Professional wrestling and other “entertainment sports” occupy a precarious position in our culture. Not quite sports, not quite theatrical performances, they defy conventional categorizations. Maybe that’s why they’re so hard to take seriously.
Entertainment sports are often described as “spectacle sports” because they rely so much on the theatrical and stylistic elements that surround them. The hyperbolic displays of aggression, elaborate props and staged interpersonal conflicts all become part of the “bigger picture” of how viewers experience and understand the event.
The athletes (or performers) play a key role in creating the spectacle. They are the main characters in an open-ended drama, the bodies upon which the story plays out. But not all spectacle sports are as heavily staged as others. Many unfold like any other sporting competition, without a predetermined script or outcome. In these sports, players toe an incredibly fine line between athleticism and roleplay, between adhering to the game’s rules and conforming to the over-arching narrative.
Roller derby exemplifies this delicate balancing act. Recently resurrected by grassroots, all-female leagues in the U.S., roller derby is an unmatched display of female aggression, parody and subversion. Beneath its hot pink “riot grrrl” exterior, however, roller derby is also a high-speed, full-contact team sport. For the women who participate, roller derby provides a unique opportunity to dress up, ham it up and play rough. Really rough.
Your Mama’s Roller Derby
Like all good sports, roller derby has a well-defined and widely circulated origin story. In the mid-1930s, Leo A. Seltzer started holding roller skating marathons, in which couples attempted to skate the equivalent of the distance between New York and Los Angeles on an banked track. The events were a hit, but a big part of the attraction was seeing the skaters crash and collide into each other. Roller derby eventually transformed into a full contact team competition. It also became a nationwide phenomenon, complete with celebrity skaters, fan clubs and magazines.
Many of roller derby’s most unique attributes took root during this period. Along with an emphasis on rough-and-tumble contact, leagues introduced dramatic elements and storylines. Managers encouraged skaters to be rowdy, and the skaters exaggerated aggressive moves for the crowd’s benefit, accentuating important plays with the kind of theatrics and slapstick humor we’ve come to associate with professional wrestling.
Roller derby was also innovative in terms of its gender politics – it was the only professional sport in history in which women competed on an equal basis with men, playing by the same rules and earning comparable salaries. During the 1960s and 1970s, Joan Weston, the “Roller Derby Queen,” was the highest paid female athlete in the U.S.
By the late 1970s, however, roller derby had more or less disappeared. Networks dropped it from television schedules, and without an audience or a source of revenue the professional league dissolved. For nearly 30 years, roller derby was relegated to the fringes of the burgeoning entertainment sports market, eclipsed by the rising popularity of WrestleMania and Motocross.
Of Bodices and Bruises
Roller derby was reincarnated in 2001 with the formation of the all-female Lonestar Rollergirls derby league in Austin, Texas. The league not only reintroduced roller derby as a full-contact sport for women, but infused it with a riot grrl-meets-burlesque aesthetic that openly aligned it with other indie/alt groups and cultural practices. Team uniforms now included fishnets, corsets, miniskirts and heavy make-up. Punk bands and burlesque performers headlined the half-time shows.
The Lonestar Rollergirls attracted a legion of fans and a lot of media attention. They became the subjects of numerous articles, documentary films (including 2007’s Hell on Wheels) and even a short-lived television series (Rollergirls).
Through media exposure and word of mouth, all-girl roller derby leagues began to appear in cities across the U.S. Canadian, British and Australian leagues soon followed. With new leagues cropping up every few months, the sport has, once again, become something of a global sensation.
Contemporary roller derby has reinvigorated the sport’s signature blend of toughness and parody. These skaters don’t shy away from the shoulder checks, hits and collisions that first made roller derby an audience favourite. The skaters celebrate acts of overt aggression, openly throw around threats and play out personal “rivalries” for the crowd’s enjoyment.
But this isn’t the WWE: The outcomes aren’t predetermined, and skaters’ conduct on the rink isn’t choreographed or faked. Bruises and injuries are not only common but a source of “machisma” pride among skaters. Referees strictly regulate contact, and skaters must follow the official rules and safety standards even while creating an atmosphere of pure mayhem.
The spectacle of roller derby obscures the fact that, beneath the fishnets and the hip checks, this is a highly organized sport. Blocking is legal, but skaters aren’t allowed to “grab block” each other from behind. Elbow jabs are fine, but “clotheslining” is prohibited. Making it look like a no-holds-barred free-for-all is just part of the game.
The sport’s sense of playfulness and irony also offsets the violence. This can express itself in many different ways depending on the league and the teams involved. The Lonestar Rollergirls transform penalties into elaborate comedic punishments that can include spankings or sumo wrestling. The Gotham Girls Roller Derby (in New York City) even have their own “jeerleader” squads who wear cheeky costumes and shout insults at the opposition.
Derby teams have tongue-in-cheek names. They sprinkle their mottos and websites with allusions to violence and bloodlust. Double entendres are frequent, as are pop culture references. There are the Heavy Metal Hookers from Philadelphia, the Throttle Rockets based out of Seattle, and the Faster Pussycats in Vancouver. Similarly, every player skates under a nickname or pseudonym, like Alma Bichess (of the Tommy Gun Terrors) or Fisti Cuffs (of the Manhattan Mayhem).
The skaters’ pseudonyms are important. Each name is unique, and must be verified against an official database before a skater can assume it. The pseudonym becomes a player’s “derby name,” used both on and off the rink. A skater’s achievements, reputation and stats are all associated with her derby name. Part theatrics and part bookkeeping, these names are an integral component of the skater’s identity within the world of roller derby.
Derby names also reflect the distinct personas and alter egos that many skaters adopt. Skaters describe “acting out” the personas suggested by their pseudonyms – “hamming it up” when announcers introduce them at the start of the bout, or interacting with the crowd after making a successful hit.
The skaters’ derby personas shine through in a variety of ways, from how they customize their uniforms to how they act while on the rink. The “tough girls” have their over-the-top displays of aggression and bravada. The playful types might flirt with audience members or make fun of the referees.
For some skaters, this part of the sport is secondary to its athletic demands – just a way of expressing yourself during play. Booty Quake of the Bad Reputations (part of the Terminal City Roller Girls, or TCRG, league in Vancouver, British Columbia) says that many of the women with whom she skates emphasize camaraderie and playing on a team as things they appreciate more about roller derby than its roleplay or stylistic elements. But she also admits that “playing to the crowd” is a big part of what makes roller derby entertaining for its fans, as well as what makes it so exhilarating for the skaters.
Booty has also noticed that many of the women who join roller derby don’t have a history of playing team sports. Some have a negative opinion of mainstream sports and their close associations with jocks and conformity. But roller derby is different. Booty suggests that the characters, humor and fishnets can act as a bridge in these cases, allowing women who may not typically think of themselves as “athletic” a way into team sports.
For others, however, developing a persona is a more integral part of the derby experience. For these skaters, roller derby has led to the development of full-blown “characters” with unique backstories, MySpace pages and signature moves. Suzy Shameless, a skater for the Faster Pussycats (another team in the TCRG league) uses her background in theater and burlesque to create her “shameless” derby persona – an overtly sexual, hyper-aggressive bully whose signature move is the “Feisty Pillows” and who likes to warn her opponents, “I’m going to rub my body all over you.”
The amalgamation of violence and sexuality, hyper-femininity and hyper-aggression, pretense and athleticism, transforms roller derby into a space within which skaters and viewers alike can push the boundaries of the typical sporting experience. Although some of these combinations may seem contradictory, it’s also part of what makes roller derby so liberating.
Skaters describe derby as a place where you can do things you could never do in daily life. As Toi Box (another member of the Bad Reputations) describes it, she never thought of herself as an intimidating person before taking up roller derby. Now, she’s devising new ways to look and be more threatening on the rink.
As for the fishnets and corsets, Toi Box points out that many of the skaters who sport them during derby would be too shy to wear those types of clothing outside of roller derby. She also thinks that the hyper-feminine elements of roller derby provide balance in relation to the hyper-violence and physical demands of the sport.
This blurring of boundaries seems to offer something for everyone, a liminal space where the rules of the real world don’t always apply. Where even malleable categories like “sport” and “roleplay” become muddled and beside the point. Whatever it is, or isn’t, roller derby provides a venue for exploring identity and breaking down social assumptions about what women are capable of. A place where players will, as one skater described, “tear your head off on the track, and come over and bake you a pie after.”
Sara M. Grimes is a doctoral student in communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She is also the author of Gamine Expedition, a blog about children’s culture and technology.