thoughts from the roller derby
Editor’s note: this piece includes a graphic account of sexual aggression.
It’s Tim who suggests—after we each pay our $12 to a woman whose nametag reads Morbid—that we sit in the suicide seats. They’re technically not seats at all, but rather a designated area six feet from the track, called such because sitting this close to the derby girls—who alternate between roller skating as fast as they can and pounding on any opponent trying to get past them—is pretty much asking for certain death. Tim assures me that the skaters are much more likely to fall first and slide into us rather than collapse directly on top of us. “We’re like a human wall!” he cries.
Tim is 35 and right at home in this municipal gymnasium half an hour south of Cleveland, where we’ve come to watch his wife, Olivia (alias Katniss Evermean), along with the rest of the Rolling Pin-Ups, tear up the Cleveland Steamers in an intraleague bout of the Burning River Roller Girls. Olivia is about 5’3” and, as a high school librarian, spends her days getting teenagers excited about reading. The bulk of her wardrobe features bright colors and/or kittens.
We’re soon joined by Jon, who’s dating LuLu, another Rolling Pin-Up. I’m not sure if LuLu is also her name outside of derby. I’ve only spoken with her once; all I know is that she likes penguins and can deliver a formidable shoulder check. Together, we watch the team warm up, circling around the track, occasionally mock-catapulting each other forward. Katniss Evermean skates by us in her getup: green jersey, black miniskirt with white polka-dot trim, fishnets, helmet, elbow- and wrist- and knee- and mouthguards, and her trademark braids. She moves fluidly, quietly, her arms taut and clasped behind her, her lips slightly parted and her eyes focused straight ahead, weaving in and out of traffic on the straightaways and bursting out of each turn fast and low.
The gym is rocking; the crowd is ready. The referees for this evening emerge from the woodwork, waving to the crowd and warming up on their skates. Tim lets loose a guttural “YEAHHH!” A ref blows his whistle, all ten skaters explode out of their stances, and the announcer shouts, “We’re off!”
A roller derby bout consists of two-minute matchups, called jams, which involve two teams of five skaters (rotating from a roster of 14) progressing clockwise. Each team designates a scoring player (the jammer), identified by a spandex helmet cover with a star on it, who gains points by racing around the track and then lapping members of the opposing team on subsequent passes. The other players try to help their jammer forward through the pack while obstructing the opposing jammer. The skaters have to stay within 10 feet of the pack, so the entire group moves pretty much cohesively and in a steady orbit. There’s a constant patter of elbow pad smacking helmet, and all around the sound of plastic wheels grating against the gym floor. The rise and fall in volume is rhythmic, mesmerizing, and when I close my eyes I think of waves.
On the track, the ladies straight up assault each other. Missy Misdemeanor plows into LuLu with an audible thud. West Nel Virus executes a maneuver that I would probably call a hip check if it weren’t performed overtly ass-first, swiveling her hips around at the last minute toward an incoming player and thrusting her pelvis up and back. This is both effective and apparently within the rules; there is a serious and impressive amount of booty-checking transpiring in this gym. You’re not allowed to hit other players with your elbows or forearms, or to deliberately trip somebody, so the intent here is not to bruise, but rather to use your torso as a means of wholly throwing someone off-balance.
There is more makeup here than I’ve ever seen outside of prom: eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, colored blush, eye black, roll-on glitter. Everything is adorned. I see color-coordinated nail polish, knee braces, bandanas, fishnets, mouthguards. The tone is certainly butch, but there are far more miniskirts and tight tanks than the sort of loose athletic gear you’d expect of an assembly like this. The derby girls are at once menacing and desirable, and I find myself wondering exactly who the show is for.
But it’s not as if these women are puppets. They are entirely in control. They’re the ones choosing their outfits and their double entendre names (not far from me sits Dirty Rotten Oar, welts blooming on her arms and legs from the previous bout, in which she kicked ass). And it turns out that that’s kind of sexy. Radiating from beneath the muscles and the bruises and the tattoos is a confidence that I’m not used to seeing so openly, such that there’s an illusion that all of this is for them and them alone.
Certainly, sex and violence often commingle, but I’m struck by how voluntary their coupling seems to be in this setting. They’re inextricable from each other. Of course, violence is not the stated point of the endeavor, but it’s hard not to cheer when Katniss Evermean knocks an opponent aside. The sport is clearly a vehicle for the spectacle of girl-on-girl brutality. But this fan base—sedentary, jovial, the collective epitome of mild-mannered Midwestern—is not full of the type of folks you’d think would delight in watching women beat on each other. And then there’s the women themselves: off the track, Eduskater’s a professor and CupQuake owns a vegan bakery. Nobody, ultimately, is acting as you’d expect.
A memory, hazy around the edges: I’m 17, at a party in my friend Steph’s basement, and the girl who sits next to me in math class is pinning me down and ripping off my shirt and bra on the same couch where Steph and her brother and I spent hundreds of afternoons playing Frogger. The girl is drunk and sobbing and bigger than me and when I approach her in Steph’s basement she says that nobody likes her, and to calm her, I tell her I do. When she kisses my neck I tell her I didn’t mean it like that, and then she starts banging her head on the coffee table, harder and harder—there’s going to be blood—and says she’ll keep going unless I prove that I like her, and then she holds me down and I go unaccountably limp and silent for all of it until, minutes later, I hear something unzipping and realize it’s my own jeans, at which point something snaps in my brain and I heave her off of me. On Monday when I get to class, she’s laughing about how she can’t remember anything that happened that night, how it must have been wild, how it must have been unbelievable—which I suppose, strictly speaking, is true.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in four teenage girls is involved in some type of violent behavior at school, either through participating in a fistfight between groups or attacking an individual. There may be sufficient demand among young women for a space to socially acceptably pound on each other. But every article I can find that attempts to guess at why fights break out among girls points to competition, to aggressing against perceived sexual rivals: the rationale behind the anger, rather than why girls would opt to take it out physically. How strange that nobody seems to know what makes the fighters tick, what drives a girl to put up her dukes against one of her own.
Here in the suicide seats, though, watching Katniss Evermean scream at her teammates from the penalty box, I’m thinking that this is perhaps the most supportive group of females I’ve ever encountered, and maybe it’s because of the brutality. When I asked Olivia how she got started with derby, she told me about getting jumped while living in New York, about how she wanted to reclaim her strength and self-confidence. I’ve heard stories of derby girls who joined after leaving abusive relationships, after being robbed. There’s a culture of solidarity here that allows these women to unite to confront their violent experiences.
It’s tempting to see a paradox, I think—as CupQuake slams to the ground, cusses once, and immediately gets back up—in the way they spend their time in this space emulating the very violence that drove them to search out this community in the first place. It would be so easy to call it a practice ground for reality: it’s regulated, it’s female-only, and most importantly, there are people watching. And so the brutality is rendered performative; the violence these women have suffered at the hands of men is reconfigured into a giant, orbital catfight, where a girl can throw her body around, showing off its might and claiming it as her own weapon, and look good doing it. The hideousness is fundamentally transformed into entertainment, and we, the fans, slurp, pop, and cheer them on as they ricochet and rebound and recover again and again and again.
But the thing is: it’s real. They are in fact hurting each other. When their helmets hit the floor, the crack is like a gunshot. On hand are people trained to carry a stretcher and stabilize a spine. In nine months Tim will call me to let me know that Olivia is quitting derby. She’s torn up her bad knee, and she’s resting on the couch, reading young adult literature and waiting for surgery. I think of Tuety Turmoil, 60-something, gray-haired and not at all wobbly in her skates, and it hits me that just staying upright is its own special kind of brutality, that maybe silently getting back up again is just one of those things that’s inextricably tied to being female, like being shepherded into the kitchen with all the aunts at Thanksgiving or knowing how to use nail polish to fix a run in a pair of tights. And here they are, together, weathering it all.
LuLu knocks Midnight Smack to the ground and pokes through the wall of Cleveland Steamers to a roar of cheers.
“She’s a badass,” Tim says.
“That’s my girl,” Jon says.
The jam ends and LuLu pumps her fist. She’s just racked up seven points for the Rolling Pin-Ups.
The end of the bout is so happily raucous (the Rolling Pin-Ups have dominated, 303-59) that I don’t even realize Jon’s gone until suddenly there’s a giant penguin-suited individual bounding across the gym, and I turn to ask the guys what’s going on and only see Tim. And suddenly I know exactly what’s going on, even before the penguin waddles straight into the Rolling Pin-Ups’ huddle and reemerges pulling LuLu by one hand, even before they get to center court and the penguin gets down on one knee and produces a box from a pocket under one flipper, before LuLu takes off Jon’s penguin head and kisses him hard. But I suppose it’s less about whether I could see it coming and more about getting to witness it now—everyone piling on top of the new fiancés, their hair matted from the sweat, mascara streaming down their cheeks, all of them screaming like girls.