Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Whip It Review and Derby in Popular Film

Whip It is a 2009 Ellen Page vehicle directed by Drew Barrymore and based on Shauna Cross' novel Derby Girl. In the film, Bliss (Page) discovers roller derby, despite the limitations of living in a small Texas town under the watchful eye of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who makes her compete in local beauty pageants. Supporting characters include her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), intriguing musician Oliver (Landon Pigg) and roller derby ladies such as Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), and Rosa Sparks (Eve).

Let's be frank: if you're reading this blog, you've probably already seen Whip It. Some of you might have come to derby specifically because seeing Whip It sparked or finally confirmed your interest in derby. Personally, I received a DVD copy of the film as a birthday present around the same time I started playing and planned a special showing with my partner, only to get impatient and watch it in secret. If you haven't seen the film, do so.

Whip It is good but not stellar. It's funny but impaired by a lot of sport movie and coming of age cliches. (My partner did give it points for having an actual sport tactic matter to the film's climax, however.) Its representation of derby culture, ranging from the physical challenges, to female rivalries and friendships to the often male coaches and implied male spectatorship is mostly spot-on. The game itself is misrepresented, as derby often is in television and film, as a no-boundaries contact sport, rather than a full-contact sport with checking but, say, no elbows to the face. For those who do want roller derby without penalties, this is what you're looking for.

The film's relationship with women is a mixed bag – it can be rightly commended as a feminist film, but one still perpetuating some tired stereotypes about women's bodies and (spoilers! Highlight to read) sex and what its relationship is to a woman's value. Bliss' mother misses a chance to correct this and it's sad to watch. As a fun film for derby enthusiasts and a fairly solid introduction to what roller derby can mean to a woman who feels frustrated by social or cultural limits on what she can do, Whip It does the job.

More broadly, Whip It is a good sign of the proliferation of roller derby culture. It's a derby film, penned and directed by women, largely driven by a female cast. The actors were extensively trained to skate and even in London, ON, our local Forest City Derby Girls partnered with a cinema to promote the sport at the film's premiere. That is astoundingly cool. At the same time, Whip It was a middling critical success and a definite commercial flop. And we need more roller derby films, more successful examples of the sport being depicted in entertainment. (Fun Fact: Zoe Bell, who played Bloody Holly in the film also played a roller derby player in the CSI: Miami episode, “Wheels Up” in 2011, which I'll review next week. Zoe was also Xena's stunt double.)

Modern roller derby has seemed to find more lasting success thus far when depicted in documentary style. The recent Hell on Wheels (reviewed by me here) and the A&E-tastic Rollergirls and the myriad of short derby docs making the rounds on Youtube (Brutiful is one) have received more consistent attention. Whip It is one of a very small number of feature films that attempt to portray roller derby as part of a story (the Rollerball remake with Chris Klein and LL Cool J does not count). And as I said, Whip It isn't perfect.

But it's pretty cool to have a solid roller derby film that isn't old enough to have featured a young Mickey Rooney

Monday, 29 August 2011

That's How We Became The Derby Bunch

Yesterday, LOCO held its second annual Skate-A-Thon. I've blogged previously about the event, which features both derby girls and picnics. Together, LOCO's skaters raised $950 dollars, 25% of which goes to YMCA Strong Kids with the remainder going to the league. Skaters from LOCO raised pledges with the promise that they would skate around London's park walkways for an hour, before settling down to eat burgers and remarkably good desserts.

Photo credit: Natalie 'Vegas' Buragina
I myself skated for about fifteen minutes before face-planting halfway down a hill. Most of the folks who saw my left knee afterward asked, “Why weren't you wearing your knee pads?” I was. Friction is a powerful force. Luckily, so are mini cheesecakes. After lunch, I regretted nothing.

Because a lot of our skaters are moms, we had a great deal of derby kids with us yesterday, some well-approaching teenhood and some still learning to toddle. Seeing fellow players with their families is a bit like seeing them off-skate, only more so. One player's son likes to play with derby wheels. Another player can make balloon hats, much to the delight of all of the children and many of the adults. A league is a kind of sweaty, cobbled-together family and events like this remind us that derby leagues are really composed of several families, loaning us their sisters, moms and sons for a few practices a week.

Of course, having children isn't the only defining feature of a family. The league itself is proof of that. I suppose that's why I think social and community-oriented events are so necessary for the health of a league. The kind of bonding derby offers is sudden and intense. It's remarkable how crashing into someone can make you feel like you know them. And you do, in a way. But getting the chance to talk to your fellow players, to meet their friends and partners, to see them out of their knee socks makes the difference between, say, knowing Cthulhu Lemon on the track and knowing Meghan for the rest of the week off-skate.

There are a lot of powerful, hurtful stereotypes about friendships between women. We're often told by entertainment and media advertising told that female friendship is rooted solely in buying shoes together, or in mutual body insecurity or that female friendships whither in the face of the urge to pursue heterosexual bliss. Making friends with other women can be tough. A lot of players I've known have said some variation on, “I've never had many female friends.” When so many of these kinds of women get together, we get surprised by how much we often end up liking each other, even though we're not in a yogurt commercial.

Some players only come to roller derby for the exercise and the physical thrill of playing a fast-paced game. But the majority, I think, end up staying for the family. And the barbecue.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Queerying Derby + Derby in Transition

When I first joined my derby league, I remember complaining to a friend, "I thought there would be more queer women."* What else had Whip It! taught me, if not that at roller derby after-parties, cute women would be seducing each other in the hot tub? Hadn't my league skated at Pride London? Where were all the gay ladies at? As it turned out, there were plenty of awesome women all over the sexuality spectrum. I had just assumed that I was alone.

Why were my expectations so specific? Women's sports are often stereotypically associated with the presence of gay ladies, which reminds us that the assumption that all gay women are butch and that all supposedly butch women are gay is still prevalent. And roller derby is seen as a very queer-positive sport in particular. In Toronto during Pride, there's the annual Clam Slam, a bout between queer derby players from all over Canada and the US. And what environment could be more conducive to bringing in queer women than a feminist, women-focused space that happens to feature the occasional pair of booty shorts?

As a queer derby player, I've always felt welcomed by my league. They really came to my attention because they skated in the 2010 Pride London Parade, which was part of why I assumed the league would be a queer haven. And it is. Though we can never rest and say, "Oh, we're supportive enough," I must say I'm happy with my league's attitude toward queer players.

One area where we (and by 'we', I mean every league, every player) need to keep working is trans issues. WFTDA's gender policy states that a female is someone "living as a woman and having sex hormones that are within the medically acceptable range for a female". While the fact that WFTDA is not perpetuating trans invisibility is a good thing, the policy is far from perfect. Some, myself included, would say it's still intensely discriminatory. Why?

In the first place, WFTDA's policy places the burden of 'proving' oneself to be a woman solely on the shoulders of trans players. As a cis-gendered woman, I simply don't have to jump through the same hoops that a trans player does. That's discrimination. Additionally, placing a player's status as a woman in a medical professional's hands robs that player of the right to simply say, "I am a woman," and be heard.

The issue of having hormones determine someone's sex, let alone their gender, is also dubious. When it comes down to it, there's no good way to 'test' for gender and sex except asking. Just ask. Ask and then take the answer at face value. I once had a (deeply transphobic) partner "accuse" me of being trans. While I couldn't care less if people think I'm trans (because trans people are brave and unbelievably strong and frankly, I'd take it as a compliment), I remember being deeply offended that my answer regarding my gender and sex wasn't assumed to be "honest". I felt trapped by that person's refusal to just believe me. I felt reduced to the status of a non-person, because my claim to my gender was, according to that person, supposedly insufficient.

In short, I believe the WFTDA policy needs to be changed if the sport is going to continue to progress and prove it really is a feminist sport we can be proud of. Read the policy and decide for yourself. But accord a fellow derby player the same respect you would give a friend or a person on the street. Believe them when they tell you who they are.


* A note on my language: I'm using the word 'queer' as an umbrella term for folks, in this case largely women, whose sexuality is not limited to opposite-sex attraction. I know not everyone likes the word queer, but it's my word and I use it freely.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Rolling on the Rag: Periods and Roller Derby

For some of us, having our period signals a time when we retreat to heating pads, ibuprofen, and enough chocolate to kill Cathy. For others, it's derby as usual. Personally, when I'm grouchy and on painkillers anyway, it's a time when I like to go skating. Beyond sheer preference, having your period while at practice or bouting presents some practical concerns, namely regarding what to wear (and I don't mean fishnets or knee socks). Here's a brief overview of some of the menstrual products available to us and the pros and cons of wearing them while skating.

1) Disposable pads: pads aren't a popular choice. Derby is a prime producer of bum-sweat and by the end of practice, chances are you'll feel like you're wearing a soggy daiper. Pads can shift around as you skate, sweat and get bumped on the track, lessening their effectiveness. Add in that if you're wearing a pad with wings, things could get seriously chafed. Pads, in my experience, are poor for morale, though they'd provide some protection against a skate to the cooch. With that said, I can't recommend pads. Rating: one skate out of four.

1a) Reusable cloth pads: pads like the Lunapad are reusable and made out of cloth (duh). They score points for being more comfortable and eco-friendly than regular pads. Off-skate, they're cheaper than disposable pads, but they're more time consuming because they're meant to be washed. On-skate, they're less likely to chafe, though they're still not perfect. However, if menstrual products that are a bit more internal aren't to your liking, go for this option. Two skates out of four.

2) Tampons: far and away the most popular choice, tampons are relatively comfortable, unlikely to get jostled or moved during play, and require little effort on your part. There is the general downside of risking toxic shock syndrome if you leave the tampon in for too long, of course. For a short bout or practice, however, they're a pretty solid choice. Other concerns include cost and personal discomfort regarding the fact that when it comes down to it, the tampon is a plug and what it plugs is you. Tampons aren't for everyone, but they're easily accessible and easy to use. Three skates out of four.

3) Menstrual cups: an upcomer on the track, menstrual cups like the DivaCup are fan-frigging-tastic in my opinion. A menstrual cup is usually made out of medical-grade silicone and does not share the tampon's risk of TSS. They can be in for up to twelve hours and they do not shift around, no matter how hard you've just landed on your bum. They're also an environmentally and financially friendly choice ($40, replaced once a year), leaving you with more money in your pocket for merch and derby socks. Downsides include the learning curve - you'll need to get used to using one, but once you do, you're pretty much golden. If you're a tampon user, consider switching over. Four skates out of four.

Given that derby is a sport largely practiced by ladies, we don't often discuss our periods and how they relate to derby. Often derby culture has a sexy tough-girl attitude that doesn't leave much space for the unsexiness of having your period. While sexiness and toughness are certainly two of the things I enjoy about derby, I think it's important we not pretend that's all to which derby players amount. Famously, a South Park character once said "I don't trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn't die." There are different kinds of tough and derby culture shouldn't ignore the kinds that don't look good in fishnets. More on that later.

In the mean time, ladies, bleed on!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Crash Into Me (And the Floor)

Before / Photo: Natalie "Vegas" Buragina
During Friday night's skill testing, I had my first real crash. And I really thought I had crashed before. My favourite fall was my first as I learned how to skate, period, during which I landed so hard on my ass, I hurt my neck. But this time was different. During endurance testing, I was tired, feeling low, and pushing myself on new wheels. Being used to outdoor wheels, my new Flatouts often feel like they're always just about to roll out from under me. On Friday night, they did, just as I was turning a corner.

I flew and hit the ground, elbow first. I have never heard myself make a noise like that before. It was like the sound was ripped from my windpipe. Like the awesome women they are, my league-mates all took a knee.

By the time our health and safety committee members Killer Suenami and Avalanche got to me, I was on my front, grabbing my right shoulder and weeping. Apparently the first thing I did was apologize. Then, I asked for was a tissue because, man, was I mucus-y. Avalanche and Suenami calmed me down, got my skates off and moved me to the bench. As I sat, I said to a newcomer who had come to watch for the first time (!), "This doesn't happen often, I promise." Being a former army medic, she was not particularly off-put.

Our health and safety team put me in a sling, gave me some ibuprofen, and got me settled. Then, after practice, I went to the bar and hefted my beer with my off-hand. Later, I was checked out by a doctor and pronounced sore but largely undamaged. My rotator cuff is not having the best week. I don't have the same range of motion with my right arm as my left at the moment, but the shoulder isn't overly bruised and there's no numbness or tingling. I'm sore from  my elbow to neck on my right side, but I'm taking care of myself. I'm hoping I'll be well enough to skate for next Sunday's Skate-A-Thon, though league-mates have offered to skate for me if necessary.

Health and Safety Committees are a roller derby must. LOCO is very lucky to have a nurse and aski patrol volunteer on-hand, as I found out. But every league needs a dedicated team of volunteers at practices and professional medics at bouts. We try to make derby as safe as possible and we try to ensure girls know the risks on skates. We try our absolute best to teach girls to fall safely. But if a wheel skids at the wrong time, your health and safety comes down to equipment, luck and having someone present who has the training to check your bruised body for injuries beer can't cure. Health and safety committees matter.

After / Photo Sam "Knuckle Slamwitch" Barr
"It's all downhill from your first big fall," my derby godmother, Knuckle Slamwitch of the Rollergettes, said, rendering a rather painful image. But it's true. I've crashed and cried in front of my team and now derby seems, on the whole, rather less anxiety-inducing. (Didn't kick ass on your time trial the way you wanted? Well, at least your arm isn't in a sling!) Players with more serious injuries sometimes have psychological barriers to getting back on the track, and understandably so. But as a new player, your first really jarring fall can teach you to trust yourself, to trust your gear and to enjoy the game more and worry less.

It's often said that the fear of falling is worse than the fall and short of spinal cord injuries, this is usually true. After giving some team-mates a scare (quoth Knuckle Slamwitch: "I thought you'd broken your tailbone!") and ensuring I'll be blogging gingerly for a while, I'm not afraid of the fall.

But I always, always wear my gear.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Sweet Roller Derby Charity

We play sports because we want to sweat and (just maybe) excel, but we play team sports especially because we want to be part of something bigger than we are. Derby provides this on and off the track, but one of the greatest things about a league community is the charity efforts it supports. It's hard to find a league or team that doesn't support local causes in one way or another. It's no surprise one of derby's common mottoes is "Give Blood. Support Roller Derby". We're charity-minded girls, after all.

One of the ways derby distinguishes itself is the commitment to community projects. We do our best to get local brewers to sponsor us and sell their product at bouts. We run bottle drives. As we discussed last week, we donate spare gear to the league. Derby players give and not just bruises, either.

Supporting good causes does more than get our league's name and reputation out there (though it definitely does that well). It helps us cohere as a derby family. It elevates the sport we love to being something truly worthy as well as something worth-while. It shows the communities we skate in that the local derby league is a place to both hit hard and make change. It shows that derby can make the world a better place. With fishnets.

This August 28th, my league is continuing its tradition of the annual Skate-A-Thon. Every year we collect pledges with money going to both the league and a selected charity. Then we skate our bums off in Springbank Park near the Thames River and ideally, no-one gives their skates a dunk in the water. This year, we're supporting YMCA Strong Kids, a foundation that helps support children and families that can't ordinarily afford the costs of YMCA programs. In short, we're team-members helping kids get the chance to play, to make teams of their own. In the past LOCO has supported other organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Sexual Assault Centre of London. That's a league tradition to which we're still committed and I hope that commitment to community-building and good causes that derby never loses.

Did I mention you can sponsor me to skate? Ping me on Twitter if you'd like to donate!

On a side-note: new blog design (photo editing credit Matt Schneider) AND Roller Derby World Cup tickets! In celebration, I leave you with last year's Skate-A-Thon poster with an adorable skating hot dog.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Derby and Privilege

Derby is a study in contrasts. Gear and skates are potentially very expensive, and the game  needs room, which usually costs money. Yet it's not an elitist sport. Some leagues sponsor players for costs and basically every league has spare gear. I myself still have gear in my closet that rightly belongs to my friend Knuckle Slamwitch (of the Rollergettes). And girls will skate in sheds. They'll skate in parking lots. Give us a flat surface and we'll roll.

Derby as a sport seems to be considered something fairly without airs. We make beer-can pyramids for chicks to crash into, we value a girl's strength, speed and teamwork over wherever she comes from. That, I think, is the real reason we take derby names, because theoretically, we leave our history and privilege behind when we get on the track.

But it isn't that simple. When they're off-skate, players have widely varying opportunities to access the time and money the sport requires. I think it's the leagues we need to look to to make derby more accessible, because players are at their strongest when they work together. Time, cost and finding space are the three prime difficulties of derby, I think. And we surmount these problems by working together.

The time commitment, of course, is one of the differences between full-contact derby and low-contact derby. It's one of the reasons low-contact derby exists. Women who love the sport but can't commit to the practice schedule - for whatever reason, be it financial, personal or aught else - that full-contact requires still deserve to play.

And players who experience financial barriers deserve to play, too. Every serious sport has costs, some might say. Equipment adds up. That's true. But if derby is going to to get stronger, it needs to be more accessible. This, I think, is something both full and low-contact leagues can address. Sponsoring charities and doing community work is one of the great things about being in a derby league, but I think we should sponsor our players as well.

Having equipment is part of it. Having good equipment available in the bin is better, however. To be accessible, leagues need more spare gear and better spare gear. We should, at the very least, encourage players to donate their old gear and naturally, this option becomes more viable as a league matures. But leagues should be proactive about this as well. Buying gear specifically for the borrowing bin should be a priority. Not just yard-sale skates, of which there are some real terrors, but solid, entry-level skates and protective gear without the wear that puts players who have to borrow potentially at risk. They might be wearing something that needs to be fixed or thrown out because it's all the league can provide for them. Everyone deserves to skate safely, regardless of financial status.

I'm aware that leagues, especially young leagues have to watch their funds very carefully. But one extra fund-raising event a year (Pin the Skates on the Derby Girl!) could outfit players who will make the league stronger, who will bring in more funds and attendees at bouts once they have a chance. We could do skateathons, we could do a charity bar night (Don't Play Derby Naked!-themed, even), we could charge one dollar extra at bouts and tell the crowd exactly where that money is going.  Players are the lifeblood of the sport, after all. I believe that derby players can take care of each other. The more we do so, the stronger we are.

Space, of course, is a difficulty faced primarily by the league rather than by individual players. Short of having space donated, it costs money. Even when a league has the players and practice fees available to make up the cost, even finding space can be a problem. Because of it's relatively nascent status as a sport, we lack the numbers and reputation that would mean we can assume, the way a hockey player could, that space can be found. This is a derby barrier that really only gets fixed with time and effort on the part of the league and the volunteers that make it run.

This brings me back to my admittedly slightly starry-eyed vision of derby players doing it for themselves. Our leagues run on volunteers, our leagues run on women  and men donating their time and money to make the sport grow. League execs and volunteers do a lot - what we need to do is encourage and create opportunities to do more, share more of our talents and time in order to support the sport, to outfit players, to keep derby strong.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

LOCO and FUCO: Never the twain shall meet?

At a bar with a bunch of friends last night, I briefly bumped into a skater from our local full-contact league. I mentioned that we'd met before and named a few skaters from  my league that had been there. "Oh, yeah. They do rec," she said, perhaps a little bit dismissively. Or maybe I only heard it that way.

I'd like to say first that I really like the skaters of FCDG. They do full-contact, kick-ass derby. They're smart. They're hot. I'm planning on celebrating my birthday by taking a crowd out to one of their games, because they usually bout in early October. The following is in no way a critique of FCDG or full-contact derby, because I like both of those things.

I play recreational roller derby. I play low-contact roller derby. And I play it with strong, committed women who are in LOCO because they love the sport. Some of them are moms who prefer to have a lower risk of injury because it's hard to chase after a toddler when you're on crutches. Some don't have the time to commit to the practice requirements that full-contact has for very good reasons. Some are still learning to skate and want to do so in a low-contact environment. Some transition to full-contact leagues when time and intentions permit. Some are out for the athleticism and women-positive environment and beer and just want to scrimmage. Personally, I came to LOCO not knowing how to skate, not sure how I felt about contact, not sure how much time I would be able to commit as a grad student. And, some ten months later, I love LOCO.

I love the women. I love the dudes. I love learning in a supportive environment and knowing these folk are my league-mates first and my team-mates or opposing team members second (except perhaps on the day of the actual bout, but fine). I love LOCO because I love derby.

And that's it, really. Whether you play full-contact, competitive derby or low-contact, recreational derby, you play because you love the sport. There's absolutely no reason for full-contact and low-contact leagues to not get along, to not put asses in seats on each others' bout days, to not support each other because the sport depends on strong leagues and on strong players, not on silly divisiveness.

The question seems to be whether low-contact leagues exist somehow to the detriment of full-contact leagues. Do we steal potential players? Hell no. If a player wants full-contact, she will skate towards it with a happy hip check at the ready. Do we dilute the sport? No, we spread it. We make it even more accessible, we swell the ranks of derby volunteers and players, who in my experience are as jazzed to volunteer at a LOCO game as they are to offer their services up to, say, the fabulous Rollergettes in Toronto. Is low-contact not "real" derby? Purism doesn't help the sport, because otherwise, the following starts happening: flat-track is not "real" derby" because "real" derby is on a banked track. The sport re-started in Texas in 2001 is not "real" derby because "real" derby is the co-ed endurance skating sport started in 1935. This kind of thinking is reductive and it hurts the sport and the people who play it.

Yet despite our best intentions, an awkwardness sometimes remains. Perhaps because derby sometimes feels like an outsider sport, we're leery of other derby players who don't skate with us, who don't pay dues to our league, who we haven't seen in their (or our) skivvies. I do think the split between full-contact players and low-contact players stems from things that aren't really about the health of the sport. And we're better than that - the success of roller derby as a fun, popular sport needs us to be better than that, on all sides.