At ten p.m. on a Tuesday night, I was wearing my roller skates, flying around the track. I had just broken through the other team’s blockers and was looking for space to fly past them again. As I made my move, Queenie (a.k.a., Queen of Mean) jutted out her hip, connecting with mine and sending me off my feet and off the track. I’d been trained well and was back on the track within seconds, again finding my way through the pack. Days later, at our next practice, I proudly show off the huge bruise from my encounter with Queenie.
This is the world of roller derby: full contact, stage names, competition, support, and pride in the proof that we got knocked down and got right back up. And, from my vantage point as a specialist in peace philosophy and a retired roller derby skater, this is a peace practice. It’s one of many unexpected places I’ve found to practice peacemaking.
Women’s Flat Track Derby (WFTDA) is a full-contact sport in which the goal is for one woman, the jammer, to get past four defenders, the blockers. The blockers have two roles. First, they try to prevent the other team’s jammer from getting past them. Second, they try to create space for their jammer to get past the other team’s blockers. Jammers and blockers accomplish their goals through contact; that is, they use their hips and shoulders to hit other players between the shoulders and thighs on the front of the body. While many readers may remember the televised roller derby with its staged violence from the 1970’s, today’s game is a sport with rules that are typically enforced by six skating referees and ten non-skating officials. What has not changed is that the players hit each other, choose provocative and sometimes violent stage names, and sometimes dress provocatively.
My perspective on roller derby comes from a variety of sources: researchers who focus on sports who have studied roller derby; skaters’ and league blogs; popular media interviews of skaters; and my own experience as a skater for Gem City Roller Girls and an occasional assistant coach for the Junior Gems Roller Girls. The guiding framework for this paper comes from my experience and an intuition that peace practice should be lived, is found in unexpected places, allows for conflict without violence, and can be recognised when it disrupts oppressive structures and creates liberating possibilities. Roller derby empowers women because it challenges norms surrounding women’s clothes, bodies, and sexuality, and it explodes the myth that women are fragile, helpless, and dependent on men.
For many women roller derby is the sport they discover while trying to recover from the lowest points in their lives. One of the most popular roller derby memes is a picture of Bonnie D. Stroir with a quote from her blog (hbonniedstroir.blogspot.com), “Most seem to find roller derby in transitional periods …We ruin our bodies to save our souls, and for some reason that makes perfect sense.” These transitional periods cover a wide range of life changes such as abusive relationships, painful divorces, difficult jobs, and even disability.
Roller derby is a sport that requires hours of training and intense competition. When I skated for the Gem City Roller Girls, we practiced three days a week for two hours each time. In addition, most of us spent time doing off-skate training and going to open skates at our local roller rinks. Top ranked teams spend approximately 12 hours per week at practice in addition to off-skate training and recreational skating. All of this in addition to full time jobs. Pamela Ribon, in a 2010 article written for oprah.com, describes why the combination of training and playing absorbs the women who play: “When you’re doing something that difficult, you don’t have time to dwell on your problems. You can’t afford 13 seconds of, ‘What am I going to do about my crappy job?’ because in that time someone will either out-skate you or knock you to the ground.”
When women say that roller derby saved their soul, they are referring to the absolute focus required of them in practice and in play. But they are also referring to the emotional transformation that can happen for them. Anne Thrax, in a derbylife.com writing contest, describes the way that roller derby helps her manage clinical depression and anxiety disorder: “Four years ago I had a major depressive episode, what most people would call a ‘nervous breakdown.’ I spent a couple of months in psychiatric care, and the next 18 months in a drug-induced haze. I lost my sense of self and all of my motivation and ambition, something, which had defined me in the past.” She credits roller derby with giving her a “home” and making her feel “confident and brave”.
Derby blogs, Facebook posts, and articles are filled with similar stories of women who have found roller derby at the lowest points of their lives and, through derby, discovered their own power. SeñoRita’s story in “Family Pictures: The Mothers and Daughters of the L.A. Derby Dolls” is one such example, “The sport became a refuge during a difficult divorce … I needed something for me to do, to help me, to empower me, to give me confidence, to help me rebuild all that all over.”
SeñoRita’s descriptions of empowerment and confidence relate to the time spent training, but also to the fact that roller derby is a contact sport. No matter how big or small a player is, she will learn how to fall and recover quickly, how to take a hit, and how to hit others. The connection between these skills and empowerment, confidence, and resilience is obvious, but the connection to peace practice is less likely to be obvious because the sport involves hitting others.
However, derby hits are regulated to minimise harm. A “hit” involves using one’s hips and shoulders, only making contact with someone else’s front between the shoulders and thighs, and only while skating in the direction of game play (counter-clockwise). Hits may knock a player down, cause bruises, and even occasionally lead to an injury, but the rules of contact are designed to foster teamwork and challenge, not to cause injury. Another way to understand why hits help build a peaceful society comes from a derby saying so common that the source is unknown, “Derby girls aren’t bad asses because they try to be. They aren’t bad asses because they hit each other. They are bad asses because they take hits, and get back up, time after time, after time. And each time they get up, they are a little stronger.”
Some will immediately dismiss my claim that derby empowers women because the sport is known for the overtly and aggressively sexual dress of many players. Yet, the provocative dress is one of many ways that players challenge the dominant narratives around women’s clothing. To frame the competing perspectives on whether roller derby is liberating or degrading for women, I recommend two online videos.
First, watch the YouTube video, “Basics of Flat Track Roller Derby”. A man narrates this video. He begins by listing what derby players wear. He lists quad roller skates and safety gear, then punctuates his list by stating that they wear “not much else”. Cue the close up of a woman’s thighs and butt. The woman wears fishnet stockings and a short skirt that seems to reveal panties. Next, contrast that experience with the YouTube video produced by the Oklahoma Victory Dolls. This video has no narrator. Instead, it is set to the song, “All About that Bass”. The women on this team, as on most teams, wear a variety of skating appropriate clothes – some wear sports tank tops and leggings, others bare their midriffs, wearing skin-tight shorts (a.k.a. “booty shorts”). Unlike the first video, this video is entirely from a woman’s perspective. The song itself celebrates women whose bodies “ain’t no size two”. Regardless of what the women are wearing, all of their clothes emphasise their athletic builds and their dexterity on skates.
For more examples of the competing perspectives on what it means to be a derby girl, one needs only to search Google images or YouTube using the term “roller derby girl”. These searches reveal images of both athleticism and sexuality. The crucial difference between empowering and oppressive images has to do with whether these images reflect the women’s own perspectives and appreciation for themselves or whether the women are performing for a male gaze.
One of the most powerful examples of this distinction is an image of Suzy Hotrod, one of Gotham City Roller Girls star players. (Gotham City is consistently the top-ranked team in the world.) In 2011, as part of its “Bodies We Want” issue, ESPN Magazine published a picture of a nude Suzy Hotrod leaping into the air, wearing her roller skates. In the shot, neither Hotrod’s breasts nor her genitalia are displayed. Instead, she looks as though she’s jumping past blockers. Her strength is clearly visible in her muscles, particularly her thighs, which are much bigger and stronger than her other muscles, which is typical of the sport. Although she is nude, this photo is far from pornographic. The image of Hotrod draws the viewer’s eyes to her strengths and power instead of playing to a male gaze.
As the Hotrod photo demonstrates, derby not only challenges the dominant narratives about women and their clothing, it also challenges women’s ideal body standards. Roller derby player Hard Dash explains this shift in perspective in her blog harddash.com post,
“Sometimes the physical changes have been awesome. Sometimes it’s been hard to deal with. I’ve been socialised as an American female. When your thighs bloat out, it can be hard to be enthusiastic. Even when I felt otherwise ‘skinny.’”
Yet, this skater eventually reports enthusiasm about the changes to her body, saying “I’m happy with myself and my body now. I don’t focus much on the details of what’s changing month to month. If I see a new muscle, I welcome it. If I continue to grow into a larger human being, all the better to block you with.” In a survey of 2,417 players carried out by Andrea Eklund, “97 percent indicated roller derby had a positive effect on their body image.” Jennifer Carlson, who carried out similar research, writes, “Moreover, body size in the context of roller derby generally tends to be understood in instrumental terms, that is, with regard to use rather than appearance…the size and appearance of bodies in general – and rear-ends in particular – are usually not discussed in normative terms.” For derby women, any body size can be an asset. What is far more important than size or shape is the training that these women do in order to work together and to use their bodies to their maximum capability.
The individual empowerment women feel through developing their physical strength and endurance also manifests itself in the ways in which women work together as a team, both on the track and as part of their leagues. On the track, a successful team has women of different sizes and with different skills. Regardless of size, the women understand how to work together and individually to help their jammer score points and to block the other team. Off the track, women rely on one another to keep the sport going.
Travis D. Beaver, in his article, “By the Skaters, for the Skaters’ The DIY Ethos of the Roller Derby Revival” explains the significance of women’s ownership of WFTDA. “The rapid growth of women’s roller derby – from one league in 2001 to more than 300 today – is a result of grassroots,” notes Beaver. “The majority of leagues are owned and operated by the participants. Of course, this also means the majority of leagues are owned and operated by women. This is significant because sport organisations have historically been controlled by men.” Thus, leagues recruit and train players and officials; they do their own fundraising, promotions, and community outreach; they organise their own bouts, which includes everything from booking and setting up space to finding announcers; and they manage all of their own funds. Every league member contributes her talents and skill-sets to this effort.
In 2013, as I was recovering from a painful divorce, I decided to try a three-day boot camp that Gem City Rollergirls was hosting. After three days, I was hooked and joined the team. The absolute absorption that roller derby required of me physically and mentally, as well as the friendships that I formed with the women on the team were exactly what I needed to work off stress and to rebuild my confidence in my strength. While I only skated competitively for a year, I have continued to be part of the team as an occasional coach for the junior team, and a full-time fan of my hard-hitting daughters, Lol’botomizer, who played for almost two years, and Peter Panic, who is starting her fifth season. This bad-ass sport that requires us to hit, be hit, and to take pride in our bruises and recoveries has taught us to be our own heroes. And, as Vivi Section writes in “My Heroes Will Always Be Roller Girls”: “Being your own hero doesn’t mean the world revolves around you. It doesn’t mean you are perfect or the best of anything. I think what it means is you live your life fully, you take risks, you have adventures, you do things you never thought possible, you behave in ways that might be taken as inspiration by others.”