It might sound like an outlandish fable based in Camelot, with knights battling for the throne. Or a fairytale set at the top of a beanstalk, where a young princess frees an enslaved kingdom. But this true story has much more humble origins; in my modest two bedroom flat in South London, playing cards with my daughter.
It was a forgettable October morning. Overcast. 13 degrees. Light drizzle tapping against the windows. I’m a little bit hungover, trying desperately hard to keep my delightfully energetic daughter entertained. Seeing as we’d already exhausted Lego, put the Pet Patrol to bed, and coloured in every surface of the kitchen, she asked if I could teach her a new game. Something grown up. She decided she wanted to learn how to play cards. Seeing as she’s only just turned five, I opted to skip the poker tutorial, bypass the blackjack basics, and instead go for something a little less challenging. A game of high card. What could be tricky about that?
5 beats 2. 9 beats 4. 10 beats 9. It’s not exactly complicated.
That is, until she asked me a question; “so what’s better, King or Queen?”.
I knew the answer. We all know the answer. Every pack of playing cards has the same ranking the world over. A set value designated at the printing press. A hierarchy that’s almost as old as the concept of royalty itself. In cards, a King is always better than a Queen. A man always better than a woman. And although I obviously knew this, I didn’t like it.
Inevitably, I began to tie my mind in knots. “It’s just a game”, “it’s just always been that way”, “those are just the rules”. She looked at me with absolute innocence waiting for an answer. Her eyes impossibly wide. Unblinking.
I’ve always prided myself on being a progressive parent. The kind any self-respecting Guardian reader would aspire to be. I’ve never pushed pink on her. I try and opt for sustainable toys rather than cheap plastic stuff. And most importantly, I do everything in my power to ensure that she knows that women are awesome. Because, quite frankly, they are.
I want her to grow up in a world where women are treated as equals. Where there is no gender pay gap. Where women don’t have to hide their intention to have children at their upcoming job interviews. Where inappropriate cat-calls, inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching are actually inappropriate - resigned to Hollywood movies about sexist pigs of the past, not present on Hollywood movie sets today.
And as the radio behind me played rolling news coverage about Harvey Weinstein, I realised that this simple question about Kings and Queens is actually a really important one. Who made the King boss anyway? Why’s he sitting so comfortably on his throne? Why isn’t the Queen the glorious, iconic leader she was sworn in to be?
And that got me thinking. My brain accelerated to dangerous levels. Why is the Oscar statue a man? How come the green man’s a man? And surely Queens love burgers too? Yes, it’s the horrific cases of sexism, discrimination and assault that make the headlines - but unconscious gender bias, the stuff we don’t always notice, surely that can be just as damaging.
So I did what any self-respecting parent would do. I turned this beautiful moment with my daughter into a campaign for one of the world’s bigger poker websites.
Well, it didn’t actually start that way. Honestly.
I’m lucky to work for a pretty decent advertising agency called FCB Inferno. In the last three years, we’ve got girls exercising with This Girl Can, illiterate adults reading with Project Literacy, and homeless people off the streets with Change Please Coffee. This is what we get out of bed for. And with the team in the office, we quickly realised that #QueenRules had huge potential.
Playing cards are an icon recognised all over the world. What if we could actually get people all over the planet playing this way? Even just once. What impact would it have? What conversations would it spark?
Interestingly, when we tried it out on people, they found it quite hard to actually make that simple switch in their brains. It really is hardwired into us that Kings outrank Queens, so playing this new way changes everything; everything you know inherently, everything you’ve had ingrained into your brain over years and year, everything that comes so naturally - it all has to be relearnt. But even just by playing a few hands we saw something wonderful; conversations started, people started debating, and gender inequality was literally on the table. It was beautiful to watch.
The next logical step was to design a brand new deck of cards. A celebration of powerful women of all different shapes and sizes, drawn by 16 unbelievably talented female illustrators. We partnered with womenwhodraw.com an open directory that champions female talent - especially illustrators of color, LBTQ+, and other minority groups. Artists of different cultures, different ages, different religions - all with one identical brief; “what does a modern day queen look like to you?”
We printed our initial run of one thousand packs of #QueenRules playing cards. And weeks later...they were all gone. Out in the world, helping us fight for equality one hand at a time. This thing was picking up momentum.
And the good news kept coming. International Women’s Day got in touch saying we had their full support, we found a charity partner in HeForShe, and Unibet, Europe’s fastest growing poker site had picked up the phone. Excited about the campaign, they were eager to help us push it out at a number of events around the world. Vegas was calling.
When deciding whether or not it felt right to team up with a gaming company for this project, it really was a no brainer. We unanimously agreed that the fight for gender equality needs to be addressed in every sector. No matter what company you work for. No matter how big or how small your business. The time is now to start changing things. And it really does start at ground level. It starts with all of us.
Plus, Unibet have a strong reason to wade in on the debate too. Poker has long been a heavily male dominated game and they know that their future depends on fighting for equality within the game. So naturally, as a brand, their agenda is heavily focused on empowering women. They have a huge female presence at board level, and their history of work fighting for this cause and in responsible gaming is hard to argue with. We shook hands. And with their help, we have now done something that’s never been done before.
For the first time, on International Women’s Day, people will be playing #QueenRules all over the world. A game that celebrates powerful women everywhere. A game that literally deals with inequality. A game that will raise a lot of money for a very good cause. With events all over the world, we hope to get men and women from all different backgrounds talking opening about unconscious gender bias. Changing how they play poker. And hopefully, changing how they think too.
We encourage you to pick up a pack of playing cards too. To teach #QueenRules to your friends, your family, your kids, and refuse to blindly teach future generations that men are better than women. To help us deal with everyday inequality, once and, most importantly, for all. You can pick any card game you’d like. It doesn’t matter if it’s Poker, Rummy, High Card or Snap. And change the rules. Make it so that Queen outranks the King. And proudly play with her royal highness at the top of her castle. Play really is a powerful tool to teach, so it’s important not to underestimate the huge impact these little changes can make.
It’s now four months on since my daughter toppled the king from his throne, and it’s still the way we play. Why wouldn’t it be? Queens really are just as good as Kings, and sometimes better. Liz is proof of that. She’s rocked the throne just as hard as any William, Dick or Henry ever could. And come to think about it, I’m not sure Henry VIII was ever that much of a spokesman for women’s rights anyway. Long live the Queen.
Great queens at Great Queen Street
Yet another remarkable Christmas party at FCB Inferno.
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Campaign’s 2015 Annual
A few reasons to celebrate tonight.