Pocketing Stereotypes of Gender and Old Age

7 May

The player sizes up the next shot, bending low over the classic green pool table.  Thumb and forefinger steady the cue a few inches from the tip while the other hand quickly jerks the stick into the cue ball.  The glistening white ball collides with a yellow ball which bounces off the side of the table, narrowly missing a corner pocket.

“I like to live dangerously,” says Jan Alan, admiring her shot with a grin.  At 70 years old, Alan is the youngest of the ten members of the Women’s Pool Group at the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center.  The group meets on Friday mornings for two hours, chatting and playing a few casual games of pool.

Alan “Monty” Monsanto, a member of the Senior Center’s Men’s Pool League, started the group in the spring 1998 when his wife wanted to play.  Monty secured the pool room, located in the basement of the Center, on Friday mornings.  None of the group’s original members had played before so Monty instructed them.

As the original members invited their friends to join, the group expanded.  Betty Norbeck says that when she joined the group, everyone was very serious and would be upset when someone would talk during a game.  As the women grew to know each other and developed a sense of camaraderie among the group, the women loosened up.  Alan says that while members of the Women’s Pool Group do not meet often outside the group, they are all friends.

The Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center is not the only Senior Center that offers pool as an activity.  In Iowa, both the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department’s Senior Programs and Mason City Senior Activity Center have pool on their activity lists.  At the South Sioux City Senior Center, pool tournaments are held on the second, third, and fourth Tuesday of every month.

Games at the senior centers are generally relaxed and among friends but some competitive tournaments are held for seniors outside the realm of the senior centers.  The 2008 Iowa State Poolplayers Association State Championships, held from April 23 to April 28 in the Quad-Cities, includes a senior competition for those 55 or older.

Although some of the women in the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center’s Women’s Pool Group are skilled enough to enter such tournaments, they prefer to play for fun.  There is also a certain sense of camaraderie among the women as they congratulate each other for good shots or offer sympathy for shots gone awry.  “It’s like a team sport even if we’re not on the same team,” says Pat Ephgrave.

Like any good team, the women all support and learn from each other.  Even when taking a break from playing, the women cheer for each other from the chairs lining the side of the room holding the two pool tables.

No one is ever a sore loser either.  When Alan saw her partner sink the eight ball too early, thus losing the game for them, her reaction was “At least we don’t have to rack.”   In another game when Alan just missed sinking the eight ball to win the game, Jean Reese, Alan’s partner in the game, said “Well, we just want to prolong the game.”

Alan, a former psychotherapist, says that according to group theory, eight is the perfect number of people for a group.  Most weeks about 8-10 women show up to play, so the group generally stays at that perfect number.

Every member plays a role in the group, according to Alan, and they each take a leadership position.  “It feels good to meet once a week with people you respect and like,” Alan says.

Participating in the Women’s Pool Group gives the women benefits beyond learning how to play the game and developing friendships.   According to a study conducted in Taiwan (H.C. Hsu, “Does social participation by the elderly reduce morality and cognitive impairment?”), participation in social groups can help maintain good health and reduce the risk of mortality.

The study also suggested that older people who participate in activities with high levels of social interaction and intellectual stimulation might benefit cognitive functioning.  As playing pool requires a high level of strategic thinking it would classify as one of these beneficial activities.

This is especially true in the closely-knit Women’s Pool Group with its heightened sense of camaraderie among members.  “We’re very close, very functional, very up-to-date,” says Alan.  Additionally, Norbeck says that being able to interact with others is very important for the members of the Women’s Pool Group since many of them live alone.

Another study conducted by Northwestern University (“Daily Activity Helps Elderly Cognition,” Northwestern University Press Release) showed social and physical activity could improve sleep and cognitive functioning in people over the age of 65.  The study also noted that many people in this age group have sedentary lifestyles and can be socially disconnected, so participation in these activities would be important to combat this trend.

When asked how important it is for seniors to stay active, Alan says “If you want to live, you stay active.”  Norbeck, however, says she believes that people who were active when they were younger were more likely to stay active as they aged.  Thus, people who were not as active when they were younger typically do not become more active when they get older.

Alan, the youngest of the group, says she still feels like she is 30 years old.  “The old are just like the young, just more decrepit,” she says.  Yet she has noticed how aging has taken its toll on her and other women in the group.  Some members have had to get new knees and other body part replacements.  “It’s kind of discouraging when you plan what you’re going to do with the rest of your life and your body starts falling apart,” Alan says.

Finding a sport they can excel at counteracts the discouragement of their aging bodies, though.  “I was always bad at sports,” says Norbeck.  “I finally found a sport I’m good at.”

Though Alan says she was taught how to play pool by one of her boyfriends when she was younger, many women were socially restricted from playing pool up until a few decades ago.  Pool was seen as an unladylike sport, played only by burly hustlers from the wrong side of the tracks.

The members of the Women’s Pool Group agreed that no self-respecting woman went to a pool hall because pool tables were in places women did not want to go.  “If I had gone to a pool hall,” Alan said, “my mother would have died.”

This stereotype changed in the 1990s when pool games became more of a social event for both men and women.  According to an article in Maclean’s (Joe Chidley, Mary Nemeth, “The billiard boom”) pool became more upscale and bar-oriented in the 90s, which made women feel more comfortable and the game more socially acceptable.

A lot of these changes can be attributed to the Women’s Pro Billiard Association, according to Adam Gershenson in the New York Times.  Though the organization formed in 1976, it became more influential in 1991 when the women’s and men’s tour parted due to marketing and sponsorship conflicts.

After the split, Ewa Mataya Laurance, former president of the Women’s Pro Billiard Association, revamped the image of pool players, especially women.  Drinking, smoking, and gambling became forbidden at tournaments.  In 1993 the women were required to dress in evening wear for televised matches, adding a touch of elegance to the sport.

The atmosphere of pool halls changed as well.  Mike May, director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, told American Demographics (“Pool Parties”) that pool halls were redone in the 1990s to model trends in health clubs and popular restaurants.

“People like well-lit, smoke-free atmospheres,” said May.  “It became clear that if billiards was going to survive, changes were needed to make the activity popular with the customers again.”

The members of the Women’s Pool Group did not like the dark, smoky pool halls either.  Before the group started, it was very hard for members who had enjoyed playing pool to find a place that was not smoke-filled.  The only place in the area was the Iowa City Recreation Center, but the tables were almost always being occupied.

However, once the atmosphere of pool halls became classier and dignified women were seen playing in pool leagues, it became more acceptable for women to play pool.

Though pool has become more popular among women, gender stereotypes can still be a barrier for some women’s involvement in the sport.  Women who play pool can be judged as being either promiscuous and shameless or tough and masculine.

According to Naomi Greyser, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Iowa, sexuality is used by society to keep the behavior of women in check.  The cultural definition of femininity pulls women into subordination by making women feel the need to be attractive or sexy.

Not all women, however, buy into this subordination.   Greyser says that when women cross gender stereotypes by participating in “masculine” activities like playing pool or riding motorcycles, they are often labeled by society as being “dykes.”   This label is one that “some women have claimed with pride and others have rejected angrily,” says Greyser.

Society can also label women who break gender stereotypes as being sexually available, according to Greyser.  Though the image of female pool players was improved through Laurance’s efforts, the required evening wear could have had a negative effect as it showed the women as being attractive and alluring.

This stereotype of women who play pool as being “loose” even appeared in the New York Times.  In an article about the changing atmosphere of pool halls (“Eight Ball in the Pita Pocket”), Alex Witchel said pool has become “the perfect mating dance for hot young things who want to lean across a table and show off a cute behind.”

The two stereotypes of women being “loose” or “butch” if they play pool have even manifested in the Iowa City Women’s Pool League.  It is probably no coincidence that in the 2007-2008 season the league included teams with names such as “Charlie’s Rack-em-ups,” “Gus’ Bitchin’ Kitties.”

Perhaps it is also not a coincidence that as of March 31, 2008, the leading team in the league is “IC Ugly Chicks.”  This shows gender stereotyping at work.  Though the women on this team might not be “ugly,” they probably label themselves as such because rejecting the idea that women must be attractive is a way to cross gender borders.

However, not all women are aware of the stereotypes.  When asked about stereotypes of women who play pool, some members of the Women’s Pool Group were confused.  Some claimed to not know the stereotype existed, and some even laughed when they were told women who play pool are sometimes seen as being “promiscuous.”

On the other hand, some of them are aware that the stereotype exists.  They know women are portrayed in the media as being either “loose” or masculine, often depending on the clothing they are wearing, if they play pool.  They also know that when people see them outside the pool hall, their age and gender makes them appear to be “nice, motherly ladies,” as Alan says.

Hidden away in the basement of the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center, the Women’s Pool Group seems to not be shaken by stereotypes of women and the elderly.  “When you get to be over a certain age you try things regardless of stereotypes,” says Alan.  “We’re old enough to do as we damn well please.”

For two hours every Friday morning, what these women please to do is play pool.  The game has become more than just an activity for them.  It has become a way to bond with friends, fine-tune their skills, and find a sense of accomplishment.

Surveying the table, Norbeck approaches to take her turn.  She lines up a shot that, if done correctly, would send the cue ball far across the table to kiss a yellow ball, putting it in the nearby pocket.  Drawing the cue stick back, Norbeck takes the shot.  The cue ball rolls across the table, doing exactly what was intended.  Pointing at the table, Norbeck says “That’s the kind of shot that feels rewarding.”

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