WORDS BY Ana Brasil (shorter extract from Judas Magazine SS17) PHOTOS BY Robin Sinha. Roller derby is one of the few female contact sports in the world. Even though it’s experiencing a huge growth, tough girls in skates still sounds like something out of a movie. JUDAS met some of the fierce London Rollergirls to discover a strong community that is fueling female empowerment.
Little girls watch Disney movies and want to become princesses when they grow up. Then, they become young women who watch American romantic comedies and decide that roller derby is the way to go. Well, not all of them of course. Whip it, the 2009 movie written by Shauna Cross, author of Roller Girl, surely can be considered one of the big factors for the huge growth that the sport has experienced in the last decade.
From the USA, where it started as little more than entertainment in the 1930’s, roller derby has evolved to a fully-fledged contact sport and spread throughout the world as one of the few, if not the only, predominantly female sport.
The revival that it experienced in the early 2000’s was fueled by the fierce movie characters that portrayed badass women who were strong, independent and beautiful, played by actresses Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis just to name a few. More importantly, Whip it showed women coming together as a team and even putting themselves before a love interest. Yes, you need to see it. But, as empowering as the movie might be, it also represents a side of roller derby that the sport is currently stepping away from.
“Interestingly I know the woman who wrote Whip it because I started playing roller derby with the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and she was one of the skaters there”, says Bette Noir after offering us some coffee and sitting down for a chat at her beautiful kitchen table. About ten years ago, this fierce American businesswoman moved to London and played a huge role in introducing roller derby to Europe. The founder of London Rollergirls, one of the top four teams in the world, is an advocate of the “for the skater, by the skater” ethos, which implies a huge jump from the sexy girl gang presented in Whip it. “In the earlier days [of roller derby] it was very much about this kind of punk rock, tattoo, alternative, rockabilly chick. And very white too, obviously, because that’s a stereotype of that alternative ethos as well, especially in America. But that has changed over these ten years”.
In 2015, the BBC produced Skate Fast, Hit Hard, a documentary on roller derby calling it “Europe’s fastest-growing female sport”. Other newspapers and websites will say it’s cricket, rugby or football that should take the title. The discrepancy of opinions only shows one thing: women are now participating seriously in sports and being successful more than in any other moment in history. Unfortunately, female sports still don’t get the backing they need to develop their structure. When was the last time you watched, whether live or on TV, a female sports game? Exactly.
“I think our society is still sexist in many ways and there are a lot of people in the echo chamber of the Internet or anywhere else who will tell you that watching women’s sports is not as exciting as watching men’s. I don’t necessarily think that’s true, it’s just an opinion, but if they’re the ones buying merchandise and they’re the ones the television executives think they need to cater to, then that’s going to continue to be the reality”, says Bette Noir. “The England’s lady team did really well in the World Cup and hardly anyone watched it here. They did get a lot more coverage than they’ve ever had before, but I can guarantee that most people in the UK were like ‘yeah, whatever’. And I’m pretty sure Sky was not buying the rights to the ladies Arsenal game”.
Unlike football though, roller derby started as a female only sport. There are currently some male players and teams, but this is one of the few – if not the only – sport that was created primarily for women. A unique title that has connected roller derby to notions of female empowerment and feminism.
“Our mission statement is not to act as an advocate to further the cause of women and feminism in a direct way, but it is absolutely a side effect of what we are doing and a bit of the ethos behind it as well. The ‘for the skater, by the skater’ [motto] started as having a women centric focus because it was like ‘no, we don’t want some guy with a chequebook telling us what to do and what to wear’. It’s just a natural progression for us to fly that flag”, explains Bette.
The freedom of not having an external private owner comes with a cost, of course, but it’s one that the players are happy to pay – and they pay it with their own time and skills. Marketing, PR and most of the roles you’d find in your common company exist here too, but are carried out by players, ex-players, friends and fans, on a mainly volunteer basis.
“Of course everybody would love to be able to focus their time on doing this and getting paid, but I don’t think that is totally realistic for the next ten years. It’s going to be a slow process because we are a women’s sport and we are not on television”, says Bette, who is also the Director of the London Rollergirls, a registered company.
In Whip It, one of the strongest moments is how the movie ends – ring the spoiler alert. There’s a sexy guy that has left to follow his dreams and, when he comes back, the girl hasn’t been waiting around for him. She’s moved on, with a little help from her friends and a renewed confidence she found in her sporting abilities. It’s not your typical Hollywood ending, but it’s been a starting point for a lot of girls that now believe they can stand alone. Or, even better, with each other.
To know more about Robin Sinha, please visit his official website.