Since its revival little more than a decade ago, roller derby has swept across the globe. There are over 1500 leagues in 40 different countries. With its women competitors dressed in fishnet stockings and tight shorts, today’s roller derby links back to its heyday in the 1950s, when it was a titillating, televised entertainment in the U.S. But as one veteran player shows, this is a fast-paced, hard-edged competition. And it raises the question of whether women skating, sweating, and slamming into each other might be the feminist future of sports.
Roller derby’s feminism may be, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. A lot depends on if you imagine “feminist” as a compliment or an insult. My favorite definition of the word is from English journalist and author Rebecca West (1892–1983), who quipped, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what Feminism is: I only know that people call me a Feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”
No one who’s seen a roller derby bout in the past dozen years – since the sport’s rebirth in Austin, Texas in 2001 – could imagine it as a competition for doormats. For some, however, our spectacle on wheels may function a bit more like prostitution than is entirely comfortable. I can’t speak to the motivations of all the spectators who pay to see women on skates slam into each other at high speeds, but some audience members don’t even try to hide their titillation, especially if the opportunity to purchase beer is involved.
Assessing roller derby’s feminist credentials must prompt more serious questions. To what extent does it promote the equality of the sexes? How does the sport advocate for political, social, and economic advances for women? To those who study the sociology of sport or the history of women, these questions have been crucial ones, asked of many organizations and subcultures. Roller derby may offer one hopeful response to Mariah Burton Nelson’s The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports (1994). Although it’s by no means a universally held opinion, many of us would like to believe in roller derby’s feminism – that the stronger women get, the more men and women grow to love watching strong women play derby.
The question of derby’s feminism invites both knee-jerk answers and more nuanced analysis. As an English professor and feminist critic who has played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen, I’d like to think I’m in a good position to offer some of both. My knee-jerk answer is “Yes, of course.” The case rests on roller derby’s nontraditional nomenclature, DIY organizational structure, and efforts supporting female empowerment. The name of our sport is its first feminist calling card. Twenty-first-century flat-track roller derby is one of the few sports that began – or, rather, was reborn – as a women’s sport that spawned a men’s version. It may be the only full-contact sport about which this can be said, unless someone wants to argue about the history of bikini mud wrestling.
As a term, roller derby dates back to the 1920s, first used to describe endurance-based skating competitions. Some may remember the full-contact (but highly staged and spectacle-filled) version of the sport popular in the 1970s and 80s. In today’s full-contact, rules-driven sport, the unmarked term “roller derby” is women-centered, while the men’s version of the sport is “men’s roller derby.” It’s the unmarked part that’s key. To many of us in the derbyverse, the phrase “women’s roller derby” sounds redundant, humorous, or ridiculous. That is a beautiful and all-too-rare thing in contemporary athletics.
It’s not just current naming conventions that make derby feminist; it’s also our dominant organizational structures. Most leagues operate on a DIY model designed as democratic and arguably also feminist. Our largest and most powerful governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), stipulates it. WFTDA, made up of 259 member and 99 apprentice leagues worldwide, requires that its leagues be majority skater-owned and operated. Even in leagues beyond WFTDA’s reach, derby is often run on a “for us, by us” model that makes athletes’ control and collective self-determination the foundation of our competitions.
Derby’s macro-feminism is mirrored by micro-feminism, built into its required skills and subculture, stressing individual women’s power and empowerment. As a sport that demands hitting and taking a hit, as well as working with teammates to create strategic multi-body maneuvers, roller derby demands confidence and self-assertion, strength and agility, collaboration and aggression. There is no place on the track for the meek, submissive, or quiet. In other words, traditional femininity – at least in its most self-effacing forms – can’t flourish among our ranks. We see that as a good thing.
Maybe that’s why, off the track, playing roller derby tends to have an impact on how a woman carries herself and moves through physical space. A generation of girls raised playing roller derby would be formidable. This benefit is not unique to derby, of course, as many girls’ sports could claim the same. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article “The Confidence Gap,” in the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic, laid the case out clearly. Learning to own victory and survive defeat in organized sports appears to be good training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work. Sports can be a key to self-assurance and professional success, which makes it deeply worrying for women’s future economic and political empowerment that girls are six times more likely to drop off of teams than boys.
Junior derby is growing – at least one high school, the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, in Austin, TX, has its own team – but modern roller derby has not so far catered to the under-18 set. Most players come to it as adults, some without a background in organized athletics. The ethos of derby has been to accept and encourage all comers, regardless of skill level or apparent promise. (We share this quality with self-identified nerd sports, like Quidditch.) The “queerness” of roller derby is a subject for its own essay, but it’s enough to note here that derby self-identifies as lesbian-friendly and counter-cultural. It is also exceptionally body positive, in part because players of all shapes and sizes can succeed and contribute to team play. (Having big hips and great agility definitely helps.)
Still, deeper analysis of derby’s feminism proves thorny. Should its neo-burlesque elements be seen as feminist? What does it mean when women hit women – or when spectators enjoy watching women hit women? Can derby be feminist if substantial numbers of skaters and leagues don’t self-identify as feminist? Sociologists of sport have begun conversations on these matters; the data is complex and contradictory. Perhaps derby should be subject to the same critiques as contemporary girl power rhetoric. In Enlightened Sexism, Susan J. Douglas finds today’s pop culture full of fantasies of female power distracting women from real issues and persistent inequities. Images of impossibly strong, sexy women – think Buffy the Vampire Slayer – dupe us into believing that equality of the sexes has been achieved and that resurrecting sexist stereotypes is harmless and all in good fun.
From one perspective, today’s roller derby would seem to deserve Douglas’s criticisms. It has flourished as a playfully theatrical sport, rife with fishnet stockings, copious cleavage, and sexy (if not sexist) innuendo. The alter-ego names many of us have skated under – which may or may not continue in derby’s next wave – are hardly the stuff of feminist politics. My first league, the CoMo Derby Dames of Columbia, MO, allowed me to skate alongside CanTankHerAss, Momma Knee-Ya, Plain White Tease, and Julia Sleazer, while my current league, Arizona Roller Derby of Phoenix, AZ, features Pushy Tushy, Deez Nutz, and Westward Ho. Our referring to each other as “derby girls,” too, might seem a throwback, after second-wave feminists worked so hard to get rid of infantilizing language and instantiate the term “Ms.” I have to admit that it was hard for me to embrace the term derby girl.
In my more optimistic moments, however, I see the “girl” in derby girl as an act of campy reclamation. This is a girl with a helmet, pads, and a mouthguard – not an impossible image on a big or little screen nor a dainty thing in need of paternal protection. She unapologetically takes up space. Even if you mistakenly think that roller derby is more of a sexy spectacle than a legitimate sport, you have to buy into the idea that women’s strength, sweat, and power are sexy. If you find female strength, sweat, and power horrifying, then no amount of using “girl” vs. “woman” is likely to change your mind.
Anyone who thinks roller derby exists to provide visual pleasure to masochistic heterosexual men or lusty lesbians has not seen an actual bout. Derby’s athleticism is impressive. The game is fast paced and highly strategic, and the play is physically dangerous. When EMTs come on to the track to help an injured skater, other skaters take a knee in respect, and play stops. It’s about as sexy as a stretcher coming on to the field in American football. Anyone who finds that arousing has a screw loose.
What tips derby to the feminist side of the scale for me are the fans I find it most moving to interact with – pre-teen girls and boys. At our bouts (many leagues don’t charge admission for those under 12), kids ask to be photographed with us or ask us to autograph their programs, as you might a professional baseball player before a game. They line up on the track to slap our hands as we skate by in a speed line, after the bout. Just feet away from the action, these boys and girls watch players sweat and bleed, swear and celebrate. They watch women win and lose, competing in events we have organized, in leagues we ourselves are running. It’s heady. Each time I’m a part of it, I think to myself, “Take that, Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.”
If today’s roller derby isn’t feminism in its purest form, it’s a sign of hope for a more feminist future.
Devoney Looser is professor of English at Arizona State University. She tweets at @devoneylooser and at @StoneColdJane. She has played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen and serves as faculty adviser to the ASU roller derby club, the Derby Devils.