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Being "Roller/Derby girl": Subcultural femininty, empowerment, and third wave praxis

Molloy, Clare (2012) Being "Roller/Derby girl": Subcultural femininty, empowerment, and third wave praxis. Honours thesis, Murdoch University.

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It's 4pm on a Saturday afternoon in suburbia. Twenty women and men, some in brightly coloured uniforms and stockings, some in regular 'civilian' clothes, are rolling bags and boxes into a recreation centre, waiting for the basketball games to finish. As soon as the last buzzer goes off, they begin taking over the space, setting out chairs around the outside of an oval track upon which a crew in striped ref uniforms- "Team Zebra"- are taping down raised rope to mark the boundary. The group load consignment beer into the bar area, set up sound equipment borrowed from friends, organize scores of volunteers to staff the door and 'merch' booth. One woman, lanyard denoting her "Attila -Head Bouting Wench" flapping around her neck, is rushing around, briefing the hired security staff on the liquor licensing, making sure the trackside floor seating - the "suicide zone"- is the correctly insurable distance from the track, and overseeing the placement of chairs to ensure adherence to council guidelines on fire exits and wheelchair accessibility. In another room, a family are preparing for their daughter's wedding.

By 6pm the crowd has lined up out the door, the music is pumping, the beer is chilled, and there are 28 uniformed women on old-fashioned quad rollerskates slowly skating circles around the track. They chat casually to one another, stretch out their muscles, practice moves on one another. As the spectators slowly file in- families gathered together in the seating, over 18 's only in the suicide zone, young men with beers in the licensed stands- the atmosphere builds with the crowd eagerly anticipating the night's smashes and crashes. An announcer's voice booms out over the PA: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to rollllllllller derrrrrrrrrrbyyyyyyy!" The first lineup gather on the starting line- five in red, five in black- and when the whistle blows, they begin the strategic and physical manoeuvring of heavy blocks and quick agility that will help them win the game. They use their hips, bottoms and shoulders to throw each other off balance; falls and pile-ups are common and by the end of the game many are sporting rips in their stockings and bruises on areas not covered by their safety equipment. After the game, skaters cross the floor to hug members of the other team, and all line up to high five one another as each team do a victory lap for a bout well-fought. Brave members of the crowd line up to talk to their favourite player, and after all the spectators have left, the skaters begin the process of restoring the venue to its usual state before heading to the requisite after party. The neighbouring wedding has concluded and the party which has dwindled to ten curiously peer in the doors of the now-deserted stadium.

The sport of flat track roller derby is complicated, with two half-hour periods broken into jams which last a maximum of two minutes. Each team fields a line-up of five skaters in each jam- one jammer who scores the points, three blockers who hit other skaters and play both offense and defence, and one pivot who plays as a blocker while communicating strategy. In a jam, the first whistle allows the blockers to start skating and the two whistles shortly after allow the jammers to sprint towards the pack; the first jammer through the pack without a penalty is the lead jammer, and has the power to end the jam at any point before the two minutes is up. On each following pass, jammers score one point by passing each opposing player's hips; the blockers use their bodies to legally knock the opposing jammer down or out of bounds while trying to help their jammer past the opposing blockers unscathed. It's fast-paced, physically aggressive, and wildly entertaining.

Roller derby started as a profitable spectator sport in 1930s America, the brainchild of businessman and promoter Leo Seltzer. The rules evolved over the course of the twentieth century and the various incarnations of the sport from the original endurance races to include co-ed teams, staged fights, and pre-written WWF-style storylines. With the advent of television, broadcasting bouts brought a greater audience, but eventually the live immediacy of the sport was choked and it waned in popularity in the 1970s. The current revival grew out of the alternative music and punk communities of the West coast of America, and Austin, Texas is widely regarded as the birthplace of modern roller derby, starting the first team in the early noughties and continuing to be the headquarters of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) today 1 • It has evolved from a burlesque- and punk-inspired performance to a legitimate sport boasting over 1000 leagues and is being considered for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games2 •

Most modern roller derby leagues operate with a grassroots, do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic where members participate in all aspects of management and production. This is embodied in the WFTDA's central governing philosophy of" for the skater, by the skater"3 , which means that "[f]emale skaters are primary owners, managers, and/or operators of each member league and of the association"4 . Aside from bouts- the publicly-spectated events described above- the women spend between two and five times a week training together, as well as fundraisers, league meetings, informal social events and countless hours spent behind the scenes in organizational roles. League members participate in every aspect of management and event production, including financial planning, media relations, coaching, writing policy, and so on. In his study of the importance of do-it-yourself (DIY) in the roller derby revival Beaver states "the DIY ethic is about non alienated self-activity"5 , and this can be seen in both the on- and off track interactions of roller derby participants. They physically work together on the track, and off the track collaborate in the running of the league. The collectivity of the roller derby community leads Beaver to assert that "rollergirls subscribe to a 'do-it ourselves ethos"'6 , and this networking and formation of friendships are central motivators for participating in roller derby. Thus, derby is both an 'alternative' sport, and a subculture dominated and defined by women.

Within the subculture, the physicality of sporting elements combined with the gendered dimensions of a female-dominated space allow for experimentation with "doing gender"7 , and the participants engage with this on several levels. Firstly, they adopt pseudonyms, which are often word plays and puns playing on sexual, aggressive and/or ironic themes, such as 'Storm in a D-Cup' or 'Lawrence of a Labia'. In addition, the standards of dress and presentation within the roller derby space- both bouting and training spaces, those in which participants are on skates- embrace an aesthetic which draws on punk, vintage, pinup, rockabilly, camp, and sexual subcultures. While this is partly a function of wearing protective gear including knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, helmets and mouthguards, it is also a conscious and public engagement with gendered identities and the creation of what Finley deems an "alternative femininity"8 , one which takes elements of marginalized femininities and reappropriates them as sources of empowerment. These outward signifiers of resistance are an important element in the self-promotion of leagues as well as the interpretation of roller derby by the mainstream media and the wider community. Despite elements of empowerment and collective action, roller derby is not immune to the discourses and cultural values of the wider socio-political landscape in which it exists. Internal political differences and personal disagreements certainly occur within the community and in extreme cases cause members to leave the subculture or split leagues. The internal dynamics of roller derby leagues highlight the tensions between a mainstream culture in which women are not often offered routes to collective action and diverse support networks, and a subculture that encourages agency, participatory democracy, and collaborative decision-making. Many, if not all leagues, struggle with balancing off-track politics in a tight-knit community and a competitive on-track sport which has to fight to maintain its credibility; however, the continued exponential growth . of the sport stands testament to the abilities of participants to overcome such obstacles through their passion and dedication to the subculture, the athletics, the 'revolution'.

Publication Type: Thesis (Honours)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Media, Communication and Culture
Supervisor: Trees, Kathryn
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