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The Media and Miniskirts: The Roller Girls Debate

Roller derby in its current incarnation is the only predominantly female full-contact sport. Technology has been instrumental in creating the image of this sport as a space where women were allowed to be equal to their male counterparts in the physical arena and empowering women athletes. Yet, although technology has undeniably been a tool for helping women, its effects on the image of the individual participants in this sport can be viewed as both positive and negative. In a sport that encourages and even requires strength and aggression, traits that are typically assigned to men, are these girls using technology, especially the technology of the media, to break stereotypes or reinforce them?

An essential piece of the roller girl culture is kitsch, including skater names like ‘Wreckin’ Eyes,’ team names such as ‘Sockit Wenches’ and especially outfits, which range from tutus to fishnet stockings. In itself, the sport is not as serious as other more professional sports. Addressing this, the Garden State Rollergirls league comments, “Skaters adopt an on-track persona and ‘skate name’ such as ‘Kelly CutThroat’ or ‘Demonica Mars.’ But while the names may be fake, the games are unstaged and very real (and unfortunately, so are the bruises.)” Such a disclaimer makes it seem as though the kitsch is detracting from the importance of the sport. How can it be empowering for women if it presents itself as something trivial? There are two views to be considered when answering this question. The first is that it does not. Women are feeding into stereotypes with the silly costuming and naming, trivializing an aggressive sport by emphasizing the “girly” stereotypes. In this way, they are coloring womanhood in the athletic sphere with oddity and tastelessness. The idea seems to become that it is strange and unbecoming for a women to be successful in a full contact sport. Worse than the odd costumes are the overly revealing ones. In an attempt to create an image of strength as an attractive quality, they surround themselves in sexuality, an image that encourages a kind of voyeurism from outsiders, rather than garnering an interest for participation in the sport.

The other view is that roller girls represent the core of feminism by reinterpreting what it means to be a woman. Rather than describing aggression and strength as odd, they are incorporating them both into their view of women. They are not portraying these characteristics as belonging exclusively to men, that which, by some odd stroke of nature, they also possess. Instead, roller derby allows a subversive understanding of women by claiming these attributes for themselves, letting them extend naturally and normally to womankind. The roller derby is, as many leagues will say, skater owned and operated. They are controlling their image in the public eye and if they would like to wear costumes or revealing outfits, it is because they choose to do so. If it is something that others find attractive, then that is a side effect, but not the goal of the outfit.

Even if the girls have the choice to control their image in the public sphere, a debate still exists on whether or not their sex appeal is being used by the media in a way that is positive or negative. Tammy Oler, a writer for the feminist magazine Bitch is not so sure. Her article, “Holy Rollers,” describes the way in which the roller girls are presented in the media: “Like mud wrestling, roller derby has historically been seen as a way to entertain largely male audiences with hot, dirty catfights…And not surprisingly, recent media coverage of the sport has focused on the novelty of sexy girls in fishnets on four wheels.” In an article for The Capital Times, a roller girl by the pseudonym “Mack the Knife describes how she began in roller derby by keeping herself covered yet she claims that “I’ve grown into my derby self. Now I don’t view it as putting myself on display. It’s amazing how derby makes you comfortable with your body.” Another blogger for the “Younger Women’s Task Force” claims that “If society says that revealing clothing makes for an easy target by stating that a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be sexually harassed or objectified, let’s turn that double-standard on its head by putting the bodies that wear them into motion.” The roller girls clearly believe that they are being subversive, but their reflection in the public lens says otherwise. These articles expose the problem within the debate. Are these girls truly making a choice as to how they are portrayed or is control snatched away from them by the media and their audiences? This question is still being bandied back and forth in the public sphere.

The media is one technology which has a major impact on the way the world views and actions upon notions of gender. The media surrounding the roller girls may be portraying them as sexual objects, but if the participants view themselves as being subversive, perhaps the influence of outside forces is lessened in this way. Yet one must wonder what is really being misrepresented. Is it the roller girls’ attempt at reconstructing women’s roles? Or is it the media’s claim that a girl in fishnets and a miniskirt is always a sexual object? Perhaps it is open to interpretation and the media’s impact is not as all-powerful as previously thought. Either way, the roller girls will always be the subject of public scrutiny in this debate, yet they will keep participating in the sport they love best and continue to hold the title of the only aggressive predominately-female sport in existence.

One Response
  1. March 24, 2009

    This argument/debate strikes me as similar to the one about pornography. The women are seen as choosing to represent themselves this way. I find this the most intriguing part of the paper as it interrogates the tension between how the women see themselves and how the media portrays them. I wonder which is more important. Does it matter how the women see themselves if the rest of the world views them as catering to male fantasy?

    One key question for me is “Yet one must wonder what is really being misrepresented. Is it the roller girls’ attempt at reconstructing women’s roles? Or is it the media’s claim that a girl in fishnets and a miniskirt is always a sexual object?” I’d like to see this question answered—at least from your point of view. It’s interesting to me how this is different from super models and porn stars in that roller derby women are physically strong and capable. In my mind, this creates even more of a conflict. In some ways, it’s similar to the Survivor contestants, also physically strong, but who choose to behave more typically female-like in order not to be voted off. Is something like this going on here? It might also be interesting to hear your own speculation about what you think would make the sport more legitimate and less open to the kinds of critiques you present here.

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