The Impact of Sexism in Roller Derby

For as long as I can remember, I have always been a feminist (by feminist, I mean a person who wants equality for all sexes and genders), and I am continually learning how patriarchy impacts my life. I never expected it to impact roller derby - the one real space, to me, where feminism thrived - but it did and does all the time. Much of this I’m still trying to work out, and that may be painfully clear as you read. I am refraining from using real life examples to show how sexism impacts roller derby, because I don’t want to shame anyone, and I don’t want to slip into bitterness about my own experiences. I recognize that without specific, detailed examples it may be difficult to understand at times, but I’m going to take that chance. Fingers crossed.

One reason I am passionate about derby is because it’s an escape from patriarchal oppression. When I’m skating or coaching or doing anything with my derby friends, I do it in the one safe place where I am recognized as a human being and I’m free from the exhausting misogyny that poisons every single day of life as a woman. (I'll spare you descriptions of this in effort to stay on topic, but I can and will launch into this topic at any given opportunity.) Over the last few years, I have recognized ways that sexism slips into roller derby, this sacred, feminist space. Sometimes it's been a little annoying, and other times it has completely tainted my derby experience.

[[ Before I get too much further I want to make this crystal clear: I'm not talking about men playing roller derby or male players behaving in a sexist way. With exception of the last point I make here, I am writing about how women reinforce gender roles and sexist thinking. More on that in a minute. ]]

First, I want to explain why/how I view roller derby as a sacred, feminist space. In general, the sport offers women an opportunity to be empowered as leaders. Running a sports business offers women the chance to take on positions of leadership, to make decisions, to create positive change, and to be heard. I have never been part of an organization (past or present) that has allowed me the opportunities that derby has, and unfortunately, this is the case for many women.

The sport also empowers women by allowing them to use their bodies in ways that demonstrate our strength. We use our bodies to move and control our opponents. In my experience growing up, there were no activities that allowed girls to do this because girls aren't (weren't?) supposed to play rough because they would get hurt. Today, there are still few opportunities for girls and women to play a full-contact sport. (I am eternally grateful for the growth of junior roller derby. I get mega-weepy just thinking about this, nevermind watching the juniors play. So many tears of magnificent joy.) Women need to explore and celebrate their physical strength and abilities. By doing so we experience feelings of accomplishment and a sense of agency, which builds confidence, self-esteem, and self-awareness. In an oppressive society in which women are told they aren’t good enough or strong enough or anything enough, we need all the confidence we can get!

Derby also empowers women to dress however they want and to fully feel comfortable in their own skin. Our society tells us what is not okay to wear the very moment we start school. We're told that we're asking for some level of abuse based on the clothes we wear. For the most part, the culture of roller derby accepts and celebrates everyone and offers a home free of abuse. There are so few places in life where we can feel safe to truly be/find ourselves. For many, roller derby is that safe space. It provides a welcoming home, a place for everyone to grow as an individual. There are very few, if not any, organizations that provide this kind of empowerment for women.

Many women have difficulty describing the root of their excitement about and passion for roller derby. Without the language (and sometimes the understanding) to express how patriarchal oppression impacts a woman's life, it's difficult to articulate how you feel in the absence of it. Many women say that derby saved them; derby changed their lives. I think they are saying derby gave them a place where they can fully be themselves, a place where they felt liberated from the oppression of patriarchy. Derby skaters are drawn to the athleticism and social aspect, sure, but there are many other sports that offer exercise and socialization. Roller derby empowers and liberates women in ways that other sports do not. Roller derby is more than a sport. It is a movement.

Everything about being a leader, using your body in strong, powerful ways, and looking and behaving like your true self challenges society’s prescribed gender roles. These roles inform us about how we are supposed to behave and what is normal. They influence ideas about what is considered feminine and masculine. The qualities of femininity are commonly described as emotional, passive, dependent, sensitive, quiet, nurturing, intuitive, family-oriented, warm, tender, gentle, submissive, indecisive, cooperative, accommodating, and so on. Words commonly used to describe masculinity are independent, non-emotional, aggressive, tough, strong, competitive, active, rational / logical, courageous, decisive, ambitious, and so on. There is no actual science that proves women and men are any of these things. Let me repeat that: THERE IS NO ACTUAL SCIENCE TO PROVE GENDER ROLES ARE A REAL THING. We are socialized to behave these ways from the moment we are born, dressed in pink or blue, and given a baby doll or a truck. Stepping out of the prescribed gender role is often met with confusion, anger, resentment, and abuse - from both men and women.

Because gender roles are so ingrained and reinforced, we are often not aware of how they impact us. They create expectations, unspoken rules, stereotypes, and oppressive behavior. Sometimes it is very subtle. Sometimes it isn't.

The sacred, feminist space of roller derby is threatened when people, especially those in positions of power, unconsciously adhere to and perpetuate the gender roles that oppress us. We are all guilty of this sometimes (myself included). Paulo Freire (in the quote to the left) explains how oppressed people can become oppressors by mimicking the behavior of those who oppress them. This happens among women in a million-trillion-billion ways: when we call each other sluts or bitches or judge someone because of how they dress, for instance. I don't mean in a joking way (though "I was just joking" can often be an excuse used to rationalize). In roller derby, women oppress women in ways we are often unaware of. I've listed some examples below, which focus on language and how we communicate and how we train.

Incessant apologizing.

I’ve heard so many skaters apologize for doing something awesome (like landing a powerful block), doing something that naturally occurs when playing derby (like connecting wheels while skating next to someone), and for something they didn’t even do, but were involved in (like a pile-up). I’m not saying you should never apologize for anything. There are definitely situations when an apology is warranted, but don't apologize when you do things correctly or when you are not at fault for anything. Women do this all the time.  They apologize for taking up physical space. Speaking. Sharing an opinion. "Excuse me" is replaced with "I'm sorry." We need to work this out of our systems and apologize only for the things that we need to be sorry for (and legitimately feel sorry for). 

Asking “are you okay?”

I've seen skaters stop playing the game mid-jam to ask if another skater is okay. I’ve heard skaters do this after someone takes a hard hit, trips, or falls down. There are definitely occasions when this question is necessary, but not every occasion. It's a good time to ask when someone is visibly affected in a way that indicates they are hurt. But not during a jam. Never during a jam. You keep playing until the officials end the jam.

At this point, you might be asking something like "how could doing something nice be harmful, right? Wouldn’t it be douchey to not apologize or ask if someone is okay? I’m just responding with kindness - how is that bad?!" It’s harmful because these seemingly kind statements imply that women are weak and need to be protected. These responses are what's known as benevolent sexism, or behaviors viewed as “nice” but inspired by stereotypes about women. Chivalry is a good example; it’s meant to be nice and polite but it comes from a place that views women as weak. Offering to carry my groceries is only necessary if I can’t carry them all on my own. Don’t offer to carry (or take directly out of my hands) the bags I can easily carry myself. It’s not polite. It's unnecessary and insulting.

Women may feel they have to ask if someone is okay because, as a woman, you are supposed to be nurturing. You're an asshole if you don't do it when you perceive that someone might be hurt, right? Not all physical contact results in pain or injury. The perception (that someone is hurt after a hit or fall) changes with experience. As skaters become more experienced they learn that they don’t need to ask if someone is okay after every single instance of contact, and the same goes with apologizing. They learn the acceptable behaviors of roller derby (which are vastly different than society’s acceptable behavior for women) and realize that asking if someone is okay and apologizing is not always necessary.

Referring to someone’s physical strength and/or level of competitiveness in a negative light.

I’ve heard skaters and coaches say things like “she’s too aggressive,” “she’s going to hurt someone,” and “she’s too competitive.” I’ve known coaches who have refused to teach powerful (but legal) blocks because they viewed them as “mean” or “too dangerous.” In a full-contact sport in which women are taught to use their bodies to move, take down, and control their opponents, I am continually surprised when skaters and coaches respond in ways that shame women for doing exactly what they train to do. There’s this idea that women can be aggressive and competitive (an improvement, yes!), but not too aggressive and competitive (a limitation based on sexist thinking).  

Roller derby is a full-contact sport. We play by rules that are designed with safety in mind. It’s crucial that trainers prioritize safety so that anyone who is cleared to play the game can do so in a safe environment. I think problems arise when inexperienced players are pitted against veteran skaters. Coaches recognize that the situation might be dangerous for the inexperienced skater, but blaming the veteran skater or saying she is too aggressive puts the responsibility on that skater to change how she plays the game and go against her training. I also think problems arise when a physically powerful skater gets into penalty trouble. Some coaches might refer to her as dangerous or too aggressive. The proper response, I feel, is to celebrate her powerfulness WHILE teaching her to be legal.

Viewing communication that is not overtly positive as being harmful.

This most often happens when people, who are confronting issues within the league or offering feedback, are accused of being negative, mean, or going against sisterhood. This mindset emphasizes capitulation and group think, “a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.” Women are taught to be accommodating, to make people feel good. We are not encouraged to debate or offer dissenting points of view, so when we do we can be viewed as disruptive, difficult, or malicious. This type of reaction stifles growth and inclusion.

You can seek positivity, while acknowledging that in order to achieve or maintain a positive space you must deal with difficult issues so they don’t infect. View those who confront issues as someone who seeks growth and improvement, not someone who is negative or going against sisterhood.

Emotional manipulation.

This happens in a seemingly infinite number of situations. Some women will cry to manipulate others. In many league or team discussions I’ve heard someone say insane, illogical things and others respond with sympathy and support just because that person was crying. I’ve seen people reach out to others using thoughtful, brilliant logic and... crickets. I think there are people who are genuinely upset and genuinely respond with tears when discussing subjects they are passionate about. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s okay to get emotional. It’s not okay when you use emotional manipulation to get what you want. Attempting this fosters the harmful stereotype that women are emotional and highly sensitive and implies that we are illogical and incapable of thinking rationally.

Passive aggressiveness.

If I asked a group of people - would you rather have a leader who is honest and straightforward, even if it's hard to hear what they say, or would you rather have someone who is passive aggressive? - I think everyone would pick the first. While they may want a direct, honest leader, it often doesn’t work out when that person is a woman. Many people don't want to or refuse to hear honest/difficult things from a woman because she is *supposed to be* sweet, kind, giving, nurturing. When a woman steps out of that prescribed gender role, she can be viewed negatively - as a power-hungry bitch, a bully, a meanie, and so on. Because she defies the stereotypes of how women are supposed to behave, other women can see her as a threat or as a mirror representing the ways they aren't allowed to behave.

Because women are not encouraged to speak directly, many women develop passive aggressive ways (sometimes unconsciously) to communicate what upsets them. Passive aggressive behavior and communication is incredibly damaging. It puts everyone in a position in which they have to interpret what people are really saying, which leads assumptions, misunderstandings, invented motivations, and, most certainly, drama.

Aside from not being encouraged to speak directly, women are often ignored, silenced, or shamed for doing so. This happens ALL. THE. TIME. Many women choose to communicate passive aggressively because it is positively reinforced by those around them.

Passive aggressive behavior and communication assumes or maybe intends (or maybe doesn't give a fuck) that the recipient can interpret secret meaning. I don't waste my energy trying to interpret what someone really means, and, honestly, I don't know how. I think it's irresponsible to make assumptions about what someone means, so I take everything at face value and ask questions if someone is not clear. This makes some people nuts because I am, essentially, forcing them to be direct and they don't like it. It feels uncomfortable. If we are going to work together, if we are going to grow as a team, a league, a sport, we HAVE to learn how to speak directly and comprehend direct communication.

I have one last example of sexism in roller derby and this is might be the most controversial one because it involves men. (And before you hashtag-not-all-men, please recognize that I'm not saying that all men or all women behave in any of the ways I've described.) I don’t know if this is actually happening or if it’s something I’m projecting, but it seems like there are some men, when playing against or training with women, scale down their strength as not to hurt women. I’ve seen some doods blast off on one another in the pack and later block a woman with much less intensity. In non-derby life, hitting a girl is simply not allowed and very much discouraged. I imagine it must be a huge leap for guys to get past this just so they can play with women at all. If you are taught to never hit girls and always protect them, it’s going to be difficult to play with the girls like you do the boys. This is benevolent sexism at work, though, and it’s harmful because it feeds into the idea that women are weak. I don't think men are consciously thinking and worrying they might hurt a woman (maybe some do); they just aren't always aware of how benevolent sexism plays out on the track.

I think about this stuff all the time. I am constantly aware of how sexism and patriarchal oppression impacts women, and I'm deeply saddened and frustrated when I see it happen in roller derby. I want to hear from you. Have you thought about this stuff before? Have you ever noticed women reinforcing sexist behavior and harmful gender roles? Do you talk about this stuff with anyone? Are you a feminist? What does that mean to you? Do you consider your league a feminist organization? Tell me stuff!