The terms ‘contact sport’ and ‘women’ might not often be associated with one another in popular culture or the public consciousness. However, roller derby is a contact sport played predominantly by women that has rapidly increased in popularity and flips assumptions about gender and sport on their heads. Modern-day roller derby is part of a resurgence which occurred in the early 2000s. The sport has spread to countries overseas, including countries without a long history of roller skating, like China. According to the 2015 World Roller Derby census, there are over 25 000 players worldwide .
Roller derby is a sport which contests gender stereotypes and encompasses an inclusive ethos, which is reflected in the Women’s Derby Flat Track Association (WDFTA) gender statement. Its goal is to ‘…actively work to promote a climate that is welcoming and inclusive of transgender, intersex, and gender expansive participants. Any conduct which fosters a hostile environment for any participant on the basis of gender identity will not be tolerated.’
These strong elements of inclusivity are part of the roller derby tradition. Stacey Little (aka Hot Mess) from the Varsity Derby League in Canberra believes that, ‘gender inclusive teams are what roller derby is all about – embracing and celebrating diversity of identity. It allows our community to provide a safe, supportive environment for trans, intersex and non-binary people because people are able to self-identify.’
While the sport of roller derby is predominately made up of female players, in recent years this has begun to change with the introduction of mixed teams and an increase in male skaters. There has been concern about the move away from roller derby as an exclusively female sport. The Gender Contender, a website dedicated to exploring gender and sexuality in sport states that the inclusion of mixed teams ‘is an almost unheard of move for a contact sport, especially one so rough… Although mixed leagues are a great move toward bridging the gender divide entrenched in sports, there are concerns that men’s involvement will eclipse the achievements of women in roller derby. Some women are protective of what they view as one of the only contact sports created and dominated by women. ’
However, not all players regard mixed teams as posing a threat to the sport. Stacey says that her league ‘is gender inclusive, and training is open to all members. We started out as a women’s league, so we’re conscious of ensuring that everyone feels safe and comfortable at training. There are open discussions about co-ed training and we strive to cater to everyone’s preferences. We’re really lucky in Canberra to have the choice between two leagues – Varsity Derby League, a gender inclusive league, and Canberra Roller Derby, for women. I don’t think co-ed roller derby has detracted from the sport at all – it’s definitely strengthened the community.’
Another facet of roller derby is its performance element, with the players’ outfits sometimes receiving a lot of attention. Stacey says that she ‘was initially a little uncomfortable with the performance aspect of roller derby, but I think over the last few years the focus has shifted and is now really on the athleticism of the sport and much less on what we’re wearing…It’s really fun playing for a crowd and sharing our hard work with our friends and families too!’
Modern day roller derby presents more opportunities to mix sport with performance and this change in perceptions has filtered through to more of the general public. As Stacey says, ‘more and more people have heard about or have watched a game of roller derby and see it in the same way as any other sport. There are still some people that see it as more of a spectacle, and think it’s about women in hot pants and fishnets beating each other up for the crowd’s entertainment… I definitely don’t begrudge anyone their hot pants, but I think the focus now is much more on the players and their journey, and celebrating athleticism, strategy and diversity.’
This sense of roller derby as a diverse community is further enhanced by the fact that the participants in roller derby also come from a range of different backgrounds, hold down different day jobs and cover a range of ages – it is not just a young women’s sport. In general, women have a slightly lower participation rate in sport and physical recreation than men. There are women who may not see themselves as sporting types or who may have had negative experiences with sport. Stacey says that, ‘For me as a player, roller derby is about strength, commitment, fun and community, and I’d love for it to be embraced for offering that.’ Roller derby offers a safe place for these women to explore their sporting side and find their own place and skills within a league. As Stacey says, ‘The roller derby community is so diverse and supportive and offers so much to people who’ve struggled with sporting ability or culture. We’ve seen the introduction of junior roller derby leagues recently, but prior to that most people joined a league when they were in their 20s, 30s and 40s, with huge variance in skill or sporting experience.’
Roller derby also presents positive representations of body image for women. Unlike in many other sports, there is no one perfect body type for a roller derby player. This means that roller derby fosters a sense of inclusiveness, and is not off-putting to those who feel they don’t fit the mould. It also presents the opportunity for women to be admired for their skill, speed and strength rather than just their looks. Stacey says, ‘No body type is a disadvantage in roller derby either – big, small, tall, short and everything in between – they all have a part to play. And the idea that small girls can’t hit hard is so far from the truth – I’ve been on the receiving end of devastating blows from people of all sizes…I can honestly say I’ve never felt so supported and empowered as a member of a sports team. We’re all from such varied sporting backgrounds, but give each other the drive and confidence to improve, and are always celebrating our individual and team successes.’
Jessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.