Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Tale of Two Derbies

Derby 1: I attended my first Roller Derby tournament around this time last year - and adored everything about it. I loved the speed and athleticism. I loved the crowd's enthusiasm. I loved what Wikipedia defines as Roller Derby's "satirical feminist punk aesthetic." I was a true fan in the making - I went as often as I could and recommended Derby to friends. Sure, I thought I was listening when Maus expressed some concerns that Derby wasn't as feminist as I'd made it out to be:
(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?
Yet, I remained convinced that the Tim Burton-inspired makeup was subversive, and cheered derby player KillBox's assertion that "I do not think that we as skaters/feminist/flying purple monkeys need to justify the way we dress." What a great sport for feminists, I thought.

Derby 2: Atlanta' Roller Derby League has moved in-town, and now takes place at the Midtown Shriner lodge. I'll admit, I was anxious to see inside the new venue, which struck me as bizarre. Yet, as I walked up to take a seat by the track, I felt disoriented. Where were all the lesbian couples who felt free to, well, act like couples? Where were all the hipsters? I sat down and asked the guy next to me who was winning the first bout. If he meant to give an answer, I'll never know, because just then the drunken polo-shirt wearing 40-something guys in front of us started yelling "Whoah! Little girl took a big hit! Suck it up, baby! You gotta just take it, darlin'! It was gross. They continued with their catcalls, "Bend over lower, you'll go faster" being their favorite, throughout the bout. Yes, I mocked these sexist pigs within their hearing, but to tell the truth - they seemed to be in the majority. Roller Derby was their space now, a space to ogle, not my space to appreciate some serious skating.

The crowd wasn't the only thing that had changed. Instead of highly individualized outfits that ranged from the purely athletic to goth-chic, all the Atlanta players had team uniforms - uniforms that somewhat resembled 'sexy nurse' outfits. The promotional materials had changed too, and not for the better. The constant announcements and handouts explaining the rules were gone, so my newcomer friend had little understanding of how the sport actually worked. To my eyes, it seemed like Roller Derby in Atlanta had given up any aspiration to be taken seriously, and had embraced a roll of side-show spectacle. Not the athletes, mind you - they seem as dedicated as ever - the promoters and the organizers. The people, in short, in charge of ticket sales.

So, this brings up new questions for me about women in sports, and women in general. I am well aware that we can't always control how we are perceived by others. The best we can do is try to present a version of ourselves that we like and hope it is accepted and interpreted in the way we intended. Yet, the second derby made me ask - how responsible are we for trying to manage our images? Should we ever modify our dress or style if we realize that the look we've chosen is being misinterpreted, or are other people's misconceptions their own problems?

UPDATE: Oddly enough, we just got a comment on Maus's Roller Derby post from a player named Bitches Bruze which addresses some of these questions. Here is a bit of what Bitches Bruze says:
As is often the case, the problem with most of these questions is they make false assumptions...

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....

...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!!
The rest of what Bitches Bruze has to say is just as though-provoking, and can be read here - comment 18.

(first picture via pba online, last via Atlanta Roller Girls)


Casmall said...

Walk around the Shriner lodge is worth the price of admission alone.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Sure, the second derby was an interesting experience - but I'm not sure I want to go back. It's a shame, but the crowd seemed almost hostile. Of course, you could argue that if all women stay away from the sport based on a few loud-mouth jerks, it's our own fault derby becomes a place for jerks. You could also argue that the change in outfits from do-it-yourself fab to uniform low-cut tops and short-short skirts indicates a change in what demographic Atlanta Roller Girls are trying to attract.

Obviously, I'm feeling a bit conflicted...

Anonymous said...

This is a bit of a conflict for me too because although I'm not one to dress up all girly, I do on occasions like to flaunt a cute dress and make-up, and it's more for myself than anyone else, so why should I feel like I have to be penalized for trying to perk myself up by surrounding men? Some would argue that the catcalls and such are my fault for dressing up, but that to me is almost the equivalent of saying, "she deserved to get raped because of how she dressed". It doesn't make it any better, and because I dress up doesn't necessarily men that I did it for the guy being crass or for anyone for that matter. On the other hand I feel that if I dress up this way I should know what to expect.

As for dressing up in sport, I think it's silly. I played softball, I never did it in make-up, and when A League of their Own came out I think it was the stupidest thing in the world to make those girls wear those skirts to play baseball. I don't think a woman should have to stoop to that level in order to get attention from the masses to keep the sport alive. I think it's silly. I think they should be recognized on the merit of their talent, not on how cute they can look for the guys.

Personally, I'm heavily tattooed, I live in Miami where there's a pretty bad conservative view of tattoos and I'm judged by the masses whenever I walk around in anything with short sleeves or in shorts and in a way it sucks because I'm fearful that someone from work will see me and judge me wrongly because of it, but I also feel that if these people knew who I was they wouldn't be so critical of me, so I try to always portray myself as an educated, classy girl, regardless of the tattoos.

I hope this makes any sense.

La Pobre Habladora said...

You've managed to touch on a lot of what I'm grappling with here - it isn't the athletes' fault that their (also heavily tattooed)style draws attention, why should they have to change? The pigs should change. You are right - to blame the women for the crowd's behavior is reminiscent of a blame-the-victim mentality.

So, I guess the question becomes - how to keep the pigs at bay? The athletes most likely don't feel like they should be burdened with these questions, yet any athlete's actions during competition do end up speaking for the sport. And keeping the pigs at bay is probably a bit harder when the marketing seems to be headed towards 'girls! girls! girls!' tag lines.

Oh, and to clarify, the makeup worn at Derby isn't of the pretty 'for the boys' variety- there is a lot of fake blood. According to Killbox, who commented extensively on Maus's post, a lot of players see the makeup as part of their psycological warfare.

The new outfits though, they're just dumb-looking.

La Pobre Habladora said...

On an unrelated note... I just got a comment from someone asking how to get in contact with us. I won't post the comment here, since it contained the commenter's personal email address and I'd hate for any of our readers to get spammed, but I will answer: I can be reached at pobrehabladora [at] gmail [dot] com If you forget, that email is on my profile, listed under 'contributers.'

Okay... back to business...

Casmall said...

From talking with a friend of mine with a scoop on the Atl Rollergirls, it seems like they had tried alot of different gimmicks in order to attract attention. It feels like, unlike other women's sports, that derby is a kind of sports/entertainment, not unlike pro wrestling.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Well, it is unlike pro-wrestling in that it isn't choreographed and there is no scripted drama. I do understand that there used to be TV events with skating women that were like that, but the modern derby is actually supposed to be based on athletic talent. You could make the case, though, that the costume-like outfits add an element of 'entertainment' that is removed from what we traditionally associate with 'real sports.'

Bitches Bruze said...

Howdy again - in a more current post.

Sorry about all the typos. I should probably not reply to blogs when I can't sleep at 4am, but when would I ever reply? :)

I may be able to share some insight to those experiences. We just had a 3 bout home season (Feb, March, April). My hubby had coworkers attend a couple. One of them, when he attended the second one had a similar bad experience with sexist pigs who harshly bad-mouthed the competition. Fact is, I think those kinds of people are classic "sports fans".

Derby is experiencing a lot of growing pains in part because we are all making this up as we go. We are not professionals at production - but we are becoming professionals at production (and sales, and marketing, and figuring out what we are).

It may be that in some of the bouts you missed, the "peaceful lesbian couples" decided even derby wasn't worth putting up with classic male fans.

One of our "failures" might be derby's refusal to be boxed. When you don't clearly define what you are and who you are targeting (because most derby leagues are trying to pay rental space and sport court floor bills they don't care) you kinda get what you get. That will ultimately lead to the lowest common denominator.

One reason my league might not be as completely there as yours is we allow under 12 in for free. Over three bouts, the percentage of kids went up. A Girl Scout Troop leader at our second bout expressed some concern about the live band we had that played their song "drink, fight, fuck" (which pretty much consists of those three words as the entire lyrics). When our skaters asked that band not be invited back, some flack came from our own citing names like mine as "PG-13". In my home my name is an honor. I guess that's not the norm. :)

Maybe because we aren't pre-packaged and polished and clear what our target is, that's why we aren't considered a sport. I some times tell people "roller derby is the OpenSource of sports."

Because Roller Derby is so open source, I'm sure your home team would be interested in hearing your concerns (like reporting a bug) directly. They might even do something about it.

It was fantastic for me to hear your comments that they didn't repeat the "noob stuff" of explaining the rules. It looks like while you've had a year with Atlanta, they've been doing it for three now. Did they have stuff in their program?

There are some "intro to derby" videos on YouTube. It'd be handy, if you'll go back, to have your friends watch those before they go to a bout.

I also wonder if the location attracted a different crowd as well.

For anyone who plays it, derby is life-altering fun and exercise. It makes Curves seem like Stepford. Maybe Curves IS Stepford embodied if you learn about the owner of the Curves francise.

The rest of your blog looks fascinating. I'll have to get back to it!!

La Pobre Habladora said...

Hey, Bitches Bruze - it's nice to have a celebrity commenter - who can kick your ass if you cross her... You know you're going to have to send out signed pictures after this.

I like the idea of 'open source' - and you are right that I should mention the creepier aspects to someone in the league.

Do you think it's good that the announcers skipped the explanations of the rules? I missed it, but the YouTube videos might help the newbies, I suppose. The programs did have brief explanations, I think.

And, I guess the question at the heart of this is... if you had to choose between a packed house of 'typical male fans' who seemed to be there to drink and shout at pretty, tough girls OR a half-packed house of people there to see some remarkable skating - which would you choose? Which would your league choose? Whose decision is it?

Bitches Bruze said...

Celebrity commentator :) I'm starting to get used to that role. Its kinda fun. While I used to be the nefarious, notorious pool hall owner in a stuffy New England town, I am now the bad-ass roller derby chick who skates in the big city and there's much more respect in that.

I love your question - half full or packed. I love people who love derby. Its hard to speak for others, but I would venture to say most skaters get bored and annoyed with sexist pigs of any gender. So I would say, if from the track we knew what kind of fans they were, we'd prefer half full of families. Our favorite fans are the ones who come and hold up signs - and it happens amazingly often. We have complete strangers holding our names and its pretty thrilling (although most sign holders know us personally).

We like fans who get the games - so apparently we should continue to have rules demonstrations. I've been tasked with making a "how to play derby video." There's a very brief one on my blog http://myspace.com/dalehwest

Some leagues publish rules about "How to be a roller derby fan." As an area's fans matures I think those are more cool and still help explain the most basic of basics (when the skater with the star gets through the front, yell and scream and if the ref is holding up an "L" do it louder and hold your fingers in an L too).

"Color Commentators" (aka Announcers) can also aide the audience experience a lot. Just as in traditional televised sports, they do spend some time explaining rules, strategy, and odd situations. With or without a good intro, it takes most derby noobs about 1 period to start to get into the game.

I have a hunch we attract the kind of fans you and I and our favorite fans despise because they are safe in the stands. They fear assertive women and derby is one place they can come and play out their passive aggressive fantasies and be whooped on by their equally ignorant and sissy friends. Those same boys (and a few girls) cower if they ever find themselves within swinging distance of a skater. Honestly, many of my teammates wouldn't hesitate to deck any one of them. Me, I only hit people I love - and then only with their permission.

Atlanta could maybe rope off a "family section" to foster your desired environment. Their commentators could be sure to pick up rules and strategy during the bout.

We don't fill our 4000 seats just yet. We've come close to 2000. We put more people in our location in 2 bouts than the local professional basketball team does in a season. But we are still growing and reading your experiences are really healthy for our bout planning. Thanks! If you're every in New York (or Vermont) I'll help you find a bout and we'll go watch together.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Awesome! Hear that, kids? It's time for a road trip! And I'll send my friend over to your video before taking him to another bout!

Mächtige Maus said...

This has been an excellent thread that I have been away from for far too long. My apologies for work having wreaked havoc on my blog life.

Bitches Bruze, you have made a lively addition to all of this and I appreciate it tremendously. I am passionate about women in sport and enjoy reading/writing about it.

In going back to your initial comment at the "My How The Skirts Will Fly" post: "Have you seen a Super Bowl lately? Does anyone ever question whether football is "entertainment" or "sport"?"

I think that exactly hits on one of my issues. No, no one ever questions anything about that...or any other male sport. It is automatically a sport.

Guys will watch the Super Bowl because it is a sport. Guys (again, some...not all) will watch roller derby because it fills the need for sexist entertainment. I hope that I did not come across as suggesting that women roller derby athletes are trying to play into that with the dress and make-up, although I fear that I might have.

Bottom line in anything I say when it comes to women in sport is that I wish that a woman, regardless of the sport, could be respected as an athlete. I don't think women are in the least because if we were then there would have to be no label such as "women in sport". The same such label doesn't exist for men because then it is simply a sport. The assumption I take away from that is "I don't need to qualify something as men in sport because that is what men do...if a woman is doing it I need to preface it because women aren't supposed to be athletic".

Bitches Bruze said...

Your bottom line is very true in culture at large. We say "women in the workforce" but we wouldn't say "men in the workforce" because culture assumes men *are* the workforce. In my personal dialect, gender never occurs to me as a qualifier. When I say "workforce" I mean all workers - male, female, and everything in between.

I didn't take anything bad in anyone's writing. But I do feel to claim equality, we have to make assumptions from equality no matter how different from the norm that makes us. If the questions we ask are grounded in the assumption there *is* a difference, then we seek to reinforce some difference.

I felt I was writing among friends.

I don't own a television. I assume the super bowl is entertainment - along with most everything else on commercial television. :) So does my partner (husband if anyone cares). I think television news is entertainment as well.

So its not that "no one" questions it because all of us here do. It is time to just start assuming we are right!

I CHOSE Roller Derby because I was looking for an aggressive team sport to regain my youthful health. I knew I had succeeded in sport and physical health when I was part of a team (Navy boot camp, field hockey). I didn't even know of the derby revival. Derby just came to my mind because I remembered it being "a sport women played" and I love skating. I wanted to be part of an aggressive team and I knew I'd need to have a gender segregated sport to do that. Then I used the interwebs to find it and get pumped about it.

The other sport I've been involved with in my adult life is billiards/pool. This is also a very woman-friendly sport. Did you know that it is the only sport where the professional women get paid more than the men? That's because in its resurgence, the men argued and split into three national organizations. The sponsors - in the late 80's and early 90's - realized women were just as influential in purchasing their products (pool tables for homes, pool cues, supplies) as men so they gave their sponsorship evenly. Which meant the men divided three ways!

Billiards is a great sport as well. No where near as physical and not team-oriented. But they have their own "uniforms" and persona.

"...when it comes to women in sport is that I wish that a woman, regardless of the sport, could be respected as an athlete." I think you could truncate that. I wish that a woman, regardless, could be respected.

I think today's feminism is about just expecting that - I am a woman. You will respect me but not because of that - because I am human. Women can and are respected. Those yutzes in the stands? Pshaw. Who needs 'em? Let them hide far away from the skaters. Come on down track side. We have respect for ourselves and people who come to our games. Those guys can have their own space too. And we can all have a little pity party for them at the after party when we're handing out hugs to friends who respect all people regardless of gender.

Honestly, I even have a hard time talking about "women" and "men" because I know many people who are neither.

Mächtige Maus said...


If you were standing in front of me right now I'd give you a big hug.

Bitches Bruze said...

Oooh! I LOVE hugs.

Bitches Bruze said...

I guess while I've got the floor, I'd like to see gender segregation disappear in sports. It is not just because of presumed differing athletic ability.

I worked at a car dealership in Burlington, VT many years ago and one day there appeared on the employee bulletin board an announcement for Tuesday night basketball. It didn't say "men's" basketball - although since men are the predominant employees at a car dealership, that could have been assumed. I played basketball all the time with my partner and he's a foot taller than me.

So I showed up.

I'm not afraid to touch people. I played some very aggressive basketball and while I wasn't afraid to push the limits of fouls, I could get the ball away more often than not. I never even tried to go for a basket. Get ball. Pass. Repeat.

By our second week, I was always picked in the first half of the available players for teams - usually I made the A-string too! I'm not that great of a basketball player. But I had a psychological strength that gave me an advantage there and I got picked in spite of my size and (lack of) athleticism. I had the desire to play and it was rewarded. I was the only woman there.

I think it is a shame there are not more physical contact sports available for people to play. As I play derby I've begun to look at sports from an adult view. My derby teammates and I play like a huge pile of puppies. Puppies don't get hung up on whether they are touching another puppy inappropriately. We sweat and hit and "bite" and roll around and have a huge old pile of fun. I had not known how much I missed and craved that kind of contact in my life until derby reminded me.

Maus, I don't know how old you are, but I'm 40. There are derby skaters STARTING in their 50s. The demographics of the skaters are usually highly educated too. If you think you might be interested, drop the belief you're an old clunker, get on some skates, and go check it out. To succeed in roller derby you need one of two things to start with - a major ego or mad skating skills. Derby helps you find the other. :)

Okay, I'll stop hijacking your blog now...

Habladora said...

1. Maus on skates! The crowd demands it!

2. Hugs for everyone!

3. Hummm.... the problems with gender segregation in sports, that sounds like a post idea.... I wonder if there would be anyone interested in writing about something like that...

Mächtige Maus said...

Ah...gender segregation in sports. Agincourt has distinct feelings about that topic. Mine are not yet distilled. However, *if* I ever manage to actually get to reading Playing With the Boys like I am supposed to I will gladly work on a post. I guess baby steps will be the way to go. A few pages at a time while making note of the points that make me go hmmm.

Let me tell you, this Maus would *love* roller derby. Alas, it is not the age that is the issue. Three knee surgeries and one cervical fusion just a little over a year ago make me think it not the wisest idea in my life.

Georgia W Tush said...

don't forget that derby tends to attract a lot of alternative/punk/rnr..well let's just call them "weirdo's" to the sport.

now think back to high school gym class. if the same people didn't conform to the sports attire that was required back then, do you really think they're going to conform to an "appropriate" uniform now?

honestly, if there was a crowd of 2000 or a crowd of 15 people, i'm sure the majority of female athletes in roller derby would be wearing the same thing for either crowd. call it expressions ourselves, a mid-life crisis, or whatever you want..we're doing for ourselves.

i find that many people group roller derby players into one category. if you take a good look at a team however, you'll see everything from the sporty type to the prom queen.

anyway, it's 3am and i feel like a rambler..

georgia w tush

p.s. on the subject of doing it for the male audience... have you ever seen a creep approach a group of derby girls and try to hit on them? gold! it's like walking into a minefield.

Bitches Bruze said...

Ladies and Gentlemen and everyone in between, Georgia W. Tush should introduce herself.

Skater extraordinaire and interleague coordinator for Montreal Roller Derby.

I know, because she's working with me to send the Montreal Sexpos on down for a bout with my new team the Hellions of Troy in September 2009.

Nice to see another derby celebrity out here! :)