I’m about to do something taboo. Not like having sex with your twin taboo, but taboo nonetheless. I am about to admit, right here on the interwebs, that roller derby isn’t all camaraderie and fishnets. This may seem obvious, but we derbies are pretty protective of our sport and our teams and talking shit about either is just not what we do. Except when it is.
Don’t get me wrong. Roller derby is, indeed, one of the best things that ever happened to me. But it’s not just because it made me get into shape and gave me a brand new group of girlfriends. It’s also because my love affair with derby caused me to completely ignore and/or destroy other parts of my life and the lessons I’ve learned from my derby sisters, both positive and negative, have forced me to grow as a person. We derbies sometimes like to think of our world as this fabulous feminist utopia in which women from all different backgrounds get together to kick ass. Which it is. Except when it’s not.
Sociologists love derby for its sexy feminism, acceptance of seemingly contradictory ideas about beauty, femininity, and athleticism, and the way it bonds women over something besides stuff. Bigger girls are prized blockers. Skinny bitches can kill you with a can opener. These women actually want to have big booties, and they’re not scared to show them off in the tiniest panties ever. These women will be there when you need them. They’ll help you move, be your shoulders to cry on, and even hold your hair back while you vomit. Except when they won’t.
In my year plus playing, I have made more girlfriends then I’ve probably ever had before in my life. I’ve bonded with doctors, lawyers, hippie theater types, conservative engineers, Catholics, students, teachers, and motorcycle riding instructors. Every one of them has taught me something, and as a whole, knowing them has taught me how much difference can be brushed aside. I have never experienced such a profound sense of belonging with a group of women.
On a personal level, I never would have survived the past year without my team. When my husband left and I needed a place to stay, where was it? At a derby’s house. When I totaled my car and needed a ride, who picked me up? A derby. When I had to move everything I own in twelve hours for under a hundred bucks, who helped me? Derbies. My team has been there for me in ways that are above and beyond the call of on-the-track camaraderie.
The thing is that that’s not the end of the story. There’s just more to it than that. Because who do you think it was that gossiped about the demise of my marriage and said extremely unflattering and unforgiving things about me? A derby. Who said she was a friend and fled at the first sign of personal weakness? A derby. Who made me feel like shit about my lack of derby engagement when my life was falling apart and I was sitting at home with a broken hand? A derby. Who made out with my girlfriend after the after party? You better believe it was a derby. Did these experiences effect how I relate to my team and perform on the track? I want to say they didn’t, but they did.
So, what does this tell you about roller derby? Not much, really. It’s a complicated culture is all. Just like it can’t be reduced to a catty little world in which attention-seeking sex kittens kick each other’s asses, it also can’t be upheld as a perfect example of what happens when women support each other unconditionally. There’s no unconditional in roller derby. There’s only conditioning. Roller derby is a world that you must be acclimated to. So, if you’re new and in the first blush of your derbyverse crush and you think the magic will last forever, it won’t. But if you’re a bitter pro who’s been around for years and can’t get it up to smile at the girl on the track next to you, you’re not just part of the problem. You’re also the solution.
Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get all rah-rah, “we can all get along if we just work together” on you. That shit is for cheerleaders. Recognizing that we are not all going to get along all the time is a step towards being able to work together. There is simply no way that women from physically, economically, socially, and politically diverse backgrounds are going to get along all the time. People are not going to fucking agree with you all the time. You are going to be on a team with people of varying ages, levels of ability, and commitment. Fucking deal with it.
At some level, being an athlete on a team isn’t just about working well together on the track, it’s about working well, period. It’s hard to work well on the track with a girl who just bit your head off because her girlfriend didn’t call her back today or because you wanted a black uniform jersey and she wanted blue. It’s hard to respect the girl talking if she never shuts up when you have something to say. None of these things would be okay in any professional situation, and if you’re like most roller girls and you want derby to become a respected professional (or at least well-sponsored amateur) sport, then you’re going to have to start acting like it already is one.
That old saying that there’s no “I” in team is a load of shit. That’s the problem with teams, there’s a whole fucking bunch of ”I”s and only the one little “we”. It’s simply not possible to ignore that teams are composed of individuals. But individuals need to realize that, in the team setting, everyone’s participation is equally important. Obviously, some players are better than others, but the best players are few and the spaces in between them are filled with girls who are just good. Shit, maybe they’re only okay. But, if only the best players on the team get props, they’re going to be the only motivated players. Do you really want your weaker players to also be less motivated?
Team practices should motivate everyone, and it’s your job to help make that happen, even if you’re not in charge. If you don’t think it’s your job, you shouldn’t be on a team. That’s not just about how you behave at practice, either. Talking shit about your team mates in a small social circle is fucking stupid. Save it for your derby widow. Save it for your mom or your best friend. Save it for your cat. Because that girl who you’re judging out loud to another team mate is gonna find out about it somehow. Hopefully, when she jams, she’ll still know she can trust you to block the big bitches from knocking her over and she won’t be all nervous about playing with you. Hopefully, when you jam and she’s sharking in the back she’s still gonna protect you to the best of her ability. But really, why risk it?
Roller derby is voluntary and it should be fun. But it’s the kind of fun that’s a lot of work. Not just physical work, either. It takes a lot of emotional effort to be part of something bigger than yourself. If you want it to work, then you’re going to have to let go of your ego a little bit. You’re gonna have to let go of some of your “I wish” and “I want” and take a look at what “we need”. We, your team mates, need you to shut up and smile sometimes even if you’re the kind of girl who calls it how she sees it. We need you to not call the new girl a bitch when she trips you. We need to know that if we’re not as good as you, we can only get better with your help. We need to know we can trust you, on and off the track, if not to be a friend, at least to not be an enemy.
That was a lot of words, my derby friends, and I’m not sure all of them were necessary. Sometimes I get on a rant and just can’t stop, especially when it comes to derby. I’m sure you know what I mean. If it seems like I’m trying to uphold myself as an expert on team mate-ship, I’m not. Honestly, I’m just trying to figure it out. I’m not a joiner and I’ve never been on a team before. And I am guilty of all the things I’ve ranted against. But I’m trying to be a better player, both physically and psychologically. So, if I snapped at you when you were new and just trying to be nice, I’m sorry. If you heard that I said that you were kind of a slut, sorry. Your sex life is none of my business. If I wasn’t welcoming when you were a clumsy new girl, sorry, I’m a bitch.
On the other hand, if I told you to stop apologizing or stop crying or to get the fuck up off of the ground, well, I’m not sorry for that. That, my friends, is just the game. If you’re not ready to play, you’re a liability. My goal this season is to support all the girls who come to practice ready to play and to try to ignore the ones who don’t. My goal is to try to have something nice to say and to shut up when I can’t. My goal is to not talk shit to anyone but those closest to me (gotta be realistic), and to make sure I don’t work myself up into any grudges that effect my behavior at practice. My goal is to let go of any grudges I already have. My goal is to keep my ego in check and to think not about what RSRD can do for me, but what I can do for RSRD.
Hey, also check out Villainelle’s follow up post, “Overcoming the Dark Side of Roller Derby, Pt. II: This Feminist Darkness“.