The weekend before Thanksgiving, I woke up before 7am two days in a row to catch the last few games of the day in a Berlin-based roller derby tournament (sadly, I am not hard-core enough to skip sleep and start watching at 1 am). Friends who have had a conversation of any length with me since early this summer have probably picked up on the fact that I am just a teensy bit obsessed with this sport. I’ve had a few people comment on it (happily, most of them have been along the lines of “it’s fun to see you so excited about this”), and I’ve struggled to articulate exactly why roller derby has become so important to me. Clearly the obvious response is “because it’s fucking amazing,” but I suppose that’s a bit of a cop-out.
First off, it’s fantastic to see a sports league that celebrates women’s strength and athleticism. I know there are many other women’s sports leagues, of course, but with something like the WNBA it seems like it’s greatly overshadowed by the men’s counterpart. In roller derby, women’s teams are the default, not an afterthought. It’s great to hear (mostly male, actually) announcers talk about not how attractive the players are but about their strength or their strategy on the track. I have heard the occasional comment about a player’s appearance from commentators, but they’ve been rare and generally sandwiched together with commentary on her actual performance. I’ve felt the need to raise an eyebrow at an announcer once or twice, but that’s it. And fans who show up to matches are VERY enthusiastic, which makes for a great atmosphere.
Also! There’s a fairly wide range of body types among roller derby players. It’s nice to watch a sport that doesn’t have one “ideal” or typical body shape; depending on the situation it can be most helpful to have endurance, speed, power, agility, or some combination of these, which means I’ve seen spectacular players who embody a lot of different body shapes and sizes. Plus, I don’t feel like images of women in roller derby are necessarily packaged as artificially as a lot of other women in sports can be. Yes, there can be a sexy component to roller derby* but most of the images I’ve seen of roller derby players are action shots with protective gear on and sweat flying all over the place, not airbrushed bikini shots.
And let’s talk about those names, shall we? SO FANTASTIC. Derby names are kind of like drag or burlesque names, except with more violent puns and fewer sexy ones (although there are plenty of those). These are generally both hilarious and clever, and I love seeing a new team and mentally high-fiving all the players who have wonderfully creative names. I’m sure there are people who think silly names mean people won’t take the sport seriously, but all you need to do is watch a match to know it’s serious. I approve of making an intense and competitive sport something that can also be approached with a sense of fun.
All those things aside, though, there’s something else that’s really drawn me to roller derby, and it’s taken a while for me to be able to process and articulate it (and I’m not sure that I’ve really gotten it down perfectly yet): I see roller derby as the sort of women’s space that I would probably have felt very drawn to and maybe even comfortable in, had I known it existed earlier.
At the WFTDA championships earlier this month, the host team in Atlanta had a brief expo match of their junior derby league, which had age 7-11 and 12-17 divisions. I can not even imagine what it could have meant to me to be playing roller derby when I was that young. I spent my preteen and teenage years feeling uncomfortable with my body and awkward with regards to how “being a girl” worked – I didn’t question my gender at that point but felt like there were a lot of rules I didn’t know or understand how to follow. Is it a little unrealistic and romantic to imagine that those problems would have gone away if I’d strapped on some protective gear and learned how to take some hits? Maybe, but I think it would have been a great environment for me to learn how to be IN my body, doing something physical where I could come up with a silly name and maybe have a sports experience that was more supportive than the ones I had when I was younger. I was on several area youth-league sports teams, but I quit once I hit the age when the more skilled players noticed that some of us weren’t very good and got mean about it. It took me a long time to realize that my unhappy experiences didn’t mean that sports were bad or exercise couldn’t be enjoyable.
I don’t talk about it a lot, because I think it might sound like regret to some people and I’m never quite sure how to say it, but I do believe that I probably could have found a way to be happy being a woman, given a different set of circumstances. I didn’t have a real place to explore what that might mean or exposure to environments that felt like places I could fit (at least not at the time when it would have been helpful), so I wound up going in a different direction, but I think that was ultimately more of a reflection of my immediate situation than some fated Gender Destiny that had Been Inside Me All Along. I don’t see my current identity as a fixed point that could never have developed any other way (especially since things are still shifting; if there’s an endpoint to my identity, I haven’t hit it yet), and a lot of the warm & fuzzy feelings I get when I think about roller derby are due to the fact that I see it as the sort of environment could have been a really wonderful place for me.
I enjoy it for its own merits, as I mentioned above, but there is an extra dimension of…. not nostalgia, I suppose, but some sort of potential alternate-universe nostalgia, if I can call it that. It’s easy to imagine a world in which younger-me grew up to be Bruisin’ B. Anthony and now hangs out with a bunch of amazing ladies for hours every week and is trying to be good enough to get on her city’s travel team. And I’m ok not being in that world! The one I’m in suits me just fine! But a big part of my feelings for roller derby come from a place where I’m thinking “yeah, twelve-year-old me would have loved to try this. I wonder what sort of person she would have grown up to be if she had.”
* In a non-scientific experiment, I looked through a list of all WFTDA member teams, and tried to categorize images of women (or occasionally parts of them) used in the team logos. I found 35 logos that featured what I’d call “passively sexy” poses (pinup-style legs-up poses, hips thrust out, looking coyly over one shoulder, etc.), 51 that struck me as active/aggressive (some with black eyes or other injuries visible; a few of these are sexually charged but with the character looking both “sexy” and active), and 15 that seemed neutral (headshot, nonsexual relaxed pose).