I’m all lost in the supermarket,
I can no longer shop happily.
I came in here for that special offer,
A guaranteed personality.
-”Lost in the Supermarket,” The Clash, 1979
I came into derby as a total interloper. I didn’t want to skate and I didn’t want to play, I just wanted to write about the women who skated and played. How things change. Two years later and I barely remember a time before Red Stick. Still, on the days when I’ve hit the wall where my skills and stamina end, I always end up here at the keyboard.
My master’s thesis was about roller derby. As a newcomer, I saw derby as a place where socioeconomic boundaries disappeared and were replaced by neo-feminist camaraderie. I saw it as a subculture in which women weren’t simply added up as parts of a sum, but instead were multiplied and accepted for their complexity.
I still see that. But I also see something else. The architecture of a subculture becomes more obvious the more you hang out inside it, I guess. All those rusty pipes you didn’t notice at first. Now I see that roller derby isn’t just a tribe where women find new ways to compute their value, it’s a tribe in which women’s value is computed in new ways. In other words, roller derby is looking less and less like the feminist utopia i wanted it to be, because it’s also a place where “traditional female behavior” is enacted in new ways.
When I first came in to derby, I thought the sport and the culture that was built up around it we like this great equalizers that interrupted the problems I saw in typical female relationships. Flattery seemed sincere. Popularity contests seemed like they had been replaced by authentic athletic competition. Prettiness seemed a non-category as far as team value was concerned. The “for the skaters, by the skaters” structure seemed collaborative and non-hierarchical.
Was I naive? Sure, kind of. I was also just plain inexperienced. I’ve been friends with mostly men my whole adult life and boys before that. I’ve never been on a team, joined a club, or had a group of close knit girlfriends for more than a week. What I don’t know about female relationships could fill the internet. What I think now is that gynocentric subcultures like roller derby are very self-consciously trying to create something new and different for women to be a part of, but because we don’t have any experience being part of this new different thing that doesn’t lapse into insincere sorority, we are constantly juking around the norms of feminine behavior.One step forward, one step back. Three quick steps to the side.
So, then, we won’t judge you if you’re fat (as long as you can skate). We don’t care how much money you make (as long as you can pay dues). We don’t care if you’re pretty or ugly or gay or republican. We only care how agile you are, how fast you recover from a hit, and how often you come to practice. That all seems reasonable, though, doesn’t it? It is, after all, a sport.
Only that it’s not just a sport. It’s a subculture. Dick Hebdidge says that members of a subculture share common symbolic style (uniforms), a common ideology (toughness and unwavering loyalty), and an argot (slang). Your inclusion in roller derby, or in any subculture, is based upon how much other members’ perceive that you share in the common style, ideology, and lingo.
That’s sounds kind of crazy, right? Roller derby is a sport, not a religion. There’s no derby dogma. Except that there is. Ideology isn’t bad, it’s just inevitable. People have to feel like they have things in common in order to feel like a group. They just can’t help it.
So, what’s the point, then? If all subcultures operate this way and this is the one we all love, then who cares? Me, I guess, and other utopian idealists. Anyhow, what the fuck am I getting at? Oh yeah, feminism.
Women in roller derby, unlike in mainstream female social structures (like sororities), don’t have to fit the norm. Roller derby takes all kinds, and prides itself on it. We love women with big asses and bad attitudes. We love non-conformists. We lather ourselves up constantly in our diversity. And then what?
And then we develop a whole new very specialized criteria for tearing each other down.
How many times have you participated in a “conversation” about the girl who can’t make it to practice? (She was out on Saturday night, but she couldn’t get it up to skate up on Sunday.) Or the girl who can’t recover from an injury fast enough for anyone else? (Maybe if she spent less time whining and more time skating, she would improve.) Or the heavy girl who doesn’t get low. (What that girl needs is some fucking cross-training.)
Let’s be for real here. I’ve said every single one of these things. I am absolutely an active participant in the construction of roller derby dogma. And I probably would have been content to feel really fucking snug about it, too. Except that I just can’t seem get with the program, either. My real fucking life is always stepping in and throwing shit at me that makes me miss practice. Divorce. Car accident. Job training out-of-state. And suddenly I’m on the other side of the microscope. And it motherfucking sucks.
But let’s be really for real. I do, actually, participate in most of roller derby’s dominant ideology. I’m a hard worker. I’m tenacious. I like speed and aggressiveness and girls in skimpy outfits. I love the sport. I’m in it for sure. So, what’s the realness? The realness is that I skate with a stutter.
If roller derby is a subculture and subcultures share a common language, then roller derby has two. There’s the one we speak and the one we skate. Savvy? That first one, the verbal language, I’m pretty okay there. Actually, I’d say that my ability to pick up the lingo is what has carried me through most of my derby career. The problem is that, as a skater, I’m on the sadder side of mediocre. Which makes me not exactly incomprehensible to other members of my subculture, but still frustrating.
I’m the skater that people watch and think, “Just fucking do it, already.” But just like that kid on the playground stumbling over his tongue as he navigates the sharky sandbox, I would if I could. My skills are limited and there’s not that much I can do about it. My time is limited and there’s not that much I can do about that, either.
I work as hard as I can as I skater when I can. I’ve sacrificed my marriage, several hobbies, several thousand hours, and more than several thousand dollars to roller derby, but none of it’s good enough. On some level, this is really normal for me, and I continue to play because of my deep-seated faith that some day it will click. Everything I’m good at I sucked at for a long time. Even still, it sucks to suck, and it sucks even more to feel really judged for it when it’s all you can do to not judge yourself.
Which brings me back to all that academic shit about feminism and subcultures, which is really why I’m here. I play roller derby because I wanted to be part of something that didn’t reinforce stereotypes of female behavior: bitchiness, cattiness, judginess. I did not become part of it so that I could regurgitate those behaviors in some edgier, more aesthetic way. So, am I going to quit roller derby? No fucking way. I am going to quit being a cunty little bitch, though.
Yeah, I’ve said that before. Well, at least I’m trying. And that’s what I’m going to look for in the women around me. Not as an athlete, or as a team mate, mind you. On the track none of the social shit matters. It’s straight Darwinian. But off the track I’m going to stop looking at the overweight slow girl and thinking, “Get your shit together.” She probably has really good reasons for being slow. Maybe divorce. Car accident. Job training out-of-state. How do I know?