21st Century Calamity Janes: Women of the Roller Derby Revival
While living in Austin, Texas during the early aughts I saw ads in the Austin Chronicle for women’s roller derby. I had some vague memories rattling around of watching derby on UHF while growing up – primarily women on roller skates in hot pants clothes-lining one another. I shrugged off the idea of going to check it out, figuring that it was some kind of Austin hipster flash in the pan. Over time a number of friends told me I had to attend a bout, “Dude! It’s so awesome! Hot chicks on skates beat the shit out of one another! Dude, it rules!” What could I say? That kind of eloquence appealed to the baser instincts of my nature. A group of us went and sucked down Lone Star and “WOO’d!” enthusiastically. Afterwards we all agreed that an evening attending the roller derby “kicked ass”. That was the extent of my experience with the sport until 2008.
My burgeoning interest in modern feminism led me to wonder, “What kind of women join roller derby?” Are the participants escapees from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!? I began my investigation of women’s roller derby with skewed misconceptions, a questionnaire, and complete ignorance of the sport. As responses came rolling in from across the United States I quickly learned the truth about the derby subculture. My assumptions about the game and the women involved were wrong. Women’s roller derby is a serious sport, not some tramped up skate party. The theatrics I grew up watching were a thing of the past. There is not a typical woman who becomes a “derby girl”. Involvement is not a passing fancy or whim – these women give one hundred percent. They often pay for their own equipment, training, and more for the love of the game. Respondents also spoke ardently about the camaraderie surrounding roller derby.
My first order of business was to develop an understanding of roller derby’s fundamental rules. Chica Loca provided an excellent synopsis:
Basically, there are two teams of five chicks on the track during each two minute jam. Each team has one scoring position called a jammer, one pivot, and three blockers. The pivots and blockers form what we call a pack. The pack starts out twenty feet ahead of the jammers and start sprinting at the first whistle blast. The jammers start sprinting a few seconds later, at the second whistle blast. The jammers have to break through the pack and skate another lap before they start scoring points. On a jammer’s second and future trips through, she gets a point for every opponent she passes. The blockers and pivots try to stop the opposing jammer from getting through, while assisting their own jammer.1
This makes for a fast and furious game that takes practice to be able to follow, let alone participate. Derby moves faster than any other sport I’ve watched and is far more exhilarating. “This is a sport of skill [and] strategy where you’re playing offense and defense at the same time.”2 The amount of training and athletic ability required is astounding and derby is a full contact sport. One woman suffered a knee injury that ended her derby career and still affects her today. Broken bones – wrists, ankles, and ribs – are frighteningly common. Their equipment consists of helmets, pads, skates, and attitude.
With a hard knock sport like roller derby player stereotypes abound: “it’s just a bunch of women in short skirts beating each other up”3, heavily tattooed women as likely to punch you as kiss you, amazons built like brick outhouses, lot lizards, rockabilly barmaids, juvenile delinquents, hair pulling lesbians, and assorted good girls gone bad. Derby girls adopt personas that play off these stereotypes with noms de guerre like: Seoul Crusher, Starr Doom, Texas Chainsaw Sassacre, Chica Loca, Scrappy Do, and Madame Furie. How and why they choose these personas will be a topic to explore at a later time. The women I interviewed haven’t leapt off some Grindhouse screen. Their backgrounds run the gamut: business women, teachers, blue collar workers, waitresses, librarians, housewives, mothers, and more. There are just as many reasons why they joined derby. Some had seen the A&E reality television show Roller Girls and been inspired. Some felt it was “a cool, edgy thing to do”4. Others joined simply because they wanted to, because they wanted to challenge themselves. One woman responded, “It makes your butt go back to where it was before kids!”5
The strongest response I received was about the intense camaraderie among these women. What surprised me is that this did not take the form of the standard underground culture “us vs them” punk mentality. Derby certainly seems to have the punk aspect of members being outside societal norms and of finding a place to relax with a group of people they could be themselves around6. Seoul Crusher responded to the questionnaire:
I think as women sometimes we are hard on ourselves on what we think a woman should be from our views of magazines and television but when you are surrounded by so many different women who choose a crazy sport like roller derby it’s amazing how that can boost your self confidence in yourself and remind you that you are just like every other woman and no different. I’ve never been part of a team sport before roller derby so it’s neat how you feel like you belong almost immediately.7
When I asked the women if roller derby was a phase they said no. Many members of underground subcultures reach a point where the put away the trappings, wear long sleeves to cover tattoos, and blend into accepted culture. While not all the women were still involved with derby they maintain friendships with former teammates, follow league rankings, and bust out the skates more often than not. A common sentiment was, “I think I sweated and worked my ass off too hard to say this was a little hobby I picked up then quit.8
After interviewing these women I have much greater respect and appreciation for the sport and the women involved. The “you don’t have to be [any] kind of type to join roller derby”9 vibe is impressive. Scrappy Do – jammer and blocker – stands five feet tall. A number of the women were surprised by their athletic abilities once they joined. Some hadn’t put on skates since they were children and some had never donned skates before. They aren’t stereotypical athletes and certainly not average women. Unlike many other subcultures, women’s roller derby is open to anyone willing to give it their all.
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