Kitty Fisher

Size-positivity, feminism, self-esteem crises, ginormous tits.

Archive for November, 2008

Roller Derby: Sport or… Not?

Posted by Kitty on November 21, 2008

So the WFTDA National tournament took place in Portland, OR this past week.
The Oregonian, a local newspaper, declined to cover the event, stating to a representative of the local roller derby league that the paper didn’t feel that roller derby was worthy of coverage. “We do not consider it a sport,” said the sports editor. “I don’t think the people want to read about it.”

(They ran a poll after the fact, asking whether their readership considered roller derby a sport worthy of coverage. As of 8 pm Eastern time on 11/21, the voting was 96% in the affirmative.)

Many leagues struggle with being taken seriously. Venues that let men play pick-up games of hockey close their doors to roller derby leagues asking to use the space. Media covers us in the “lifestyles” section of the paper, instead of sports. Radio interviewers flirt with skaters instead of asking about the sport. My own league several times had television news stations send reporters to skate with us and “get the full experience”, only to do little fluff pieces referencing the fakey days of yore.
The vast majority of news articles concerning roller derby follow a very simple formula.
“By day, {insert woman’s name} is a mild-mannered {insert profession, possible mention of any offspring she has}. But by night, she {puts on fishnets / dons a miniskirt / laces on a pair of rollerskates} and…”
You don’t really have to go much beyond that; most people’s eyes glaze over. But often there’s a cute photo, of girls stretching or someone’s thigh tattoo or whatever.

Sure, roller derby is sexy on paper. The names are about the only whimsical part left– the sport’s self-elected governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, has been continually revising the rules to play up the sportsmanship, gradually eliminating the last whimsical vestiges of the original carnival atmosphere of the flat-track revival. The sport still attracts misfits, and still often overlaps heavily with the punk scenes of the various cities where it is, but it is increasingly suburban, increasingly mothers, increasingly serious.

The public perception hasn’t kept up, which isn’t surprising. But it’s just another example of this culture’s ingrained misogyny. What’s so sexy about roller derby?
The skaters wear abbreviated clothing.
Really? How abbreviated?
Well, few actually expose flesh on the legs, due to possible friction burns. And heavy protective gear is usually worn– not just pads on the limbs, but more and more skaters wear tailbone protectors. The thing is, due to demand, several companies have come out with very slim-line tailbone protectors. Four or five of the twenty girls on my team wear tailbone protectors so thin that they’re invisible under running shorts. They’re so short they don’t show under miniskirts.
I’m considering getting one, after a hard tailbone landing during a drill last week. (Three landings like that in three years… Is that enough to justify the $75 pricetag?)

Yes, we dress slightly more sexily than your average hockey player, but we also play in hot gyms, not cold ice rinks. Do we wear more than volleyball players? You bet your sweet ass we do. Do we wear more than basketball players?
Maybe. Unless you count the ridiculously long shorts they wear as two garments, the average roller derby skater wears more than the average NBA player.

So really, what makes a roller derby uniform sexy is that… often, you can see thighs, or at least skin-tight coverings on thighs. And sometimes, depending on the shape of the skater, you can see cleavage. A few teams’ uniforms bare the shoulders (with racerback or thin-strap tank tops, or the occasional halter-neck).
This isn’t substantively less than a soccer uniform displays. It’s significantly less than a wrestling uniform displays.

The Texas squad at 2008 Nationals, photo by Insanity Labs.

But what is sexualized is the body underneath. Nearly-naked men are not sexy, unless they are specifically displayed as such (using cues of lighting, presentation, etc). Women in any clothing, even athletic gear, that is in any way form-fitting are sexy, because they have female bodies.
The female body, by default, is a display object.
And so roller derby is a spectacle, not a sport, because it features female bodies, who are necessarily on display as objects, not as agents.

That’s the easiest way to break it down. Yes, the factors I outlined above, about the fakery in its history and the carnivalesque original revival and all of that, they all contribute. But what remains is that women do it, and women don’t play sports, except as a junior or lite or softened version of men’s sports.
We’re still fighting for Title IX to mean something. Thank you, Oregonian, for making it explicit.

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