aces), the large vein running down the side of the neck pumps blood so hard and fast that you can often see it pulsing from across the felt. Both of these tells are much more visible on a woman wearing a low cut tank top than on a big guy in a hooded sweatshirt.

Third-wave feminist Jennifer Baumgardner wrote, “For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely know we have it-it’s simply in the water.”  I never even thought about feminism until I started playing poker. As a kid, I wore jeans instead of dresses and played tag with the boys after school instead of styling my Barbie doll’s hair. As an adult, my husband and I take turns making dinner and it wasn’t assumed that I would take his name when we married. That’s why sexism can be shock to women like me, who know nothing but equality.

Feminists fought for the right to vote. Second-wave feminists fought for the ability to work outside the home and for equal pay at their jobs. But the women of my generation don’t have a cause to unite behind. We can’t even agree on what contemporary feminism looks like. The taboo nature of the “feminist” label generates an image of bra-less, man-hating extremism and keeps a lot of women from talking about feminist theory or sexism in the workplace. Strong young women who might have previously joined a movement must now define their boundaries and values in private.

This process is especially difficult when one’s work place is a casino. Do I even have a right to expect equality in a casinos or illegal gambling establishments? I’m not sure that I do. I don’t offend easily though, so I gladly put up with a lot that a woman in a traditional office might not be willing to. I enjoy most dirty jokes. I dismiss men’s unflattering comments about their wives as blowing off stream, and I thought it was pretty funny when an old man at my table unzipped his green polyester pants after gorging himself at dinner.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a line though, and when a man at my table crosses it, I put a lot of effort into figuring out if I’m right to feel uncomfortable and how to respond appropriately. Reacting to particularly egregious remarks is easy. Once, I apologized to the player sitting next to me for shifting around in my chair all night, and he brazenly responded, “Oh you’re a squirmer are you?” I’ve found that in situations like this, direct eye contact coupled with a simple declarative statement carries the most weight. I steadily and confidently looked at him and said, “That was inappropriate.” I fight the urge to be cruel or emotional, but I will respond loud enough for the group to hear if I want to send a message to others that there are things I won’t tolerate.

I always feel a calm sense of self after I rightly defend myself, but confrontation puts the rest of the table on edge, which is awkward for everyone and potentially troublesome for my pocketbook. Guys treasure their fraternal time away from their wives and kids, and even though I might be a moral victor, there’s a good chance that I would be the one not asked back again if a confrontation at someone’s home game made the group uncomfortable. At a casino, a loose game could easily break up if there was too much tension at the table, since a lot of the easy money comes from weekenders who just want to have some fun.

I know it’s probably hard for the guys I play with to understand my boundaries, because they’re not entirely clear to me. Sometimes, I respond favorably to the empowerment and attention I get when I’m the only woman at the table, but other times, when a man goes too far, I’m not so nice. If I like you, you can call me “Sweetie” all night long. If I don’t, I’ll tell you straight up to call me by my name and that words like “Honey” and “Sweetheart” are sexist and dated.

This is obviously hypocritical. It’s also hypocritical of me to expect equality while using my sexuality to make money. Once I was playing Pot Limit Omaha on a riverboat casino in rural Indiana. A drunk old man was sitting to my left, and I let him buy me a drink. I listened to his stories and shot him a few smiles. Then he started nudging me with his leg every time he had a big hand. I never asked him to do this, and I never gave him clues about the strength of my hand, but for three hours, if I felt his leg tap I knew he had great cards and I would get out of as many pots as my conscience would allow. This man certainly wasn’t tipping off the big hairy guy sitting on the other side of him, but because I showed him a little attention, he helped me walk away a winner.

In an ideal world, men would not give me free information simply because I am a woman, and if they did, I would refuse to use it against them. In this world, I could play poker all day long against terrible players in a smoke-free environment. Waitresses could wear whatever they wanted and still rake in tons of tip money, and porn would not be required viewing. But the poker world doesn’t offer training on sexual harassment or gender equality to their “employees”, so I’ll continue to negotiate my boundaries. I will laugh at men’s off-colored jokes because they are funny, not because I feel like I have to. I will try to look pretty enough that they will want to give me their money, but prudish enough that they hopefully won’t offend me. And if a man does give me free information at the table, he shouldn’t expect me to return the favor…unless he’s really cute. I’m not perfect, and a handsome face can affect my judgment too.

Shawnee Barton is a Texas born interdisciplinary artist currently living in San Diego. She completed her MFA in Printmedia at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago where she was a Trustee Scholar. She received her BFA in Sculpture from Southern Methodist University and participated in the Independent Studio Programme at Slade School of Art in London. Shawnee has taught courses in both the Photography and Printmedia departments at SAIC. She has worked as an arts administrator for The Illinois Arts Council, The Palo Alto Arts Center, and and New Langton Arts in San Francisco. During this past presidential election, Shawnee served on Barack Obama’s National Arts Policy Committee.

When she’s not making art, Shawnee is most likely playing poker. She finished second in the 2006 World Series of Poker Ladies No Limit Hold’em event, but these days, Pot Limit Omaha is her game.

Visit shawneebarton.com for more info.