Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Roller Derby: To play or not to play...

Sister Slag battles Ottawa-based Rideau Valley Girls at season opener. Photo by Carrissa Peach.
(photo found here)

On Saturday I went to the local roller derby team's first game. I really wasn't sure what to expect. On television, half the time the women look powerful and strong, the other half of the time they look highly sexualized and objectified. I have been looking for a sport to participate in for a while now, and since I used to be a competitive figure skater, roller derby seemed like an appropriate chance to draw on those skills and do a sport that could also be powerful. That being said, I will not allow myself to be objectified by spectators.

At first, I wasn't sure what to think about it. It is a contact sport and the first thing that comes to mind is that when men play contact sports, they wear a lot of padding (think of hockey and American football, for example), whereas women in roller derby have only a helmet, mouth guard and knee and elbow pads to protect them. I wonder if the level of protective equipment would be different if it were a "male" sport. Yes, men do play roller derby, and when they do they wear the same safety equipment (with t-shirts and longer, baggy shorts), but I wonder if that has to do with not wanting to seem weaker than the women... although I could be looking way too much into this aspect of the sport.

Either way, what this suggests to me is that patriarchy is involved in some very real ways. Women are being put on display while they are kicking ass. On one hand, this bothers me because I really want to make sure I don't play into that, on the other hand, opportunities for me to have fun, stay fit, and meet other women are somewhat constrained by the time and work involved in grad school and parenting.

Although dressed in relatively revealing clothing, the Rideau Valley Girls looked powerful, not sensual (as a sidenote, using the word girls for these women also annoys me). The team members looked fit and strong and usually wore really cool tights with shorts on top. The tights were a multitude of colours and patterns and just didn't fit into the box of what I would consider sexualized clothing. They also had several women with tattoos, piercings, and non-traditional types of make up that didn't play into dominant standards of attractiveness.

Approximately half of the women on the local team seemed to wear heteronormative and much more sexualized clothing - some were wearing things like micro-mini skirts, fishnet tights with shorts so short as to make the bottom half of their bum visible, and frilly panties with garter straps hanging down. Now, I am all for enjoying being a sexual being, and I have worn mini skirts on occasion (usually dancing at the local gay bar and always with leggings), but I am somewhat annoyed that about half of the clothing warn by these women played so nicely into hegemonic norms of attractiveness. It also didn't help that the women on this team appeared much smaller, younger, and less strong than the Ottawa team. Still, the atmosphere and the way that the women acted and moved was strong and fun, not playful or sensual.

I can't help but think that if roller derby was considered a 'real' sport, there would be more men playing it. The fact that it has become a women's sport (with 'cute' costumes) tells me that it might be more about the sex than the sport. And yet, there were so many children and women at the bout (and lots of queer people) and the comments that people were yelling were about the sport and not about sex or sexualization. Despite the uniforms, in many ways, sex seemed to be downplayed and when it was there, it was mostly made fun of. I'm sure this is not the case at all roller derby games, and is definitely not the case in some of the television depictions I have seen, but it is the impression that I got from being at this one particular game.

I am going to go to the next "fresh meat" section and try roller derby out for myself (and yes, I do get the implications of calling women meat, even if it is a joke, but I am looking past that for the moment). I would like to see if I feel objectified when I am on that side of it. But I refuse to skate in anything that remotely resembles a schoolgirl uniform, nor will I look "pretty" in the glamour shots that are on the website, but then, many of the other women also seem to refuse to conform to that standard. I will definitely be posting more about roller derby as I experience it.

Now I just need a kick ass name...


  1. They also had several women with tattoos, piercings, and non-traditional types of make up that didn't play into dominant standards of attractiveness.

    To me this is not necessarily a sign of progress, in and of itself. I kind of feel like "alternative"-looking women are just sexualized in a different way; we're exotic, we're more likely to be bisexual and "crazy in the sack", etc.

    So...maybe this particular team is opening itself up to diversity, or maybe they want to be Suicide Girls on Wheels. The jury's out on that one.

  2. I agree with you entirely. I should have possibly said that the body types also do not fit into hegemonic beauty standards.

    I have a friend who is thinking of becoming a suicide girl and it seems every time we get together over drinks we end up having that same argument about whether it is empowering for women. With the suicide girls, from what I have seen, the body types and even the posing often conforms in many ways to what one would see in playboy, just with different props and some tattoos.

    Some of the derby girls fit into this... others wore "ugly" makeup (or none at all) and made "ugly" faces during photos, not the suggestive ones made by suicide girls. Either way, I don't think there is a clear answer to whether or not it is any better, but I appreciate the comment.

  3. i play of the most important things to understand about womens roller derby is that it is controlled by women for women. the women who play decide what they wear and what they do. the WFTDA (the ruling body for womens derby) has rules which limit male involvement in womens clubs. players create an alter ego with the use of makeup and costume. they skate under "derby names" . doing this is fun and also shields them stalkers, exes and disproving bosses. uniform choices are more for practical reasons. loose clothing snags and armour gets very hot. rollerderby is a sport. i respect my fellow players. also men and women also play co ed/ boys vs girls