Sporting-Self or Selling Sex: All-Girl Roller Derby in the 21st Century

Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Sporting-Self or Selling Sex: All-Girl Roller Derby in the 21st Century


Roller derby, known in North America as All-Girl Roller Derby, is often cast in the light of recreational performance, believed to be scripted and preplanned: girls in short skirts and fishnet stockings cat-fighting in a dreamscape pornographic style. Derby pushes on the limits of these assumptions by playing along with them, until the fighting turns bloody and girls are carried off the floor to await medical assistance. The fishnets are real, and so are the fisticuffs. What place is left in contemporary understanding about sport for women who dress in pinup clothes as uniforms and profess athlete status? This article examines these ideas from the perspective of the participant. Fitting into a system that rewards costumes and sex-appeal more than athleticism reveals the essentialist nature of femininity found in Derby's cultural norms. These norms are strikingly similar to traditional female sport, leaving us to question: Is Roller Derby actually different?

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Where sport is still constructed as a male domain in North America, progress and change have afforded women more opportunities than previously. Yet, female participation in sport is still not judged on merit alone; instead, we judge bodies--looking for femininity in spaces threatened by masculine labeling. In sports where women's sexuality and overall perceived femininity are challenged, many athletes are pressured to participate in cultural practices that force them to feminize their looks in order to gain continued acceptance as athletes. This is different in counter-cultural or underground sport, but it is not a shift away from femininity, instead a different type of femininity is stressed and expected by both participants and spectators.

Haig-Muir (2004) explains that "socio-cultural context and ideology condition the ways in which gender and gender-roles are conceptualized and operationalised" (p. 2). Just as much of women's sport holds a cultural landscape where hierarchical power relationships between genders and classes are prominent, so does modern roller derby. The construction and maintenance of power relationships exist within the Boston Derby Dames (BDD), counter to the perceived culture presented by its founders. The internal workings of one league in the All-Girls Flat Track Roller Derby world demonstrate the ever-present struggle within competitive sport models and the understanding of identity development and maintenance of femininity in underground sporting cultures.

A Brief History of Roller Derby

Twenty-first-century roller derby has experienced a grassroots revival among women, even though historically it had been coed and then predominantly male m the post-WWII era. These leagues, called all-girl roller derby, are located in cities and small towns, primarily in the United States and Canada. As of February 2006 there were over 90 leagues with multiple teams in each league in North America. These leagues are made up of female athletes, are self-run, self-promoted, and the majority are non-profit.

In Boston, MA the Boston Derby Dames established themselves in May, 2005 when a member of the Mad Rollin' Dolls of Wisconsin relocated to Boston and brought derby with her. In March, 2006 the league had enough trained participants to form three teams: the Cosmonaughties, the Nutcrackers, and the Wicked Pissahs (Boston Derby Dames, n.d.). The league identifies itself as "Boston's first, best, and only all-female, all DIY (do-it yourself), skater owned and operated flat-track roller derby league" (Boston Derby Dames, n.d.).

Methods

This study was undertaken as participant observation. In the role of participant I contacted the team manager, participated in the learning process required of new team members, tried out for the league, and was ultimately chosen by one of the three teams in the open draft in the Winter of 2006. This article examines my experiences as a derby girl in the Boston Derby Dames (BDD) league and as a member of the Cosmonaughties team during the 2006 Winter and Spring seasons. …

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