Last Saturday night, three friends and I braved the rain with broken umbrellas to see the Victorian Roller Derby League present Leader of the Pack, with underdogs Dolls Au-Go-Go taking on my team for the night, the Toxic Avengers.
This wasn’t my first foray into roller derby, but for one friend and her daughter, they were derby virgins.
For those of you who don’t have much experience with roller derby (and from what I’ve heard, that’s most people), let me give you a quick rundown, courtesy of the night’s program.
“Modern women’s flat track roller derby is full contact sport played between two teams in a competition called a ‘bout’. A bout consists of two 30 minute periods in which teams skate as many two minute ‘jams’ as possible. There are five members from each team on the track in each jam. The positions are:
The pivot is a block that wears a striped helmet cover and lines up in the front of the pack. She sets the pace and is the last line of defence against an opposing jammer.
The blocker wears no helmet cover and lines up behind the pivot. She plays offence and defence at the same time to prevent the opposing jammer from scoring points while clearing a path for her jammer. A blocker can legally block any member of the opposing team by using only body parts above mid-thigh, excluding forearms, hands and head.
The jammer wears the star helmet cover and lines up behind the jam line. She is the point scorer and after her first pass through the pack, she earns a point for each opposing team member as she passes. Lead jammer is decided by the first jammer to make it through the pack legally. A lead jammer can call of the jam at any time by making a ‘chopping’ motion at her hips.”
Aside from the rules and the all-women nature of the competition, roller derby is defined by two other features: kick-ass derby names (think Mother the Razor, Dolly Tartan and my favourite for the night, Kittie von Krusher) and “a rink filled not with size 0 blonde models, but with women of all shapes… who mostly looked like they had cut out of work early, changed into… [their ‘boutfits’] in the car, and made it to the track just in time for the game.”
While roller derby is technically a sport “for women, by women”, men also have a role, primarily as commentators, scorekeepers and umpires, all of whom were male for VRDL’s Leader of the Pack event. Far from being “cheerleaders”, “they have to be able to skate as well as the derby women” and they have to know all the rules. “These men have a profound respect for roller derby and the women involved.”
From where I was sitting (right up the front, thankyou very much!), this seemed true of the audience. It was a fairly even mix of everyday people (like moi), rockabillies and died-haired punk-rockers in platform buckle boots, without heckling from the male members of the crowd. I felt that everyone was there for a bit of fun, to support their favourite team and marvel at the athleticism of the skaters. Certainly, there was no expectation of “titillation”.
However, Vicky Vengeance of Because Sometimes Feminists Aren’t Nice, in this 2006 “Rant Against Roller Derby” says that most people believe roller derby is a feminist sport because “it’s ok [sic] for these Roller Derby players to play with their sexuality because sexuality is fun! It’s fun to skate around in a mini skirt kicking people’s asses!… Why should you have to look like a man to be perceived as tough and powerful?”
She goes on to say that:
“A lot of the advocates who I see talking about how badass Roller Derby is, think of the something like cheerleading as the most terrible sexist thing imaginable. And yet, cheerleading requires a tremendous amount of athleticism and involves a huge amount of danger and physical risk. Further, the costumes cheerleaders wear bear an uncanny resemblance to the Roller Derby costumes that I’ve seen. Are you going to tell them what they’re doing is any less empowering than what Roller Derby women do? Ok [sic] so cheerleading is ok [sic]. I sense the third wavers nodding.
Well let’s push it further: what about Mud Wrestling? You know, the game where a couple of women get semi-nude and roll in the mud duking it out at strip clubs to cheers and yells. I would argue that you can make similar types of arguments in favour of women’s Mud Wrestling as you could for Cheerleading of Roller Derby.”
Vicky Vengeance is right in her ethos; I would tend to agree that yes, roller derby is a sport based on what a woman’s body can do, as is cheerleading and mud wrestling. But one of the differences with roller derby is that hardly any of the women competing in the sport share the same body types as those who compete in cheerleading and mud wrestling. On Saturday, I would say that it was an even mixture of thin girls and bigger girls; girls with and without cellulite; conventionally pretty girls, and unconventionally pretty girls; girls with long hair and girls with short hair etc.
So Vicky Vengeance is somewhat correct, but I think that most people who attend roller derby do it for the fun factor, the spirit of competition, and the team atmosphere. Ask yourself this: do the majority of football-goers watch the game for the appearance of its players, or for the sport itself?
Just because it’s an all-female sport, it doesn’t mean it has to be reduced to stereotypical “all-female” issues.
For a taste of what the Leader of the Pack was like, check out this video, set to The Vines’ “Walk Idiot Walk”, by former roller-derby virgin, Christine, originally from her blog, Well?
This week’s The Big Issue also features roller derby (scans below).