Thursday, October 26, 2006

Roller Derby: Uniting Younger Women, One Bout at a Time

You've probably noticed a recent resurgence in the great American contact sport of Roller Derby. Spurred on by the now-cancelled A&E reality TV show "Rollergirls," small all-female DIY leagues have been popping up like wildflowers in countless metropolitan areas across the nation, drawing spectators by the thousands. The game is simple (kind of): two teams of five "bout" by trying to lap each other in the rink. It gets a lot more complicated once you get into the extended rules, but basically you have three players, or “blockers,” who make up the “pack”; a “pivot” who leads the way and sets the speed; and a “jammer,” whose responsibility it is to make her way through the opposing team’s without getting sidelined. The rules are subject to change depending on the league, but this is the general template. There’s no elbowing or hitting allowed, but pretty much anything else is fair game, with body blocking being the coup de grace of choice. Spectators sit on the floor around the track, and shriek with glee as skaters careen into the crowd, as they so often do.

Roller derby has a kitschy aesthetic, attracts a wide array of women, and has a punk attitude. Each team’s “girls” wear bright, crazy outfits—one team in New York wears orange prison mini-dresses—and have names like Julie Unrulie and Carrie Shitkicker. In any one league, you’ll be sure to find students, teachers, mothers, lawyers, and activists. They don’t exactly fit preconceived notions of female athleticism: women, sometimes tattooed and pierced, of all shapes and sizes fill the rink, because each body type serves a purpose. There is absolutely no emphasis on weight-loss. The idea is simply this: to kick ass. Derby girls learn an impressive variety of skating maneuvers, such as backwards skating and hip-checks, all in an effort to block other teams and, at all costs, to stay on their skates, and they’re not afraid to bleed.

These women are incredibly dedicated. Ask any derby girl what the sport means to her, and she’ll tell you quite frankly that it’s her life. Roller derby gives girls who’ve always wanted to join a team sport, but have been intimidated for whatever reason, a space to play, and play hard. And despite the frequent scrape-ups and occasional broken bones, they wear their bruises like badges of honor. But don’t let the competitive attitude scare you: if you’re on the team, you’re family. Often, new girls haven’t laced up a pair of skates since middle school, and leagues usually appoint welcoming committees to make sure that each newbie is paired up with a veteran derby girl who will give them rides to practice, walk them through the preliminary moves, and introduce them to other teammates.

The spirit of community is amazing, and whatever happens in the rink, stays in the rink, as teams will often go out for drinks together after bouts or practices, and friendships are easily forged. Of course there are always going to be disagreements, but leagues are extremely democratic, and usually team-owned. And best of all, there’s no ideology pitch: derby girls aren’t getting someone else’s notions of feminism shoved down their throats. Instead, they are invited to experience for themselves the thrills of excelling at a hobby—competition, friendship, and time devoted only to themselves.

Young women all around the country have created these spaces for themselves, and that’s the beauty of the sport: it’s self-defined. Some have criticized roller derby as relying too heavily on shtick or sex appeal, but for many participants highlighting their sex appeal or kitschy fun adds to the value in the sport. Derby girls may be embracing their femininity in the form of funky (and often skimpy) outfits, but they are undeniably strong and fierce, evoking Kali on wheels. This duality is, to me, evidence of how far we’ve come: why shouldn’t our sexuality and our strength be displayed simultaneously? The glory of the third wave is this reconciliation of the restricting contradictions which have been placed upon us, as women, with the joys of being female. If society has told us that our bodies should be static objects, to be looked upon, talked about, and defined by the objective male gaze, but never directly self-engaged, let’s challenge that by making ourselves as active as possible—and there are few things more aggressive than a full-on body-check. If society says that revealing clothing makes for an easy target by stating that a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be sexually harassed or objectified, let’s turn that double-standard on its head by putting the bodies that wear them into motion. As my friend Julie, a Richmond Rollergirl, said on the subject,“I think that it’s so true—and we’ve seen this happen again and again—what Eleanor Roosevelt said about, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ We’re not going to sit there and take it…we’re going to challenge it and we’re going to make our own rules as we see fit.” As she said, we’re making it our own, recreating it, for our own benefit. And if, in doing this, we giving younger women a place to connect, and develop their minds and bodies, then so much the better!

When I spoke with some roller girls from Richmond, Virginia, they relayed some amazing stories about the amazing transformations that new team members had undergone, not only because of the community provided, but because these women were, for the first time in their lives, encouraged to really blossom and devote themselves to something other than work, family, or school; an opportunity that many, unfortunately, never receive. Not only can roller derby serve as an outlet for stress and as a place to form new bonds with other women, but one girl I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the sport even served as an exit ramp to one of her teammates’ abusive relationship; once she had stepped outside of her isolation, she was able to gain the focus and clarity to move on with her life.


Roller derby is only one of many positive recreational outlets available to young women today. We should all get active in our communities—there are so many different ways to involve ourselves and each other! If you’d like more information about roller derby, check out some of these links:

Women’s Flat Track Derby Association
A&E’s Rollergirls
Gotham Girls Roller Derby, NYC
River City Rollergirls, Richmond
DC Rollergirls
Charm City Rollergirls, Baltimore

4 comments:

byrdeye said...

Why does female empowerment always = female narcissism?

Powerful men are defined by powerful acts, many of which benefit mankind in a broader worldview. Like Tesla and electricity, for example.

Feminist empowerment seems to revolve around "feeling" powerful by acting like prepubescent boys. Which is because at its root, feminism is masculinism. Feminists would secretly like nothing more than...to be born men.

SewLolita said...

@Byrdeye- by your definition, there are very few important people at all, then.

personal empowerment is basically self-esteem. which is needed if you're going to go against cultural expectations and achieve anything of note. because,regardless of what you seem to think, you don't need to be male- or want to be male- to want a life based around your own career and interests instead of regarding the dependant and unfulfilling tasks of attracting a husband and rearing children as the pinnacle of acheivement.

If prefering to devote your time to yourself is narcisistic, then I guess just about everyone with a spine is a narcissist.

The idea posted was something like 'it is good to have a contact sport where female involvement isn't a cute sideline to the main event'. Tesla has nothing to do with this.

competitiveness is healthy, whether -you- are scared your penis will drop off or something if girls play rough sports has nothing to do with it.

TL,DR? your reasoning is defective and, if looked at in any depth, self contradictory.

kamagra said...

It is sounds like a quite hard and strange sport that each position is important but I didn't know that there is a sport like that. I would like to watch it.

sports handicapping services said...

I wonder why I did not knew this before.... it was a good read. You are working on a very good blog.. I look forward to visit your blog again....