- Resistance and Reinforcement
Roller derby is an amateur sport in which teams of women compete in bouts, skating around a track trying to help the skater designated as the “jammer” lap members of the opposing team to score points. Roller derby first started in the late 1920s in the USA but the current “revival” of the sport can be traced to members of the Riot Grrrl movement in Austin, Texas in 2001 and has grown to more than 300 leagues spread across the globe (Pavlidis 2012, 165). While not explicitly tied to feminist politics like the Riot Grrrl movement, roller derby creates social spaces designed for and by women. In addition to roller derby’s connection to punk through Riot Grrrl and the DIY ethos present in leagues around the world, the subculture is linked with rock and heavy metal (Beaver 2012).
There is a culture surrounding the sport that goes far beyond the technicalities of the game. Roller derby combines skill, embodied competencies and fitness with style, costume and attitude (Pavlidis 2012, 165). Pavlidis asserts that roller derby allows women to “experience themselves as strong, tough and desirable” and creates a space where these women are “revered for their skill and performance without being compared with male counterparts” (2012, 166, 170). The roller derby “grrrl” is tough, mean and skillful (Pavlidis 2012, 170).
Another critical aspect of the roller derby subculture is the DIY ethic, also a subcultural value found in punk (Beaver 2012). The majority of roller derby leagues are owned and operated by the skaters themselves, who do most of the work selling tickets and merchandise, advertising and recruiting, taking care of the leagues’ accounting and pretty much anything else that needs doing (Beaver 2012). By doing everything themselves, skaters retain control over their sport and resist commercialization or domination by nondemocratic “corporate” types (Beaver 2012, 28). This is especially notable given that even despite exponential growth in women’s participation in sports, most leadership positions are held by men (Beaver 2012, 26).
Roller derby also has strong links to particular music genres like punk, rock and heavy metal (Pavlidis 2012). Songs like AC/DC’s ‘Thunder Struck’ and The Ramones’ ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ are played during roller derby bouts, serving to accentuate the qualities these women strive to embody during the “roll out” when the team comes out onto the track (Pavlidis 2012, 170). The music associated with roller derby tends to be more closely associated with “the masculine cultures of punk and metal than the feminine ‘bedroom’ cultures” written about by certain subcultural researchers (Pavlidis 2012, 173). This music can promote the expression of styles and emotions that in a way challenge the “normative construction of gender and femininity” (Pavlidis 2012, 173). One participant describes her derby playlist as “a mix of songs that I associate with being powerful, aggressive and sexy – the emotions I try to channel when I hit the track” (Pavlidis 2012, 173).
In addition to music, there is a strong if varied aesthetic component to roller derby. Some participants sport heavy makeup, fishnets and bedazzled gear while others wear heavy metal t-shirts and no makeup at all (Pavlidis 2012, 171). Beaver conducted a study on the “hyper-feminine, sexualized” uniforms sported in some roller derby leagues, emphasizing the importance of understanding women’s “feelings of agency in the context of social inequality” (2016, 639). Skaters creates critical commentary when they parody the stereotypes and perceptions that the “hegemonic male gaze” uses to “objectify or dismiss them” (Gieseler 2014, 758).
In terms of demographics, roller derby participants are predominantly but not exclusively white, and the social class of skaters varies, but most come from working-class or middle-class backgrounds (Beaver 2012). The average skater is in their late 20s or early 30s and has participated in the sport for approximately three years (Beaver 2012). While some participants have histories of athletics, in some cases roller derby is the first organized sport with which they have been involved. Skaters often form close bonds with their teammates that provide camaraderie and support both on and off the track.
Resistance and Reinforcement
Roller derby grrrls both resist and reproduce gender stereotypes (Parry 2016). The theatrical parodying of these stereotypes is one of the factors that first attracts many skaters and fans or supporters (Parry 2016, 300). Roller derby “splices athleticism, aggression, toughness, and (emphasized) femininity with overt sexuality” (Parry 2016, 300). At derby bouts, skaters flaunt traits and characteristics considered both traditionally feminine and masculine with pride. This is in contrast to the feminine performances seen in more traditional sports used to “‘tone down’ or feminize” women’s athleticism (Finley 2010, 373).
Derby grrrls “disrupt hegemonic gender relations as they engage with conventional definitions of femininity while simultaneously mocking them,” wearing outfits that “mock conventional feminine modesty but that also serve as markers of femininity” (Finley 2010, 360, 372). By making a mockery of convention and transforming it into a caricature, roller derby is resistive (Finley 2010, 374). Gieseler asserts that by “parodically dragging sexualities,” skaters “both tempt and terrify the male gaze” (Gieseler 2014, 758). Gieseler later goes on to describe how roller derby can empower women,
“On the track, women are made visible in all of their athletic, strong, corporeal glory. On the track, women indulge in fantasies of identity, sexuality, and spectacle. On the track, women reclaim themselves and rescue each other” (Gieseler 2014, 772).
However, amid all the theatrics, it can be difficult to ensure that the audience is “in on the joke” (Finley 2010, 377). Beaver (2016) emphasizes the importance of taking into account the social context. For example, while most skaters feel that it is a choice to wear sexualized uniforms, some feel a sense of pressure or obligation to do so in order to attract support (Beaver 2016, 639). Some skaters experience sexual harassment, that they attribute in part to their hyper-sexualized uniforms and personas (Beaver 2016, 652). While most derby grrrls did not report these problems in interviews, some have experienced assault, online harassment, and stalking (Beaver 2016, 652). However, roller derby is largely women owned and operated, the derby grrrls are in control of what is deemed appropriate behavior at bouts and have full authority to remove an individual that is behaving inappropriately. A program brochure at one roller derby bout warned “Don’t touch the derby girls; they bite!” (Finley 2010, 382).
One limitation of the current research on this topic, as noted by multiple scholars, is the fact that the majority of skaters studied are white. A problem with this, for example, is that “sexualized self-presentation” can have varying meanings or ramifications for women of color, whose sexuality is already often portrayed as deviant (Beaver 2016, 655). Also, while some may criticize that roller derby is not renouncing gender categories themselves, they are playing with them in a way that can challenge the inequality involved (Finley 2010, 383). That being said, as Finley points out, “women can now kick ass, but it might not bring society any closer to societal support of child care or equal pay, or sports that do not glorify bruises” (Finley 2010, 384).
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Bagwell, Lainy and Leacey Leavitt. 2007. Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Rollergirls. DVD. Leaky-Sleazewell Productions.
This documentary follows the formative years of Seattle roller derby league, the Rat City Rollergirls.
Brown, Michael. 2016. Roller Life – A Roller Derby Documentary. DVD. Hungry Lion Productions.
This documentary covers a season in a Milwaukee roller derby league.
Barrymore, Drew. 2009. Whip It. DVD. CA: Mandate Pictures.
A frustrated teenager in small-town Texas discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin.
Racked. 2017. “How Derby Girls Made Skirts Tough.”
TEDx Talks. 2012. “Finding your life’s passion at the roller derby rink: Monica Mitchell at TEDxSeneca College.”
Beaver, Travis D. 2012. “By the Skaters, for the Skaters’ The DIY Ethos of the Roller Derby Revival.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues (36)1: 25-49.
Beaver, Travis D. 2016. “Roller derby uniforms: The pleasures and dilemmas of sexualized attire.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport (51)6: 639-657.
Finley, Nancy J. 2010. “Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvering in Women’s Roller Derby.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (39)4: 359-387.
Gieseler, Carly. 2014. “Derby drag: Parodying sexualities in the sport of roller derby.” Sexualities (17)5/6: 758-776.
Parry, Diana C. 2014. “’Skankalicious’: Erotic Capital in Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby.” Leisure Sciences (38)4: 295-314.
Pavlidis, Adele. 2012. “From Riot Grrrls to roller derby? Exploring the relations between gender, music and sport.” Leisure Studies (31)2: 165-176.
This book tells the story of roller derby from an insider’s perspective. Melissa “Malicious” Joulwan was a founding member of the Texas Rollergirls, a league that was central to the sport’s current revival.
Combining both interview, ethnographic and autoethnographic research, this book explores the complexities of roller derby.
Attwood, Feona. 2007. “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.” Journal of Gender Studies (16)3: 233-247.
Breeze, Maddie. 2013. “Analysing ‘Seriousness’ in Roller Derby: Speaking Critically with the Serious Leisure Perspective.” Sociological Research Online (18)4.
Carlson, Jennifer. 2010. “The Female Significant in All-Women’s Amateur Roller Derby.” Sociology of Sport Journal (27): 428-440.
Donnelly, Michele K. 2014. “Drinking with the derby girls: Exploring the hidden ethnography in research of women’s flat track roller derby.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport (49)3/4: 346-366.
Kearney, Mary Celeste. 2011. “Tough Girls in a Rough Game.” Feminist Media Studies (11)3: 283-301.
Pavlidis, Adele and Simone Fullagar. 2012. “Becoming roller derby grrrls: Exploring the gendered play of affect in mediated sport cultures.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport (48)6: 673-688.
Pavlidis, Adele and Simone Fullagar. 2014. “The pain and pleasure of roller derby: Thinking through affect and subjectification.” International Journal of Cultural Studies (18)5: 483-499.
Storms, Carolyn E. 2008. “There’s No Sorry in Roller Derby: A Feminist Examination of Women in the Full Contact Sport of Roller Derby.” The New York Sociologist (3): 68-87.