The Best of Villainelle

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Oct 182013

1379615_10202010995017573_276397421_nVillainelle was probably the most prolific, and definitely the smartest, writer for the old LDG. She started writing for LDG at about the same time she started skating for Red Stick Roller Derby in Baton Rouge. She changed a lot over the years, and her LDG work tracks her evolution, personal and derby-wise. She went from being sort of a scaredy cat (sorry, Vill) who skated around the edges of practice to being a fantastic blammer on RSRD’s A-Team, the Diables Rouges. Now she’s the President of RSRD, in nursing school, and basically a total badass. Here are some of her best pieces on LDG.

The Woman You’ve Always Been: This is Vill’s first post, and it should be required reading for anyone new to derby. She talks a lot about what drew her to derby and how it helped her find herself. It’s raw and personal and brave as shit.

I’m Not Sorry: Vill on learning how NOT to apologize.

This Feminist Darkness: Arguably the best writing on roller derby and feminism. But don’t argue with me about it. Just read it.

Sex and Roller Derby: Kinda speaks for itself.

What My Hot Pants Mean To Me: Vill on body dysmorphia and learning to love her ass.

Apr 092011

Learning to Fall

The thing is, we aren’t perfect. And the people who expect us to be are just assholes. We fight sometimes. We backstab and nitpick. We form cliques and break confidences. We mess up. But I hope that we don’t turn away from each other in those moments. Because the moment we give up on each other is the moment we give in to the worst of the myths about women. If we overthrow our derbies because they don’t fulfill our ideals, we’re setting them up for failure. Expecting women to be perfect – to be everything and never fall short – is not a feminist act.

I stood in the doorway of the kitchen. Knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmet and skates, I was all geared up for a happy roll in the soft Florida winter sun.

“You look ridiculous,” my mother-in-law Elizabeth said, smirking. She was all perfume and haughtiness. “I can’t believe you’re going out in public like that. Let me get my camera.”

She followed me onto the sidewalk. I flashed a peace sign to her that I mentally removed my pointer finger from.

The people who expect us to be perfect are assholes. I wish someone had said that to me earlier in my life. I wouldn’t, of course, have believed it, because until recently, I thought that if someone expected you to be perfect it meant they believed in you. I also thought that there might be some possibility of being perfect; the perfect wife, student, bohemian, derby girl. I could have the tattoos and the degrees. I could have the perfect relationship. I thought I could have my pretty pretty dresses and my feminism. But I was wrong.

Before roller derby, I was scared to fall. People who are in control of their lives, who are creating their ideal selves, I thought, don’t fall. But, in derby, everyone gets knocked down. The only thing that people will remember about you hitting the ground is how long you stayed on it.

Letting go, being wrong, and falling down all seem like fairly passive modes of revelation. But in derby, nothing is just passive. Every yielding must be followed by an instantaneous exertion of force. Playing roller derby almost always results in revelation for the women that play it. They learn that they are weak, that they are strong, and more importantly, that they are both things at the same time. They learn that the only way to recover from a fall is to get right back up. They learn that it’s okay not to be perfect or that they already are perfect or that perfect is a fucking scam thought up by the man to keep women with balls in check. They learn not to be kept in check.

Roller derby opens up a space for women to relate to each other as bodies, as women, as concrete or ephemeral things, as bitches or sex kittens or neither or both. The performance of the sport enacts a fluid exchange of energy between the players, energy that can be absorbed, reflected, or deflected. It is an energy which is specifically and explicitly feminine.

Roller Derby Ate My Marriage

I was sitting on the stairs to our attic eating a ham sandwich. I hadn’t been home in days, but Daniel didn’t know that because he had been in New Orleans visiting friends. Professors with tenure and lovely duplexes in gentrified neighborhoods. I had been doing derby. My hair was a maelstrom of sweat and cigarette ashes.

“I can’t watch you do this,” he said.

“Do what?”

“Eat that.” He formed his lips into a flat line across his face.

I stared at him through the thickness of my hangover. I hadn’t eaten pork for years, but I was hungry and tired and it was the only food in the house. It didn’t make sense for him to care about it, anyways. He loved ham and had never been attached to my shaky vegetarianism.

“Seriously?” I asked through a dry mouthful. “What the big deal? You eat swine all the time.”

“You don’t,” he said, “And it means something.”

It seemed like every little something meant everything to Daniel at that point, except the things that mattered. It was okay if I didn’t come home at night, but if I admitted that I had been smoking cigarettes, it was a problem. I could come home with visible hickeys, but I could not eat ham sandwiches.

My therapist, Arelys, listened to me freaking out.

“What THE FUCK? I’m fucking someone else and he’s pissed off because I smoked a fucking cigarette?”

“Tracey,” she said evenly, “When a person is having an affair, I think their partner always knows it on some level.”

“If he knows I’m having an affair, then why doesn’t he fucking call me on it instead of getting pissed off at me about all this piddling shit and being all passive aggressive about it?”

I was defensive. I felt guilty. I was having an affair and I was really mad at Daniel for not noticing or pretending not to notice. I was acting up, and Daniel, my husband and apparently, guardian, wasn’t setting new boundaries. So I was trampling all over the ones that were already there.

Sometime shortly before Mardi Gras, dressed in short derby shorts and a skimpy crop top, I had sat on his lap and daringly (within the context of our sexless relationship) tried to kiss him. With tongue. He playfully slid me off his lap, edging me away with his elbow in a reflexive move that we both knew well. I thought, “He doesn’t want me. He married his best friend.”

Well. Maybe so had I.

I had already been semi-crushing on my derby wife, the magnetically athletic and sincere Rock Bottom, for a few weeks, but something in that rejected kiss solidified the already growing wall between Daniel and I and broke down any last resistance I had in my pull towards her.

After a long Fat Tuesday in Mamou, Rock and I found ourselves slow-dancing to a neo jug band in Layfayette. I leaned into her broad shoulders and rested my face in her hair. She drunkenly, but flirtatiously pushed me away and said, “You cannot make out with me. You’re married.”

I was a gallon of bourbon into the night and cocky as all get-out. “Girl, I don’t need to make out with you. A bisexual belly dancer in the bathroom just gave me her phone number.”

We danced until the Saloon closed. Then we half-followed a drunk on a bicycle home until we were sure he wasn’t going to fall down in traffic. We pulled over a dozen times that night, in parking lots, fast food drive-thrus and on the side of highway, alternating between making out and her patient explanations that she wasn’t into me. Fine, I thought, I could accept that, but it was fucking Mardi Gras and my marriage was deteriorating and she was pretty and I was going to have a good time. And, as I accidentally confessed, I adored her.

When she dropped me off at my house, I said, “Kiss me goodnight.”

“No,” she responded. But she did it anyway.

It was pretty confusing on all counts. I didn’t actually feel any differently about Daniel, meaning I didn’t love him any less. But we hadn’t had sex since our wedding day, almost a year before. He was never much of an instigator and I had given up. Why had I given up?

I looked back at every dalliance I had had in the past decade carefully, real or imagined. All women, no men. Not women like Rock, though. It was all leggy model types and typical beauties. No broad shoulders. No baggy basketball shorts. I had always been attracted to the kind of girl I wanted to be, a sexy feminine ideal.

I jogged past my derby friend Tricky’s house early one morning. She was awake, padding around in sweatpants. We drank coffee on her porch.

“I think I might be gay,” I told her.

She snorted. “Wouldn’t that make everything easier?” she asked.

“No, actually, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. I love my husband.”

“Yeah,” she said, “but so then if you were gay then this whole thing with Rock could be like not his fault and not about your relationship. It could just be about some fundamental biological need you have to fulfill”

“That doesn’t sound easy,” I said.  It sounded terrifying. More than terrifying, it sounded wrong. It sounded like if I decided to be gay that I was somehow going to be able to get away with duplicitous and deceitful behavior and ride off into the sunset with my new sweet girlfriend on the back of a unicorn on a sunset of rainbows. Like Daniel wouldn’t be pissed or hurt or fucking devastated because I had some fundamental biological need.

I don’t think that many people think of me as a person who represses her needs and desires, but in reality, I was. I spent a lifetime seducing men because they wanted to fuck me. And when I did give in to my deviant desires to be with women, I found women to fuck that I also wanted to be. Harvard graduates with delicately long torsos and spunky geek rock girls with pierced nipples. With Daniel, I found a way to avoid the responsibility of seduction and a way to embody my ideals. All of them. I got to be hot and tatted up and also married and totally respectable.

I got to be everything, the ineffable perfect that the assholes say is possible. And it wasn’t enough. Because I realized that I didn’t want to move to New York or Boston and be the quirky undersexed wife of an academic. I didn’t want to live my life in an ivory tower in the suburbs of cool. I wanted to stay in Baton Rouge. I wanted to play roller derby, eat ham sandwiches, get a dog, and have a relationship with someone with whom I felt mutual. Someone with a vagina.

Even after these realizations, though, it still wasn’t clear to me that my marriage would end. Daniel and I, I thought, were bigger than these petty superficial structures. He didn’t want to have sex with me, so surely he would be happy to be relieved of the burden. We could live out our lives as best friends in some polyamorous utopia. We might not have been soul mates in the way I had planned, but surely we would never be separated.

“Are you going to divorce me?” I asked him a few days after our come-to-Jesus, relationship-shattering conversation.

He looked at me incredulously. “What would you do, Tracey?” he asked.

Not that. I wouldn’t have divorced him, not ever, no how. Not only was he my best friend, but he was also every ounce of proof that I ever had that life could be ideal. He was all things to me, and I wouldn’t have given him up for every blonde co-ed on campus. I didn’t realize that I already had.

Because Daniel didn’t want to be the husband of a lesbian. He didn’t want to have some idyllic alternative lifestyle set-up. And as he would point out to me later, those sorts of things are generally agreed on in advance.

“You signed on for a very traditional marriage, Tracey. That was what you wanted,” he told me when he called to tell me that divorce papers would be arriving. “And then you got bored. You can’t just decide on your own that we’re going to have some sort of open marriage. Those kinds of arrangements are made to suit the needs of both partners, not just one.”

He was right. It was another symptom in the wanting-to-have-it-all syndrome. I was the one who cheated and I was the one who lied. I was the one making out with derby girls in the living room while he slept. I was the asshole. But it wasn’t, as he supposed, because I was bored. I had been totally fucking confused. All the things I thought I wanted were chimeras and all the things I actually wanted were totally taboo.

In one of our last conversations, Daniel said to me, “I still believe in you.”

And I was so relieved. Because I thought that I would die if someone didn’t believe in me. And that someone had to be him, because he was just so ideal. And if someone who is pretty much perfect believes in you, then you can’t be that bad, right?

The answer to that question is complicated. On the one hand, it is yes, I am that bad. On the other hand it is a question mark, an interrogation of that belief. Daniel’s belief in me was based on his sincere faith that I could be ideal and believed in. And he wasn’t being an asshole. He just didn’t know that I was starting to think that this whole idea of possibly being perfect was, in some inherent way, assholic.

Because the very real truth is that I am not perfect. I am gay. I am not going to be able to fit into the mainstream. I am not going to get to have my girlfriend and my tattoos and my pretty pretty dresses and my young hot husband and my heterosexual privilege, too. I am going to have to make choices. And what I choose is blondes in basketball shorts and Baton Rouge.

What I choose is in the context of roller derby. I chose a version of myself that falls down, that sometimes does not commit. That gets hurt in very real ways and hurts other people. I choose an edition of myself that is not fucking perfect. It’s not even that cool. But it’s real and it’s resilient, and my team gives me a place and a way to make that choice every single day if I need to. But it’s a me that cannot be reduced to roller derby, even though it might be a product of exactly that thing.

My life now is not what others might consider ideal. I’m divorced. I have a girlfriend. I don’t have a picturesque Spanish Town porch swing and I don’t wear dresses anymore. I also don’t let men think that I might want to fuck them to flatter them or to make myself feel pretty. Frankly, the desires of men disgust me. I hate their tiny dicks and their giant egos. It’s the women in my life that make me feel beautiful despite being deeply flawed. I feel beautiful when I can knock over a woman half my age and twice my size. I feelbeautiful dancing all night with my team after skating hard all day. I feel beautiful being loved a woman who is willing to put me on the ground to teach me a lesson and who will cheer when I get back up.

Men? In my sport, they’re just the refs.

Their job is to count the points and stay the fuck out of my way.

This is from my master’s thesis “Beating the Red Stick: My Love Affair with the Red Stick Roller Derby”. It is part cultural history of the sport, part ethnography of the girls on my team, and part memoir. I’ll be spending the next year or so working it into a book. I am always interested in the ways that roller derby has changed women’s lives. If you have a story, well, first of all you should probably be writing on LDG, but secondly, I’d love to hear from you.

Also, the article I quoted from at the beginning of the piece is Villainelle’s “This Feminist Darkness” on LDG. Read it.

Mar 112011

I know I owe you guys another installment of Sex and Roller Derby.  And I promise it’s still on the horizon.  But remember how I warned you I might come up with something more important to say?  Last night, when Moxie posted about the oft-contentious topic of derby dress, I realized I DID in fact have something to say.  Because what I wear to derby matters to me.  It matters A LOT.  Because I’ve been worrying about my clothes for way too long already.

I had my first conflict over clothing when I was about 10 years old.

I'm the one in pink. I am 6 here. I am already developing hips and thighs.

I’m one of those kids who developed really early – earlier than is strictly reasonable.  I was full height by age 9 or 10, already sporting breasts and hips and an ass that, for an elementary schooler, could only be referred to as “epic.”  Whenever I mention this aspect of my childhood in mixed company, my male friends say, “That must’ve been awesome!”  Girls know better, though.  When I mention being the first kid on the playground with a C-cup, girls cringe silently or offer commiserating stories of their own.  Because girls know that being sexualized early is rife with complications.

All of a sudden, my uniform shorts looked a lot different than everyone else’s.  The baggy fabric was hugging me so tightly that preventing panty-line became a daily challenge.  My new bra (like actual bra; no training for these tits) was absurdly visible through the sheer fabric of our Peter-Pan-collar innocent-schoolgirl shirts.  Boys popped my straps on the playground.  They asked me if I’d be willing to show them my tits.  Up until that point, I don’t think I’d ever even heard the word “tits,” much less some of the other super-creatively-gross euphemisms they’d come up with.  I had no idea what they were so interested in.  As far as I could tell, I wasn’t any different than I’d been the year before.  I was the same mousy, quiet girl I’d always been.  Now, all of a sudden, the other kids were paying attention to me.  But the attention didn’t feel good.  It felt strange and awkward, unfounded somehow in anything I could comprehend.

I’m not saying I didn’t know what sex was; my dad is a scientist, and as such he always made sure I had a scientific explanation of the world around me.  But understanding the mechanics of sex does nothing to help you analyze the skeezy feeling you get when the class bully unhooks your bra during math, or tries to bounce a penny off your ass whenever you bend over.  Those feelings have nothing to do with making babies, nor with the “mutual respect and affection” that you’ve been taught are supposed to accompany human sexuality.  (Yeah, I know.  ”Mutual respect and affection” is kind of high-faluting language to use on a kid.  But you’ve never met my dad.)

My mother and I began to have near-constant conflicts about my clothes.  While school days were taken up with required uniforms, my weekends had always been a long string of shorts and tank tops.  Now, suddenly, I found my mother trying to convince me to “layer.”  She took me to Dillards in search of jeans to replace my well-loved outdoor shorts.  Whenever I tried to ask her why I couldn’t just wear my old clothes, she would hem and haw, telling me only that “those clothes just don’t look right on you anymore.”  When I got a little older and babydoll dresses with spaghetti straps got popular, I had to continually insist that wearing a t-shirt underneath the dress kind of hurt the look.  The same held true for wearing biking shorts underneath a skirt.  My mother didn’t breathe again until I got into grunge and started wearing figure-masking flannel shirts and overalls.

It took me years to understand why clothes that looked so cute and fun on my friends somehow looked slutty on me.  Things started to even out a little as I got older and my peers began catching up to me.  My body didn’t stand out quite as much outside an elementary school classroom.  But the weird feeling that there was something wrong or immoral about my shape never quite left me.  My breasts and hips were intruders that made my life confusing and complicated, that asked people to read my body separately from my personality.  They had their own grammar, sent their own private message to the world.  And I hated them.

By the time I hit my senior year of high school, I was a full-blown anorexic.  I had dropped from around 130 lbs (about what I weigh now, for those who know me) to 100.  My freshman year of college the numbers climbed lower, first to the lower 90s and then, after a bout with stomach flu, the lower 80s.  I bottomed out at around 82 lbs before I finally got some help and started the slow crawl back to normal.  And although I can’t guarantee a causal relationship, I can’t help but think that my early experience with T&A helped push me over the edge.  If I could just lose a little more weight, just a few more pounds, maybe my hips would disappear.  Maybe my breasts would dissolve and never return.  Maybe I could live a life where the clothes I draped myself in didn’t matter so much.  Maybe I wouldn’t look like a slut.

Me, parodying "sexy", at the 2010 Running of the Rollerbulls in New Orleans

I had to begin dealing with my body dysmorphia in order to get healthy again.  I had to learn that food is good and starvation is bad, that my body is my friend, yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda.  But it wasn’t until I joined derby that I really became friends with my body again.  I learned that giant asses are tools of power, that tits can be used in strategic positional blocking, and that thunder thighs help me get low and gain stability.  So when I dress for practice, I wear outfits that highlight my most valuable assets.  As Moxie mentioned in her post yesterday, derbies have long been proud of their hot pants and fishnets and low-cut tops.  But they’ve also been criticized for them, taken to task for not dressing like “serious athletes.”  So when I don my hot pants, I’m sending an important message to the world.  I’m saying “fuck you” to all the people who made me feel ashamed, who tried to teach me that asses and tits and hips were nothing but sex tools.  I’m reminding myself and my audience that women’s bodies – no matter their shape – are powerful.  I am proud, not ashamed.

So if the world wants to keep staring at our hot pants and telling us we’re nothing but sex kittens, that’s their own damn fault.  I know better.  I know that my body – while sexy – can do a lot of other things besides fuck.  And until the world learns that women have a right to display their bodies however they choose, without judgment, I’m going to keep skating – hot pants and all.

Feb 242011

Me, making my way around the track as the RSRD jammer least likely to actually score any points

So.  This past weekend (Sunday, Februrary 19th, 2011 for those who are keeping track) I played in my first match against an opposing team.

It wasn’t a bout, exactly.  It was a scrimmage.  We were in front of families and a few close friends, skating in our normal practice space rather than on the intimidating floors of the Baton Rouge River Center.  But we were skating together, as a team, against girls from another city.  And as anyone who’s bouted before can tell you, being up against a real opponent makes a difference.  For the first time, I was skating against girls who wouldn’t tell me how to improve, wouldn’t pat me on the back after I survived an especially hard hit.  I was up against people who wanted to get their jammer past me at all costs – people who wouldn’t know the difference between me and any other girl in a purple uniform.  They wouldn’t know that I was new, wouldn’t know how hard I’d been working in practice or how much I’d overcome to be on the floor that day.  They would know only that I was their opponent, an obstacle to be eliminated.

I’m not used to being an obstacle.  I’m one of those “how can I help you” people – the girl who always wants to know what else she can do, how she can facilitate and instigate and accomplish.  If I ever stood in someone’s way, in the everyday world, I’d probably have a heart attack.  Or cry.

Originally, I was going to spend this entire post telling you about the process of becoming an obstacle – explaining how I found my footing in the midst of a game and learned to stand in the way of my opponents and their goals – WITHOUT feeling guilty about it.  I was going to tell you about our 117-76 win, about my unsuccessful jams, and about the way I made peace with those jams and realized that, in the process of failing to become a better jammer, I’d accidentally succeeded in becoming a better blocker.  A solid blocker.  I was going to say “aw shucks, isn’t derby grand?”

But that post-bout feeling subsides.  Obstacles cease being positives, and the desire to score more points returns.  I know that we here at LDG are fond of enlisting derby as a metaphor for all the great challenges we face in life.  But there are times when the answers I find on the track just aren’t applicable to the situations that bombard my everyday world.  Sometimes they aren’t even applicable to the situations I face within my own team.

Racing up to form a wall with teammates Schexorcist and Summer Squasher

Our league, like every league, has its disagreements.  We always bump through them together, but that doesn’t make them any less painful when they’re happening.  Right now we’re in the midst of a debate about shifting our long-standing practice time by an hour or two.  I won’t bore you with the details.  The point is, we’re putting some changes to a vote, and we’re discovering that even seemingly small alterations have far-reaching consequences.  While setting an earlier time might help some skaters with babysitters, early next-day work hours, and late-night study sessions, it would also potentially prevent other skaters from making the required number of practices each month – forcing them out of bouts and eventually off of the team.

When the question was originally put to a vote, I voted for the earlier time.  Because it suited me best, and I was voting for my own interests alone.  When it came to light that other skaters would be severely affected by the change, I wondered whether I’d made the wrong choice, whether I was a selfish bitch for going with my own interests.  I wavered and began to wonder if I should change my vote.  And then I wavered again, wondering whether there were others who would be equally affected by the later time, whose feelings I might not be taking into consideration.  I sat in front of my computer, staring at the debate on our skater forum, and froze.

My entire life I’ve been caught between the desire to perform for others and the need to perform for myself.  When I was on the track on Sunday, I thought I’d found the answer.  Something inside of me had snapped, and I had suddenly forgotten about trying to do what I thought I was supposed to do and had instead done what I knew I could do.  I had gone from being the waffling girl, the one who asks everyone’s opinion before she makes decisions, to being the blocker who thrusts herself firmly in other people’s paths.  I hadn’t worried, even for a second, wether my moves were the right ones.  I simply made them, automatically and definitively.  But now, post-bout, I was right back in my pre-derby headspace – fearing that following my own instincts and acting in my own interest was only going to hurt other people.    I was an obstacle, and I was certain that I ought to move out of the way.

Ultimately, I assume that we’ll reach some sort of compromise – one that will hopefully put everyone on an equal footing.  But in the meantime, I’ve had to realize that derby doesn’t give me all the answers.  Or maybe what it gives me are answers in the form of questions, like Zen Proverbs or something.  When I started skating, I was counting on derby to make me more assertive and less cerebral.  I wanted it to take me out of my head and teach me to assert myself as a person with needs and wants and boundaries.  But maybe wanting to euthanize my old identity isn’t the answer.  Maybe sometimes the girl who weighs people’s feelings, who waffles and is slow to make decisions – maybe sometimes she’s in the right.  Or at least not totally in the wrong.  And maybe neither one of us is the strong one.  Maybe the strength is in balancing two identities, knowing which to inhabit at the appropriate times, being able to shift between the two at will.

Maybe all the people who’ve been trying to convince me just to stand up for myself were reading me all wrong.  Maybe sometimes other people’s interests are my own, and the line between selfless and selfish is thinner than it seems.

Either way, I think I’m going to make a damn good blocker.