How Roller Derby Challenges Stereotypes of Women in Sports

Monday, July 11, 2011

This weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the roller derby championship bout of the Rat City Roller Girls in Seattle. It was at the Key Arena, which is a huge venue, and there were a ton of people who came to watch. It was a phenomenal bout with Grave Danger finally taking home the championship title.

For those who are unaware of this particular sport, roller derby is a sport played by women on roller skates who basically beat each other up – the main gist is that there is one jammer from each team who can score points by lapping all the other players and there are blockers who want to prevent the opposing team from scoring a point. Roller derby, like soccer, is extremely nuanced. There is a lot of skill and strategy involved, not only because you’re on skates, but also because you have to know when and how to position blockers so that you can get your jammer through. Watching the teams do it for the first time may seem like chaos, but once you realize all the different rules and strategies going on, it’s really satisfying. Oh, and did I mention the violence?

Anyway, as I was cheering myself hoarse and giggling at all the pun-filled derby names, I started thinking a lot about how roller derby is really an interesting sport. It’s not mainstream, it’s not money-making, and it’s not male-driven, which are three things that sports fans often opine as the reason that we like sports. Roller derby instead takes a lot of stuff that we assume about sports and turns them on their head. Here are a few that I’ve noticed:

1. It’s all ladies. In a country where women sports stars are often marketed for their beauty in order to drive ticket sales, roller derby prides itself on being a haven for women who are strong and fiercely competitive. The audience of this bout seemed pretty evenly split with male/female spectators, so that busts the stereotype that only women want to watch sports with women in them as well.

2. There’s no need for an athletic build. Athletes, women and men alike, often have to be a certain body type in order to enter into certain sports – in roller derby, there is a wide array of body shapes and sizes, and it instead depends on how well you can maneuver on wheels. Don’t get me wrong: these ladies are athletes. I cannot tell you how many muscles it takes to man those skates, but there is no necessitated body type for one to become a roller derby star.

3. Sexuality, vulgarity, and intelligence are prized. You only have to look at the names of some of their derby names to know that derby girls are nerds. And sexy ladies. And badasses, all rolled into one. In mainstream sports, when tennis players like the Williams sisters want to flaunt their sexuality, they are shamed – in roller derby, they are beloved. And there are no “dumb jocks” on these teams; all of these women can show off their wit just as they can show off their skills.

4. Violence and strength. No one can tell me that these ladies are pushovers. Women who are strong often are pegged as having masculine traits, but I believe that roller derby challenges the assumption that strength is an inherently masculine property.

I encourage you to take in a local roller derby bout whenever you have the chance – I myself am working on trying to become a roller girl sometime in the future. See you out on the track!

Read more of my opinions on women and feminism, as well as how I got into roller derby.