Media coverage of Roller Derby, most of the time, sucks.
In one way, it is interesting, because you see the complex sexual politics of society writ large in terms of phrase, choices of focus, and what is omitted. Mostly, though, it just winds up being annoying. Even when coverage is trying hard, it usually fails hard too.
Pretty much the only coverage of Derby I can stand to read is that written by players, or that comes from within the community.
There, the writing is sport-focused, the theatre is handled with the sense of fun and irreverence and fierceness it embodies, personality is part and parcel and not drooled over, it just…is. There, it is extremely rare to see ugly misogyny and weird falling-over-self attempts at inverting stereotypes that just terminates in the enforcing of other ones.
This is because people in the Roller Derby community have their heads screwed on about their sport; for a start, they get that it is AN ACTUAL SERIOUS SPORT, and they’re living the respect it is due. No, members of the Derby community are not always politically correct and there’s work to do, but the deep sense of celebration of as-many-as-possible is there, and their feminism is a lived one that doesn’t have time to scratch itself because it is too busy empowering women on the ground. Yes, that’s a cliche some outside of the community are sick of hearing. And yet, it is still true.
This week has brought an exciting time for the international Derby community, with the first ever World Cup being played in Toronto. Team Australia is there, in all of it’s scary bruised and bruising glory. Sydney, Newcastle, Canberra, Adelaide, Victoria and Brisbane all have players representing them, and I am quietly squeeing my pants because my derby wifey Susy Pow (TOP5) is there, kicking ass and taking names.
So far, we’re doing extremely well, having moved through to the semi finals by this morning putting the boot into the admirable Swedish side. Next we face off with the US team. Nerve-wracking, but delicious, and so well deserved. Australia is a nation of polished, deeply skilled skaters.
But what of the coverage of this event, or Derby in general? This, and one other example I’ll be talking about, brings to light the following recurring issues when people outside of Derby, write about Derby.
1. Skaters are conceptually sexualised in ways that are not their choice, or necessarily reflect their play or personality. Further, any expression of sexuality is usually appropriated through the lens of male-gaze bullshit, rather than an autonomous, self driven thing that has pretty much *nothing* to do with dudes thinking they are hot. Just like the Starfire kerfuffle with DC comics, Derby girls regularly have their images and personas hijacked by leery media unsure how to frame them – and resorting to wank-bank terminology and phrasing. I’ve observed how actively Derby grrls hate this and how self-conscious and grossed-out (then, righteously angry) it makes them.
A great example of this is a pretty gross blog article on Total Pro Sports that cropped up this week and was widely flamed on social networking sites by people in the derby family. A slide-show of “sexy roller girls”, it contained both images of porn models in derby gear and pictures of non-consenting skaters whose images had been used to create an unabashed page for dudes and their tissue time. It was, in a word, fucked. And pretty much anyone who has anything to do with derby that I know, was disgusted by the bizarro appropriation of derby identity.
The article has been taken down now, I believe (at least, I can’t find it). But remaining on the site are patronising and offensive bullshit like “Spank That Ass”, an ‘article’ that has gems like the following –
“Roller derby may be just as fake as WWE Wrestling. However, when it is the women who are front and center in the action, it seems to be just as entertaining. Whether it is two females showing off some rather incredible flexibility, or just another spanking session, these babes and their skimpy tight uniforms are enough to spark interest in just about any heterosexual male.”
I mean, just…goddamn.
2. The flipside to this, of course, is the de-sexualisation of the sport by others. You know, when everything in the article is falling over itself to basically say “look, I know they’re in hotpants, but they’re not sluts”. Derby girls don’t consent to have themselves purified, either, and I think the effort to clamour actively away from the theatrical, glamorous and babein’ elements of the sport (which are fairly enmeshed) is actually the other side of the Madonna/Whore complex media seem to have when they write about Roller Derby. And don’t even get me started on second wave feminists and how they write about players. I mean oh my god, if you wear fishnets, you must be supporting patriarchy, right? Wrong.
A good example of this is in an article by The Guardian entitled “The Roller Derby World Cup: not your average bid for world domination”. It made me distinctly uncomfortable (and I couldn’t place why, until I wrote this post.)
The article is mostly good, but then I grew uneasy reading “This world of pseudonyms, quarterback stripes and hotpants can seem at odds with a serious sporting endeavour, but it all adds to the unique experience of watching and taking part in roller derby, and is in no small part responsible for its success and appeal.”
Why do we need to say that? Why can’t we just…cover the sport? The article has a clear anxiety about the ‘seriousness’ of derby, and if you troll internet forums and actually ignore the tenet ‘don’t read the comments’, you can find gems that reflect this anxiety in a more boiled down way. “Why do all derby girls dress like sluts?” and so on.
One of the things I enjoy most in this world is seeing shit like this get shut down, though. Here’s a nice example, from an exchange between a derby girl on Reddit and some foolish person.
Fool: Check it out, dude! It’s a fun time, cute girls in fishnets (drool), and after about two rounds you will really get into it if you’re a sports type.
Derby girl: Fuck off.
In the end, all of this amounts to one thing for me: Derby is doing something right.
That people often don’t know how the hell to cover this sport means that people are uncomfortable. They stumble and stammer because they don’t know what the hell this is or how to handle it. Roller Derby is a sport that operates entirely outside of the box (except perhaps, the penalty box) and inverts, subverts, queers and fucks with every notion of woman-hood. Most skaters don’t think about it on that level and probably think this level of analysis is navel-gazing wankery (because you could be skating, man). And you know….exactly! That’s what I mean.
Derby, a sport run by the skaters and for the skaters, and most of those people being women-identified, is a clearly, boldly demarcated clearing circle with absolute boundaries. That boundary is thus – this is ours and we own ourselves and we love each other.
That, I think, is the terrifying challenge that Derby lays down. Derby Grrls are gender outlaws on skates (or off, for the vollies and NSOs and jeerleaders), doing feminism, and busting out fierce, self-possessed sexy (or not), athleticism, dork-antics, self care and care for others, skill sharing, taking hits, fundraising and fighting. Imperfect and varied, it is a full, coarse, punch-in-the-gut experience of what it is to be human in league with other humans.
Perhaps it is that – the uncompromising proud humanity of the skaters – that scares people most of all.