Tuesday, August 14, 2007

My How The Skirts Will Fly

A while back, La Pobre Habladora informed me that she and Casmall had attended a roller derby bout. I was skeptical. However, I recently was able to catch a bout between the Knoxville Knox Roller Girls and Memphis Roller Derby. To be perfectly frank, it was awesome! Kudos to La Pobre Habladora. At the same time, I cannot in good conscious disregard the negative feminist implications behind the sport.

For those who have never attended a roller derby match, it is nothing like those choreographed events of old that rivaled current "wrestling" events in their theatrics. These are women skating hard and delivering real hits. My concern arises when I stop to ask specific questions. (1) Why do women (some...I do not pretend to make this a blanket statement commentary on the state of women in sports) still feel they need to don an alternate identity in order to express strength? (2) Why is it necessary for women to provide entertainment of a somewhat sexist nature in order to gain attention as an athlete?

PBo and I have discussed this on any number of occasions. Often the discussion starts anew upon viewing women playing either softball or basketball in full make-up. Is that necessary in order to (1) get men to watch or (2) establish one's self as a heterosexual athlete? I realize that the (2) question ventures into a whole new discussion of women in sports, but I find it relevant all the same because it also has the effect of discrediting feminism.

This is not a new discussion. Vicky Vengeance weighs in against roller derby with, "If Roller Derby is really about how awesome the girls are at their sport, then it should REALLY be about that. It should really be about how empowering it is to see women being competitive and athletic and downright bad ass regardless of what they're wearing. Why does "embracing your femininity" in this context turn into wearing sexy clothing? Are there no other ways for women to assert their femininity? And if not, maybe we should reconsider what's so great about femininity in the first place. And if it's primarily about playing with sexual norms and doing some kind of Suicide Girls type performance with a little bit of violence added in for spice, well then I think we should stop pretending it's feminist and empowering."

Any thoughts?


La Pobre Habladora said...

Oh- I'm glad you saw one and now we can talk about it. When I went to see the Atlanta Roller Derby the audience was almost entirely female, so it wasn't a venue for women to put on a sexy show for men and call it athleticism. But I still do feel a bit conflicted about it. Here is what I liked - all types of bodies were being flaunted, and it was clear that here was a place where no one felt that they were too skinny or too round to feel proud of their figures. Make-up was worn, but not to make the players look 'pretty.' The players looked like characters from a Tim Burton cartoon come to life, so it felt like a winking mockery of typical beauty culture.
So, I guess it comes down to this question - is Roller Derby ironic, subversive and feminist or is it conforming to the "be anything as long as you're sexy too" line that has been falsely packaged as feminism before?

Mächtige Maus said...

Ah, interesting. The bout I saw was quite the family affair. Men with cow bells, kids running crazy, and groupies. To a certain degree, watching the cheering section felt almost felt sordid.

I accept the point made about all types of bodies being flaunted. Indeed that is an empowering sight and I appreciate that immensely. However, here is where hit my wall: (1) the attire and (2) the alternate identities.

(1) The attire. In looking back at the responses to the Vicky Vengeance post, there were actual roller derby girls pointing out how the attire they choose to wear is comfortable. I suppose that may be true. To each their own, but I fail to see how fishnet stockings and skirts that are barely able to qualify as skirts promote anything other than sexism.

(2) The names. Beverly Killbilly? Is it not possible to exhibit strength as a female athlete without resorting to an alter ego?

I suppose my answer then to the question posed would have to be that on most levels I find that roller derby conforms to the "be anything as long as you're sexy too" form of acceptable feminism.

I wonder if any roller derby participants are reading this because I can only imagine that I will be slammed for such a viewpoint. In my defense, I can only say that I respect women athletes and struggle when I feel as if the principle behind it all is even remotely denigrated.

Casmall said...

Great post, and so dense with complicated ideas that I don't know where to start. 1) I think Roller Derby has a deep seated anti-feminist history, rooted in sexuality and comic female athleticism, much like powder puff football. I think the modern sport hopes to embrace this past in order to mock it. Hence the makeup and alt-dress designed to be jarring (fake blood,bruises, and Betty Paige getups). 2) I'm not convinced this is what comes across to the crowd tho. The atmosphere has a pep rally feel, we even have DJs. These people don't understand kitsch. 3) It's a fun sport to watch and the players take it very seriously. I think many in the crowd do too, they go nuts for a good jammer.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Part of me says,"yes, but why do the skirts have to be so short?" But then I think "have you seen the hot-pants on baseball and football players? Perhaps the problem isn't with the women's dress, but with our need to sexualize women no matter what they do or wear." The fish-nets, though, that has to be pure fashion. So, I'm back to - is it ironic or compromised?

Mächtige Maus said...

I too go crazy for a good jammer. Seriously. I think I want to be a roller derby groupie. I respect what these women are doing and if I wasn't such an old clunker I'd want to be out there with them.

I doubt the crowd that goes to watch roller derby at all wrestles with any of the ideas presented here because they *get* the sport, and I do consider it a sport. I just worry about what the sport does for women’s sports in general in relation to the men out there who don't respect what women can do in this world.

Baseball players wear baggy pants these days because they are so out of shape anymore so that doesn't count. :) Football players...now that is intriguing. Some of those guys have cute little butts in the skin tight pants, no? One difference would be that they may be tight little pants, but they are all wearing the same tight little pants and don't have fake names on their jerseys. Regardless of what they are wearing though, they will always be respected as a "true" athlete above anything else. Men will watch men because they are athletes. Men will watch women because they are sex objects. Yes, that is oversimplified. However, members of my own family will refuse to watch women's sports (I shudder to admit that fact) because women are not athletes.

I think it's ironic to those who can see the big picture, but compromised in relation to all those who feel there shouldn't even be a discussion about women's sports.

sierra hotel said...

I do play derby and I have some not so complicated feelings about
sexuality and Roller Derby.

I would like to point out the fallacy and potentially dangerous idea that the most interesting philosophical topic of this sport is the dress.

I am a little troubled by the breadth and width of comments about dress that come from watching 'one game', I feel this problem with the first blog I read about this topic as well.

I do not think that we as skaters/feminist/flying purple monkeys need to justify the way we dress. I commented before that the conflation of the non conformation in dress to a type of feminism as a failure, is conjecture and not true in my brand of feminism. But I digress.

If we are to have this conversation on Empirical grounds, which we are cause you all are discussing your experiences of a derby game, then there needs to be much more research done. For instance come to a major tournament. I can guarantee you all that the major topics on the discussion agenda were not of the dress variety, cause it is for the most part a non issue amongst competitors.

Though if we would like to dissect this topic on Rationalist grounds I will put my two cents in.
I don't care what I wear (as long as it's clean cause I am scared of MRSA).

I began Derby as something other than what I am now, to clarify I was something other then who I really am, which is what I found through derby.

I would never have worn a mini skirt or God forbid fishnets (and I still wont wear fishnets, but that goes back to my Empirical point. You will need to attend more bouts and tournaments and then you will see that very violent derby results in fishnet burns so we don't really wear them.), and I wouldn't have worn them on feminist grounds.

But then a strange thing started to happen, I started to not give a crap about what others (outside of my teammates who count on me) thought of me. I don't care if you think I am embracing feminism or not.

My thighs are 24 inches in circumference, each. I wear the shortest shorts available in hopes of scaring (psychological warfare is huge) the an opponent lining up against me. The only adornment I care about is the sticker on the side of my helmet that reads "Most Feared Skater, Detroit Derby Girls 2006".

Off the track I may wear a skirt or high heals, which I wouldn't have before. In part it's the parody of sexuality that has been discussed, and partly cause I don't care what anyone thinks of me anymore.

I think the most provocative thing that I have read in blogs so far is that perhaps we need to discuss why we are so obsessed with the way women are dressing.

Women in sports get shit on both sides of the topic, from basketball shorts to volleyball spankies (or whatever you decide to call them), we are never going to win.

So why are we as feminist so concerned with our dress if it's a non issue in sports applicable terms.

Here are some topic ideas that can be more rich with potential understanding and have a higher capacity for growth;

-The tendency of women love in sports
-heroes that we know
-the willingness to put our physical bodies on the line
-does there exist a duality between out sporting bodies and minds?

These are just ideas, but it seems that the true richness of human understanding to be taken from this sport is lost in superficial considerations.


La Pobre Habladora said...

Sierra Hotel, I enthusiastically agree with your statement "we as skaters/feminist/flying purple monkeys" should not have to continuously justify the way we dress. My feminist credibility has occasionally been called into question due to my deep, unwavering love of eyeliner. 'How can you be a feminist,' I've been asked, 'when you look so... feminine?' We should be broadening opportunities for women to express themselves rather than inventing more rules for one another.

Yet, I do think that, while it is certainly not the only interesting topic of conversation that could be held about derby, the clothes that the athletes wear are chosen because they do demand our attention. If you look at the Atlanta Rollergirls, for example, it is clear that these are athletes that are calling attention to the fact that they are WOMEN athletes participating in an all-women's sport. There is a statement being made and those new to the sport cannot be chastised for being curious about the statement's meaning.

Every disenfranchised group has a tough decision to make - do we emulate those in power in an attempt to be accepted? Or do we instead call attention to the fact that we are different and demand respect for those differences? Women athletes are disenfranchised - they have to combat terrible double standards and are seriously underpaid (Maus has written eloquently about this problem for tennis professionals). I see the women of the derby who do wear skirts and fish nets as making the second decision - their clothes make the statement "I am a woman athlete, not someone who happens to be an athlete despite being a woman."

Like S.H. says, though, this is not the only interesting statement to be made. I would love to expand the discussion about women in sports.

sierra hotel said...

I am not tech savvy, so you will have to copy and paste that link.
It's just a quick note to emphasize my point, that in my experience which is all I can really talk about, gender is not something that we pay to much attention to.
We are not making to much a statement, on the rink, about our gender; we are making a statement that we would like to be the best in the country.

So I am in an independent study analyzing roller derby, perhaps from the 3rd wave and perhaps from queer-theory. I would like to delve more into some of the other possible topics of roller derby that I posted earlier.

Any ideas, thoughts, links, etc..?


sierra hotel said...

Oh OH!
I also am very interested in the question as to why there are alternate names used in Derby.
I have been directed to Butler and her work on drag, any other ideas?

La Pobre Habladora said...

Judith Butler is great, but her writing can be a bit ...dense. I love her definition of gender, however, when she says "Gender ought not be constructed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts." (from Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity)

If you are interested in drag, other authors I've found to be useful include: Anne Bolin, author of In Search of Eve: Transsexual Rites of Passage; Bonnie and Vern Bullough, authors of Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender; and Marjorie Garber, who wrote Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety.

As for the other questions, Maus is the resident sports expert. I'll be really interested in what you find about participation and the physical vs. mental aspects of the sport. I feel that women are often at a real disadvantage when it comes to athletics because many of us are encouraged NOT to participate in sports when we are young and have to re-discover the joys of athleticism as adults.

Mächtige Maus said...

Habla said, "I feel that women are often at a real disadvantage when it comes to athletics because many of us are encouraged NOT to participate in sports when we are young and have to re-discover the joys of athleticism as adults."

I find that statement to be true. Upon moving to Charlottesville, I became involved in the women's soccer league. (And as I wrote that first sentence I find that it leads me into my next blog post...do stay tuned). It is a fabulous league that indeed created an environment that was safe, for lack of a better work, for women who had not been encouraged to be athletic at an early age.

Why is that? Why do we still need to create women friendly environments in order to get women to compete? I don't take issue with the women's league. I have an issue with the fact that women are still not being encouraged to compete to the same degree that men are. In fact, men don't even have to be encouraged...it's a given. I think it falls into the same question category as why are young girls generally not encouraged to excel in science or math?

Because of all the questioning I do in relation to discrepancies between women and men in sports, I focused on roller derby. I suppose it might have been unfair of me to base all of my comments on one bout. However, I don't think the dress will suddenly not be a theme if I go watch another. Maybe I shouldn't focus on that. Or maybe I shouldn't focus on how there are women athletes out there playing in full makeup. But, I do focus on that. I do fixate on gender inequalities in sport. I find that that full make-up doesn't establish a person as an athlete, but rather a woman athlete. I don't think there should be a distinction.

I have yet to come up with more than one answer to my question as to why a woman would wear makeup during an athletic event. The answer I always find is that it establishes a woman as a heterosexual athlete. Heavan forbid that society simply accept that women are athletes. Heaven forbid that we encourage young girls to compete.

I have no patience for the discrepancies between societal expectations for men vs. women athletes. Apparently I'm not the only one with no patience for this.

I also have no patience for the petty labeling of women athletes as lesbians in an attempt to either denigrate women athletes in general or to keep our delicate little girls out of sports entirely. Apparently I'm not the only one with no patience for this.

So, Sierra, in response to a portion of your blog where you ask the following, "so why are we as feminist[s] so concerned with our dress if it's a non issue in sports applicable terms"...the problem is it isn't a non issue at all. Sure it is to those in roller derby. Sure it is to those who support the sport. Those are the people who already get it. However, society in general does not get it.

Right then...I say, Sierra, pick an angle you'd like to expand upon and we'll go from there. I'm game...and I'm not even wearing any makeup!

La Pobre Habladora said...

Maus, I take issue with your comments about the make-up. I support both men's and women's rights to wear as much or as little make-up as they want. I kid not, I have taught men (OK, OK - a man) how to apply foundation and my afore-mentioned beloved eyeliner. My choosing to glam-up for kicks shouldn't be seen as an attempt to establish myself as heterosexual. In fact, some of my lesbian and bi-sexual friends also love eyeliner.

I really, really feel like women and men should be supportive of women athletes and talk about them as athletes no matter if they are wearing lip gloss or not. The girl with the eyeliner might just be able to take you down and might just be a proud lesbian.

Do men have these same issues? Is there some blog out there somewhere arguing about whether or not male soccer players should have long or short hair? Is there some rule somewhere that if a male athlete cuts his locks he is trying to establish his heterosexuality?

In all fairness, I realize that some of the issue isn't with the athletes, but with coaches who take an athlete's looks and charm into consideration when putting together a team. There is a feeling that people watch women playing sports only if they find the women to be attractive. That is a travesty and is indeed sexist. As to how we fix the double standard of ugly male athletes can still sell tickets to men, but the women should make themselves cute if they want to compete - I don't have a perfect answer. But I don't think that it is to blame the athletes themselves. I think if all types of women should be encouraged to enjoy sports - if we keep making rules about what sorts of women should and shouldn't be on the field, we are just hurting our chances of building a broad audience.

Mächtige Maus said...

I'm not saying women shouldn't wear make-up. I'm asking why would one choose to do so when playing a sport? Does your foundation and eyeliner not smear when running about a field for 90 minutes? I don't think glaming up when out on the town is an attempt to establish yourself as a heterosexual. I am afraid that doing the same while being a woman athlete is.

Maybe it is easier for me to take this view because I was in a sport where wearing make-up is a non-issue. One simply cannot swim with eyeliner on...not a wise choice.

Here is my analogy. Men, when they go out on the town, put on an a nice clubbing suit, maybe some hair gel, some cologne, and some bling. They do not do the same when they take the field for their sporting event. Okay, maybe they put the hair gel in...I don't know.

Sure, the girl with eyeliner could probably take me down. At the same time, the girl with eyeliner on is garnering more male attention to the sport than she would be if she was going out there just as an athlete; that annoys me. Again, I will go back to my family on this one. My brothers will not watch women's soccer. Put them in the skimpy shorts and make-up and they will. And they will be watching for the skimpy shorts and make-up, not for the sport. Sexist? Absolutely.

It saddens me. Sure, we should be evolved enough for women to be able to wear or do whatever they want as an athlete and still garner respect from society. However, we are not there. Apparently, we are also not ready for a woman President.

sierra hotel said...

"I think what is most useful to an analysis of derby would be the concept of subversive performances as basically a way to demonstrate the artificiality of all gender.
The question would be, then, if the way that derby girls portray gender in their outfits, names, etc. points to the artificiality, the totally unnatural constructedness, of femininity itself." (Professor Cassie, one of my teammates.)

I think the makeup issue falls completely into this as well as dress. Makeup in derby is silly, or more along the lines of 'war paint', like the Rumble Strip which one of my other teammates is nationally famous for wearing... kind of like a softball smudge stick.

I, like the vast majority of derby girls don't wear any makeup, melts into the eyes, and it's largely a non issue to me as.

This all brings up another interesting question, well maybe pattern. We (my team) now plays at a different level. We are going to be facing the other top 7 teams in the country in Texas next week for the national championship. I know that fishnets, makeup, etc... will be, to non derby regulars, surprisingly low, or perhaps nearly non existent.

But it was not always that was with my league. When I first started I too was concerned about short skirts (which I absolutely would not be now, since I have been given the gift of not caring what anyone thinks about what I am wearing, and yes this includes my fellow (damn male pronouns)feminist.) and the like. However, as our league and athletic abilities increased, there was a proportional decrease in 'fem'. It was like we collectively and almost instinctively unlearned these cultural bias.

And it's not just us, look at Rat City or Minnesota (other very highly ranked teams), those athletes don't look feminine or non feminine really, they just look like people who are pretty fit and kind of scary.

Back on track;
Again, I don't want to unduly narrow the focal point of my studies to the dress of derby, it really isn't as pervasive in our (derby) culture as an observer may first report.

How about studying subversion in a broader text in my study? Like subversion to;

beauty and 'fem'

non competitive stereo types

cultural focus on individuality

non violence in women standard (cause good or bad, derby can be pure violence at times, in fact that's what I get a major rush off of, and no it's not in hitting women or some internalized cunt hating, I just want to smash people, hard...perhaps that is another discussion in itself.)


And then perhaps drawing them into a more unifying theory (sorry 3rd wavers, but I was a physics major before philosophy and old habits die hard.), and perhaps the theory could be drawn along the same lines as my leagues' instinctual deconstruction of socially constructed gender biases (through the acquisition of athleticism, team ethics, personal strength, etc...?)

Just some more ideas, thanks for the help.


Mächtige Maus said...


I must admit that I was forced to look up 3rd wave just now. I feel better knowing what it refers to, but will now have to do a wee bit more research into what its aim is.

While I do that, have you taken a look at the most recent post on women in sport dealing with altered rules for women's sports versus men's? I'm willing to move away from my original focus on derby (after all, I had just seen a bout so that caused all my thoughts to percolate and center around derby, but certainly I question all aspects of the gender inequality that exists in sports) and see what your thoughts are on a broader debate.

And may I say, thank you for joining in at this blog. SI is relatively new so yours as a "stranger" post has made this all the more fun.

La Pobre Habladora said...

You can find a brief break-down of the terms 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wave feminism here on Wikipedia.

And Maus, don't be so humble, you have already been writing on these very topics. Here, for example, "I can tackle too" talks a bit about the violence aspects of sport being denied to women exactly because people do want to see us a nurturing.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Also, for another definition of third wave and other terms and jargon that we feminists love, visit Feminism 101's FAQ sheet.

Bitches Bruze said...

I'd like to take a stab at these as a derby skater who came across this blog searching for something for her league (not this). As is often the case, the problem with most of these questions is they make false assumptions

P1Q1 - Assumes the derby identity is the *alternate* identity of the skater. If you were to ask most derby girls who they really were, they'd tell you they were really "Dottie Damage" or "Amazon Grace" and that their parent-issued, government-tracked, bank-check-cashing identity is the one imposed on them, the one imposed on them since birth and the one that they must continue to don in order to function in our [insert appropriate adjective] society.

Honestly, the personality I don every day is not much different than Bitches Bruze. I owed a bar and pool hall for many years and "Bitch" or "Boss" was my endeared nick-name from employees, friends, and customers alike. I remain self-employed and I teach. I've been chastised for my clothing choices (not derby - but not typical either) teaching and have said - fine, don't renew my contract. Somehow I have a contract every year.

Some people - regardless of gender, regardless of activity - need these masks and unmaskings to perform the task at hand. No one questions the "alternate identity" of other workplace and sports titles - Big Shot Lawyer ESQ, Honorable Judge So and So, or Magic Johnson, or The Bambino. That derby does it en masse just makes it more obvious that it is part of the sport and the game.

Getting into the mushy gushy shit of derby - the name enables the unmasking of the inner skater. For many skaters it empowers them. Frankly, my choice of name gets censured enough that it de-powers me. I have a bunch of 10-year-old fans whose mothers make them call me Ms. Bruze if they may refer to me at all at school. Recently an non-profit organization I raised money for with my team changed my name in print to Witches Bruze without consulting with me. My name comes from one of my favorite albums of all time from Miles Davis. In 1969 he didn't have a much better time of it. Sad we haven't made any advancement in 40 years.

P1Q2 - I really don't understand the question. Although if I were to take a complete stab in the dark (I don't find our looks, attitude, or approach sexist) I'd say, roller derby is the opportunity for a person (admittedly a woman) to be a rock star. Period. Look what rock stars wear. Last week I saw a band mimicking 80's metal/hair bands composed of man, half of whom had less facial hair than me (baby faces), sporting fishnets on arms and legs. Its not sexist. Its genderless rock star. I think that's why there are assumption problems with the question.

P2Q1 - Makeup is the oddest thing. I NEVER wear makeup outside derby. First I can't imagine it is healthy for my skin - but really I'm too lazy to be bothered. I wear makeup in derby like war paint. I sure as heck do not wear it to "get men to watch". Blech. Why would I care the gender of who watched? I don't care your gender or age - so long as you buy a ticket and fill a seat. AND, know what, I'd play derby if the seats were empty. Maybe this set of questions suffers from the assumption that derby skaters look the way they do for the audience. Please keep feeling that way if you'll keep buying our tickets. Orientation has NOTHING to do with athletics. The makeup our team wears certainly would not differentiate anyone on our team from any number of extreme rock star makeup schemes and is hardly straight, lesbian, or bisexual or anything in between.

I have not read Vicky Vengence's article - but what roller derby does that confounds people is it refuses to fit in a box. It feeds on mixing serious with fun - sexy with hard work - muscles with fishnets - music with sport. Why is the rest of the world so set on segregating these things? The assumption that we do it for any other reason than it feels good, fun, and right is silly.

Have you seen a Super Bowl lately? Does anyone ever question whether football is "entertainment" or "sport"? I'd argue that's more aligned with entertainment than derby is - but we live in a world that "buys" THAT as sport and roller derby as spectacle. Yet you yourself realized by the second whistle derby is some serious shit - with a lot less padding and a lot more speed than American football. We aren't running on our feet - we're ON SKATES!!

When it comes right down to it, derby abides by its punk roots. It plays sport by its rules - not those imposed by a male-centric, media-centric sports oligarchy. It strips the spectacle of sport bare then builds it in the image of its players. I can almost imagine derby today bears much more in common with the Greek gladiators of yore, the foundation of western sports, than anything else called sport today (except, possibly, rugby).

Then there's always the short answer...

Fishnet rink rash is way cooler to brag about, engender sympathy for, and plaster on you tube than just about any other "mundane" sports injury.

Hugs - Kisses - Bruises,

La Pobre Habladora said...

Wow, Bitches Bruze, that's an amazing response. It has been about a year since this was posted, but the new season has turned the conversation back to Derby in recent days, and I think your comments address a lot of what we're talking about. So, I'm going to pull a couple of quotations and then point people back to your entire comment.
Tks, Habladora

BB said...

Who among us has not, at SOME point in her life, wished to have an alter ego, to embellish all she wanted?
What is wrong with having Derby alter egos? what is *remotely* non-feminist about it?
This is where I have to say ... "Let go of some of the seriousness and have some FUN" (or else you might have a heart attack and die too young to change the world!!)