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Other Sports - 02. August 2011.

This Aint Dodgeball-Revolutions in Female Subcultures by M.A. Toothill


Tequila Mockingbird, Skid n’ Nancy, Baby Splice, Full Metal Jackie, Helen Killer, Ivana Tripabitch, Michelle O’ Bam Ya, Bitch Cassidy, Hanna Belle Lector, Ellen Degenerate, Muhammed Allie and Pushy Galore.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the owners of such nom de plumes might be more comfortable within the harmless virtual confines of internet chatrooms rather than the very real hard-knock school of female roller derby.

Created in the United States in the 1920s, the roller derby was first used to describe flat-track roller skate races. It’s evolution into a predominantly hard core female extreme sport has been meteoric.  As a testament to rollerderby’s burgeoning appeal, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It, successfully brought the sport to a wider audience and Mark Woollen’s Jam won the best documentary prize at South by Southwest Festival in 2006. The popularity of roller derby is on the rise in the Britain and there are now upwards of 24 teams nationwide (in roller derby a team is referred to as a  league) and with only 400 registered teams worldwide the sport that was practically unknown in Britain five years ago has developed rapidly. 

Roller derby unashamedly embraces and celebrates the beauty of pun and innuendo, kitsch, burlesque, costume, fishnets, tattoos and tutus.

Accoutrements aside, rollerderby is taken as just seriously as any predominantly male contact sport (rugby etc.) but with a sense of spectacle, celebration and gratification that football and fails to accomplish due largely to a disproportionate allotment of cash, testosterone, xenophobia and homophobia on the side of football.

There is aggression and sometimes the contact is brutal but there is, on the whole, simply the permitted aggression and contact implicit to the game as opposed to the earnest effort to inflict pain and injury that any male playing Sunday league football or amateur rugby will be all too familiar with. This form of aggression devoid of any malicious anger appears to be a liberating force rather than a destructive one.

Without scrutinizing in the many intricacies of the game, a roller derby fixture is called a bout: to win a bout team score points by assisting their fastest player - called a jammer - around the track in order to overtake opposing players. Points are earned for each player they lap, but, as the team’s jammer races around the track, the other team attempts to stop her by using just about any means possible

 Roller derby is fierce but friendly, violent without viciousness. The feeling of amiable sorority (as opposed to the typically confrontational fraternity mentality) fostered by a shared feeling of freedom and self-determination that aerobics or jogging cannot engender. Without for a minute imagining that participants are contemplating postmodern feminist emancipation as they hurtle around the flat track, it has to be acknowledged that this is not simply a sport or a keep-fit niche; rollerderby’s very independence from mainstream patriarchal sport and defiance of the forces of the conventional traditions of sport should be lauded and encouraged.

Whatever your gripe with American sport (perpetual product placement, the thirty-strong commentary team, the astronomical salaries) they do put on a show better than anyone else. Think World series, the NBA Allstar game and the Superbowl. In Britain it’s often seen as chintzy, vulgar and containing more light than heat. The truth of the matter is that if we had the resources and the wherewithal to do it; we’d be doing it. This fidgetiness around the idea of sport and the spectacle (American wrestling anyone?) has made us overly wary and unable to embrace anything new or glamorous. Roller derby is true glamour, true grit and truly grand.

 If there is a tenuous link with American wrestling then the roller derby names might be that link. The association ends there however because rollerderby alter egos names are clever, filthy, hard-edged, evocative and moreover very funny. Skaters register their nom de guerre with

www.twoevils.org in order to ensure that no two individuals share the same name but this also ups the stakes of creativity and covetousness; what self-respecting skater wouldn’t be jealous of creating and owning an alter ego in true superhero-style? Without consulting the database for copyright infringements a myriad of monikers immediately spring to mind: Mia Culpa? Tash Gordon? Sarah Impalin’? Barge Simpson? Ok, so mine aren’t very good at all but the freedom to be creative is pleasurable all the same.

An alter ego can be rough, tough menacing and sadistic, but, these alter egos can be left behind and the aggression and violent baggage doesn’t need to be taken into the world. This mask of anonymity liberates even the most reserved so this construction of identity provides an escapism and emancipation from the constraints of workaday reality. 

Alter-egos and the inherent temporary sense of abandon of the strictures of everyday life are all part of the allure for the women of roller derby that are defining themselves on their own terms: these are not women playing at a male sport, but a sport in which females look to their own kind, to their own role-models and for their inspiration from their own kind.

M.A. Toothill


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