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Grrrl Power in Action

Nigel Tufnel: What’s wrong wif bein’ sexy?
Ian Faith: Sex-ist!

--This Is Spinal Tap

Oly Roller Derby: Grrrl Power in Action

Is it okay to be postfeminist yet, or is Western culture still too enslaved by the Patriarchy? Have we evolved out of feminist Defcon Five? What if I’m a man? Can I be postfeminist, or is it too soon? What’s the difference between a man looking at a woman and the male gaze? If I, a man, dig roller derby, is it because I enjoy watching strong, independent women show off their obvious athletic ability, or is it because I’m a skeevy perv? Are they the same thing? In the Pacific Northwest, one of America’s most treasured strongholds of instantly outraged liberal hypersensitivity, these are not idle questions.

I knew when I suggested this article I was roller-skating into a minefield. Perhaps it should have been written by a woman; but no, I discovered as I researched feminist perspectives on roller derby that not only do women disagree about how feminist their sport is or isn’t, some happily bash others' views when the subject comes up. When one blogger, “Vicky Vengeance,” insisted roller derby was no more feminist than cheerleading or mud wrestling, she incited a flame war that raged through dozens of responses from defiant female readers. For every proud roller derby “girl”—and I emphasize this is a label used often (call it reclaimed) by skaters themselves—there’s a woman who considers her short skirt and sexy alter ego an act of pandering and self-objectification, even self-commodofication. But honestly, Ian, what the hell is wrong wif bein’ sexy? And if it’s okay, even positive, for a woman to be sexy, then why shouldn’t it be okay for men to notice?

The fine line between sexy and sexist snaps taut in Hell on Wheels, “a killer documentary about the Austin all-women’s roller-derby leagues that inadvertently launched a worldwide revival of the sport” (Salt Lake City Weekly). In an effort to lure patrons through the irresistible commercial magnetism of sex, the Lonestar Rollergirls enforce a “Penalty Wheel” that mandates such crowd-punishments as “Karaoke,” “Pillow Fight,” and “Spank Alley,” in which the miscreant must skate through a gauntlet of audience members who smack her on the ass. One male audience member uses Spank Alley as an opportunity to cop a feel of a skater’s crotch. “Penalty Mistress” Amber Diva excoriates and evicts the offender, declaring, “There’s a difference between sexy and slutty.” The audience cheers this semiotically slippery slogan. Amber Diva died shortly thereafter, and seats in Spank Alley are now awarded to winners of raffles, the proceeds of which go into a trust fund for Diva’s son. The Oly Rollers recently endorsed and performed before a screening of Hell on Wheels at the Olympia Film Society.

When derby began in the early 1920s, it looked almost nothing like the spectacle it is today. Back then it was an all-male marathon in which contestants sped around a flat track, over and over, for thousands of linear miles in races that lasted days. Women entered the sport via mixed-doubles teams. Coverage of this transformation was not exactly enlightened, as seen in an item from The Chicago Tribune: “[We] rushed into the big hall to see who was leading in the mythical dash from San Diego, California to New York and we think the leader is the blonde in the cerise tights and a right pretty little gal she is, too.”

Actually, Cerise Tights would make a good skate handle. Derby girls put enormous creative energy into devising punny, punky, sexy, aggro, often goth-inspired stage names for themselves—Tragedy Ann, Mitzu Bitchy, Josie Cuervo, Babe Ruthless. Team uniforms run the gamut from conservatively functional to brazenly provocative, but everyone involved is thoroughly aware that no matter how much showbiz razzle-dazzle surrounds each bout, this is a real sport with real rules, real athleticism, and a near-certain probability of injury. Even other skaters have commented on the minimal padding worn by Oly Rollers, especially around the knees.

For the uninitiated, roller derby can look not unlike a rolling mosh pit. Both teams of five play offense and defense simultaneously. The “jammer” starts 30 feet behind the other four players, three of whom are “blockers,” and one of whom is the “pivot.” At each whistle, all ten players make a counterclockwise circuit of the flat oval track. This is a strategic circuit during which players move into position for the next lap, at which point (the two-minute “jam” period) scoring commences. Each time the jammer (recognizable via the star on her helmet) passes a player on the opposing team, her team scores a point, so it’s the job of the pivots and blockers to keep that from happening. They’re free to make contact with hips, torsos, and/or upper arms. Any other type of block results in a penalty; major penalties earn minute-long stays in a penalty box. Each bout consists of two half-hour play periods; thus saith the official rules of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) and most underground derby leagues, including Olympia’s.

One of the attributes that make modern-day roller derby so thrillingly singular is that it’s not the less popular, “kid sister” distaff version of any predominantly male sport. Generally speaking, if an American town has a roller derby squad, it’s all female, from the coaches on down. It wasn’t always that way. When “women’s” derby first aired on CBS (moving quickly to ABC) in 1948, it was orchestrated by men like Leo “Bromo” Seltzer to appeal directly to men, including frequent fights. But once Seltzer’s organization, the National Roller Derby League, started earning in the seven-digit range, he moved to downplay belligerent theatrics in favor of unstaged athleticism.
Present-day roller derby was also initiated by a man, Austin’s “Devil Dan” Policarpo, in 2000, but Policarpo was quickly ousted from his own project by a group of skaters who called themselves Bad Girl Good Woman Productions. BGGW created the Lonestar Rollergirls, and derby was literally off to the races. There are now over five hundred teams in the U.S. alone.

Of course, it’s an overgeneralization even to ask whether roller derby is feminist, because each of the thousands of women who participate in it has her own answer. Yet the question seems nigh on universal when mainstream writers delve into the sport. An AP story from 2006, “Elbows, Body Checking and No, It’s Not Hockey,” quoted editor Emily Rems of Bust magazine: “Girls in skimpy outfits crashing into each other has an appeal….There is a kind of Amazonian aspect to it, and the new roller girls enjoy that and embrace it. They’ve taken control of their image.” (Jessica Valenti of griped, “ [T]he one quote from a feminist magazine has to talk about skimpy outfits?”) But several Oly Rollers told me that’s not the image they’ve adopted. “Speaking for myself and my team only,” says Northwest All-Star 2TON Heffer, “we don’t dress up in sexy clothing….We don’t try and purposely sexually exploit ourselves to get the attention we want. We go to practice and skate hard. We work hard at making Oly derby recognizable by athleticism.”

“If we’re in the spotlight,” adds B Tease N, “it is because of our athletic performance, not because our junk is hanging out for the whole crowd to see.”

Fair enough, but it’s also fair to say Olympia Underground Derby League embraces cheesecake iconography: short shorts, Catholic schoolgirl uniforms, handles like “Naughty Mommy.” That’s not to say UDL skaters are any less driven by athleticism or less feminist in general, rather that they’ve chosen to identify with sexier aspects of riot grrrl subculture. As one skater told Michael Corcoran of The Austin American-Statesman, “We’re dressing in skimpy outfits and playing up the sexiness, but we’re in charge of that and we’re comfortable with it. We exploit ideas about women that aren’t exactly P.C….We wear these costumes because we look good in them.”

It’s unfortunate that Rush Limbaugh and his ultraconservative ilk have made some women reluctant to adopt the term “feminism.” Deadly Aim of the Oly Rollers says, “I hear the word and immediately think of a ball-busting, man-hating woman with a chip on her shoulder.” Yet she immediately adds, “What I do believe is that men and women [should] be treated equally.” Isn’t that the definition of feminism? She’s aware of this, but says ‘equal’ in a sporting context shouldn’t be taken to mean ‘always the same.’

Feminism is now in its third wave, which emphasizes multiculturalism, self-reliance, the strengths of women individually, and the value of universal sisterhood. Beginning in the early 1990s, Olympia was one of the wellsprings of an excitingly punk, DIY brand of female-centric music, art, and literature dubbed the riot grrrl (or two-r “grrl”) movement. Third-wave and riot grrrl feminism coexist (often peacefully) with postfeminism aka fourth-wave feminism, the idea that feminism’s political goals have been largely accomplished (as allegedly demonstrated by the viable presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton). That may or may not be true, but it’s certainly true that contemporary feminism has been able to turn its attention to the relative feminism of cultural elements that would’ve been seen as minutiae in more oppressively patriarchal decades.

Is cheerleading sexist? I ask because that’s the comparison drawn by feminist critics of roller derby. At the very least, cheerleading exists in bizarre contrast to our near-ubiquitous certainty that the objectification of a teenage girl is sexual abuse. Roller derby is not usually a sport for adolescents, of course, but at least some subspecies of derby use sexy clothing to highlight the feminine form. Defenders of cheerleading highlight the athleticism it requires. So is derby any more or less sexist than cheerleading? I put the question to my friend Heather, aka Chronic MasterSkater of the UDL’s South Bay Bombers, who replies, “Cheerleading…means you have to have a pretty narrowly defined body type, which tells me it’s more about looks than derby is. Derby girls are of all shapes and sizes….I’ve never heard a derby girl say she has to lose weight before the next bout.”

Whatever the diminishing distinction between sexy and sexist, Deadly Aim believes roller derby gives skaters “a confidence that maybe wasn’t present before.” This is especially true in Olympia, where the Rollers enjoy a perfect 15-0 record thus far in 2010 after their undefeated WFTDA championship season last year. The final question I asked skaters was, “Is roller derby empowering, and if so, how?” I also wondered, it turns out naively, whether “derby girls” would have greater opportunity for empowerment if they competed against men. “Our team has the honor of scrimmaging and practicing with men on a regular basis,” B Tease N corrected. “I do admit, I love delivering a perfect hit to a man and watching him squirm!”

Deadly Aim replied simply, “I am a powerful woman. Derby didn’t give me any more power than I already had.”

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