Representing roller derby

Posted by Rebecca Moore - 13 August, 2014

dixieYou probably weren't expecting to find a post about roller derby on Randolph's blog. It's not something we teach, yet it provided a valuable learning opportunity for one of our juniors and what she learned about roller derby and about the process of learning about roller derby make for an interesting story.

In their 11th grade English classes, Randolph juniors undertake a major independent research and writing project. In Joe Freeman's classes this projects is based on ethnography. Last spring, students researched, observed and interviewed members of a particular group that exists outside of Randolph, such as roller derby.

“The greatest challenge of the Ethnography Project for my students was not the composition of a 10-15 page research paper, but learning to manage a project that was entirely self-designed,” says Mr. Freeman. “First, they had to identify a subculture within the Huntsville community—preferably one of which they had little knowledge but about which they had plenty of curiosity—and they had to create a relationship with a member of the group they hoped to study. Creating these relationships posed a significant challenge for many students, for cold-calling someone or contacting them based on a loose family friendship can create significant anxiety for adults, let alone adolescents.

"Some students," continues Mr. Freeman, "chose subcultures that included friends, and they struggled to establish the critical distance that aids in scholarship. Others branched out, examining the congregation at a Cowboy Church or following Western re-enactors. Students fanned out across the city and the Tennessee Valley to engage with their subjects. Every student reported learning something new about people different from themselves. Many were able to craft their experiences into compelling narratives. In doing so, students learned the role that their own biases play in their research. All were able to bolster their observational research with more traditional research methods as they strove not only to understand their chosen subcultures but also to devise an argument about some element of the culture they found.

"Simply put, students used the experience to make their own meaning and to articulate that meaning in an original and compelling fashion. Hopefully, the experience of the Ethnography Project will stay with them through college and beyond."

You can read more about this project in the Fall 2014 Randolph magazine. The Randolph Journey is pleased to share two of these papers, the first by Danielle Lioce '15, on roller derby, the second by Katy Shoemake '15, about residents in a care home for people with Alzheimer's, will follow in the next post on this blog.

Danielle writes: It is hard to be a female athlete in today’s society. They are unfairly stereotyped as unfeminine and aggressive and, often, gay. I took an interest in whether or not this stereotype was true, and I chose roller derby as a unique example to study it. Many people have not heard of roller derby, or if they have, they only know it is a sport played by women on roller skates involving pushing, shoving and fighting. This vague definition causes them to be stereotyped as unfeminine, rough-and-tumble women. Automatically assuming this stereotype is unfair; I hope to prove or disprove this stereotype by focusing on roller derby as a subculture to study. The team I found locally to study is called the Dixie Derby Girls.

The first time watching roller derby is a confusing experience. Women are skating around in circles knocking each other down, and it is difficult to tell what the rules of the game are. However, after I did some further investigating it is not as difficult as it seems. There are five skaters from each team on the track, three blockers, one pivot, and one jammer. The pivot and the blockers are “the pack” and start skating on the first whistle. They are the defense and try to keep jammers, the offensive players, from passing them. The jammers start on the second whistle, and once they lap the pack they get a point for every skater on the opposing team they pass. The games, called bouts, are set up into two thirty- minute segments. The jams can last up to two minutes, and the lead jammer can decide to stop it early to keep the other team from scoring more points. There are an unlimited amount of jams per game. Some people assume that the physical elements in roller derby are scripted like in professional wrestling, but they are not. There is a lot of pushing, shoving, sweat and blood involved and the theatrics are just part of the experience. The players are dedicated to the game and take it very seriously. There is no room for playing around just to put on a good show.

Women who play roller derby are also stereotyped as having a darker, rebellious side. This includes tattoos, piercing, and bright hair colors. It also includes fishnet stockings, short skirts, and skimpy clothes in general. This stereotype comes from movies and other types of pop culture.

I first heard about roller derby from the movie Whip It. The movie uses roller derby to convey a positive message to women to be themselves and be strong in what they do, but it plays into the stereotype by having the actresses dress in skimpy clothing, with tattoos and thick eyeliner. They look punk rock and tough. This stereotype is not completely untrue though. Roller derby teams actually play into the stereotype as well. Many of the roller derby advertisements show girls with short skirts, fishnet tights and tight shirts. I concluded the reasoning behind this was so people would come to their bout and it used the images as an advertising tactic to catch people’s attention because in reality this stereotype is not true.

Going into my first roller derby practice I didn’t know what to expect. I first observed their appearance. Their attire consisted of old team jerseys and t-shirts, mostly in pink and black. For pants a lot of them wear tights or athletic leggings. There is one skater who has been there since the Dixie Derby Girls started, named “Lola Piranha." She wears a homemade cheerleading skirt with tights to every practice and bout. This does not fit the stereotype. However, almost every one of them had a tattoo and two players, “Scrambled Leggz” and “Hot Tamale,” have irregular piercings, a bull ring piercing in their nose. Although most of the women are not what society would call skinny, they wear the tight clothes that show their curves. This is an example of their being comfortable and confident in their own bodies. From my observations I found some of the stereotypes of female roller derby player’s appearance are true and some are false.

Something very important to roller derby as a culture is your derby name. Your name is a representation of yourself, you can make it as silly or as intimidating as you want it to be. There can be sentimental meaning behind it, or you can just think it sounds nice. For example, “Miss Trie” originated from her niece and nephew calling her Trie, so she incorporated it into a sweet, sentimental name. A player named “Whip Squeak” got her name from her teammates because when she is playing she makes squeaky noises, when she is trying to get through a pack, or if she is trying to stay in bounds. Then there is a self-explanatory name like “Asian Invasion”, if it is not obvious, she is Asian, so she came up with her derby name by picking a word that rhymes with Asian and sounds intimidating. Other names that are intimidating are “Bitchie Valens,” “Viscious Viking,” and “Jennie Hemorrhage.” Your name gives you an identity in this culture. "Jennie Hemorrhage” told me one day that she does not know half of her teammates' real names. This shows how tight a community it is, and the fact that the derby names are almost like nicknames puts them on a whole other personal level with each other.

More important than appearance however are the attitudes and personalities of the players. You would infer from Whip It that the women are tough, strong willed, and heavily opinionated. The stereotype and reputation given to them makes it seem like they will not acknowledge others' opinions. My conclusion of their personality is they are very aggressive women, yet they have respect for other people’s opinions. In an interview with Miss Trie, a former player who now officiates and has been there since the beginning of the league, told me that roller derby has made her more calm in her personal life. Like any sport roller derby brings endorphins and helps get aggression out. Another player, “Kupcake Kamikaze,” told me roller derby has helped her be more assertive and confident in her personal life. Of course each player’s personality is a different, but mostly they are all kind people and willing to try new things.

Another roller derby stereotype is about the player’s sexual orientation. Society tends to think that female athletes in general are lesbians or act like lesbians. However, I found that most of the women were in relationships with men. “Hot Tamale,” “Jennie Valens,” “Duvie,” “Ebbin Flow,” “Viscious Viking” and “Asian Invasion” all have a boyfriend or husband. This stereotype formed because female athletes are muscular and muscles are associated with masculinity, but the stereotype simply is not true. More importantly, these women don’t care if you like men or women; they accept everyone onto their team.

There is something about the Dixie Derby Girls' energy that makes derby such a positive sport. They are welcoming to anyone who wants to join whether they’re good, bad, skinny, fat, tall, short, smart or not. Anyone is welcome and everyone is willing to help each other learn the ways of derby. These women are well organized, self-funded and responsible. The new skaters have to go through and pass the “fresh meat program” before being able to practice with the team for safety reasons. In their drills, all you hear from the skaters is encouragement. At the last practice I went to one of the players who leads practices,  "Jersey Gore,” was helping “Smokin’ Duvie,” a new skater, learn how to skate better.

Throughout my visits the women continued to show selflessness and the willingness to persevere and make themselves and others better. When I asked individual players about what they liked most about playing roller derby, more than half responded, “The people.” I think this shows something really spectacular about derby. It is something seen as rough and aggressive, and the actual game is just that, but the atmosphere around it is actually kind and caring. These women are smart and put their free time and energy into making the team successful so everyone can have a good time.

One aspect of roller derby I found intriguing was that it is self-funded. The players are responsible for putting on every bout and scheduling every practice. I talked to “Jennie Hemorrhage” each practice and she would always tell me about how much extra time, paperwork and research they have to do be able to play. They are a self-funded organization, so they are in charge of each other, and Jennie says that’s what makes them so different from other kinds of sports organizations. She calls it “dry crap” because they have to do insurance paper work, make posters and go and set up the track for their bouts. She would tell me how hard it is to schedule practices and fundraisers because most of the women don’t work a nine-to-five job. My interviews proved this to be true. Some of the skaters had just graduated college, one was waiting to enter the army, and another was a systems engineer with NASA. There is also an EMT driver, a waitress from Rosie’s Cantina and a nurse. In our society, I think people may expect these players to all be low paid, minimum wage type of workers, but that is not true especially since roller derby is quite expensive. The cost for a good set of pads, helmet, skates, mouth guard and wheels can be up to $500. They also have to rent out the roller rink to practice and rent out space to have the bouts. This shows that these are working women who have the money to play this sport. It also shows that they are intelligent women, capable of organizing and being responsible for their roller derby community.

Something refreshing about roller derby was the incredible balance of serious competitiveness and having a good time. Every player has a smile on her face when she enters the rink. They are all friendly, whether it is hugging people they have just met, or helping a teammate up from a fall. I talked to “Bitchie Valens” about events called “Roll a Rounds”, that take place all around the country, where people from all over the nation get together and have bouts. I also talked to "Asian Invasion" about a business trip she took recently to Hawaii. She decided to bring her roller derby equipment, just in case she found a team to practice with and sure enough she found a local roller derby team that welcomed her to practice with them for the few days she was there. How they travel around the nation to new cities where they don’t know anybody and join practices and “Roll a Rounds,” shows how accepting a community it is. The stereotype would pin these women to be aggressive all the time and always competitive, but the truth is these women are there to both win and have a good time, make friends and hang out. The oldest player there, “Scrambled Leggz,” hurt her knee at practice. Instead of all the players saying she was too old to play, or being annoyed that she may hold them back, they all took a knee and cheered for her when she limped off the track. These women’s attitudes towards the sport and their teammates show that the stereotypes are wrong. More importantly the women do not care about the stereotype, they skate because they love it, and they love the people that play the sport.

When I first started doing my research and site visits I thought I was going to be proving a stereotype true. However, after learning about the strong women who play roller derby and discovering how pleasant they are to be around, I learned something completely different. I not only broadened my own knowledge of society, but I also had the opportunity to explore one of the corners of the world most people have not even heard of. In my study, I did learn that the stereotype is somewhat true, especially the part about appearances. However, I would summarize the stereotype as an exaggerated, glorified version of what roller derby actually is. These women are their own persons and they do not simply fall into one category. I will take away from this experience the confidence to be comfortable being myself and to do what I love no matter what society may think of it.

Topics: 11th grade, Academics, Dixie Derby Girls, English, ethnography project, Off-campus, professional development, roller derby, teachers, the world, Upper School, writing

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