A note of interest

Thanks to all those who have taken the time to check out my blog.  This has been a great opportunity to share my research with a wider population.  I invite any comments and feedback is welcome.  Unfortunately, this is only a preliminary research project and I have only been able to scrape the surface of the topic.  But, I hope to continue my work in the future and continue to build and expand my knowledge.

Thanks 🙂


Wrapping Up

Much of the present literature surrounding roller derby has focused on the sport as a means to push traditional boundaries of what it means to be a woman.  However, my research was a preliminary look into roller derby as a social movement.  Based on my findings, involvement in the roller derby community gives the women involved a sense of togetherness.  These bonds are developed through the support network that roller derby provides.  Moreover, they are able to develop a shared identity that capitalizes on their differences.  So, individualism is encouraged within a collective community dynamic.

Roller derby continues to be an alternative sport, highlighted by the interview participant’s acknowledgement that it is not for everyone to play or even watch.  However, the thought of roller derby becoming an Olympic sport was surprising.  Shifting to a more mainstream avenue like the Olympics raises the question of whether roller derby will continue to be owned and operated by the women involved.  Moreover, would this undermine the strides roller girls have taken in challenging norms?  Would the sport be as accepting of women of all athletic abilities if it reached this level of caliber and would there be a shift towards corporate sponsorship?  These are all important questions that further research could address.

An area that also deserves further research is the international roller derby phenomenon.  As mentioned previously, this would uncover what population the roller derby movement represents within society.  In this way, more connections could be made in regards to new social movement theories.

In conclusion, based on new social movement scholarship, roller derby maintains several key elements intrinsic within these theories.  This includes, but is not limited to, an identifiable collective identity and culture, challenging what mainstream society deems “normal” and grassroots origins.  Considering this, the roller derby movement in London, Ontario appears to be more than just a sport as several elements are linked to new social movement theories.  Further in-depth research would benefit this study to develop a more holistic understanding of the social factors involved.


Connecting the dots

In this project I was seeking to develop knowledge to critically review the all-female roller derby movement in London, Ontario.  By means of a critical counter-cultural lens I wanted to explore whether a relationship existed between roller derby as a subculture within a wider social movement.  Using this lens I wanted to examine roller derby in a greater context – as more than just a sport.  Sport is often ignored within social movement theories because it is an institution with conservative roots.[1]  So, dynamics within sport generally follow a power hierarchy and gender hierarchy of a conservative nature.  Thus, sports generally do not create the climate necessary for social movements.  However, through various methodologies and the initiation of dialogue with the three roller derby teams in London, Ontario – the Thames Fatales, the Lunch Ladies and the Forest City Timber Rollers – I will analyze and explore ideas to explain if roller derby is more than just a leisure activity, specifically in relation to new social movement theories.


Although new social movement theories differ in many ways, a common theme throughout involves the idea of collective action.  Alain Touraine discussed how these movements guard against “…the impersonal logic of profit and competition…” and appeal to notions of identity.[2]  Certain collective identity markers characterize collective groups.  These often challenge norms and question the notion of what is right and socially acceptable.  Identity is developed through interaction and involvement in the activity.  In regards to roller derby, based on the data collected the women who become involved in the sport seem to develop a unique identity.

Using the term identity became a common marker throughout the interview, as the participant referred to the women adopting a “different identity” through uniforms and costume makeup.  The interviewee talked about the separation of identities, so “…by day University professor, by night roller derby queen”.  Roller derby provided a means to adopt a persona separate from that an individual might portray at work and it seemed like this contributed to the sense of freedom and individualism that the women felt.

According to Jennifer Hargreaves, social movements require those involved to construct their own identity rather than have one defined for them.[3]  Identity politics is inherent within roller derby in terms of the names adopted.  Participants offered a variety of explanations for the names chosen and observation data showed that many names chosen adopted strong descriptors, for example Bloodlust Barbie, Dollface Massacre, Jemicide and Andi Slamberg.  These examples highlight an air of innocence in conjunction with an aggressive or violent side.  I think this emphasizes the challenge to standard notions of female identity and dominant sports media imaging.  These names challenge traditional ideas of women being passive and fragile and as a result construct an alternative identity.  So, rather than being alienated from their identity, women involved in roller derby can take control and transform the sport into an avenue to express themselves.  This is an idea discussed by Sage who views alternative sports, like roller derby or skateboarding, as a means for woman to reshape norms through collective action that encourages female autonomy.[4]

Roller derby has created an alternative community in regards to the uniforms worn.  The uniforms contribute to the sense of collectivity as well as individual identity.  Observation data showed women in fishnets, knee high socks, face paint and short skirts or spandex shorts.  This practice is common in roller derby leagues and works to create a counterculture that Sage says is common within social movements.[5]  Thus, roller derby becomes an expressive outlet as well as a transformation of values and creation of alternative norms.

This form of counterculture is especially noticeable in comparison to other female sports that remain inextricably linked and similar to men’s sport and lack an expressive outlet.  The interview participant highlighted this, stating “…there is not a whole lot of female sports out there…there is your basic soccer.  Soccer is soccer.  You know, whether it is male or females.  And same with hockey, still the same thing.  Hockey is hockey.”  Roller derby differs in that it gives woman something of their own as a community of women expressed through a unique identity.  In regards to new social movements, theorists posit that movements are characterized by changing identity and culture.  Roller derby employs an alternative identity and culture in comparison to mainstream sports like soccer and this really speaks to the fact that roller derby could be considered more than just a sport.


According to Hargreaves, “…the term movement implies a global dimension which transcends nationhood…”[6]  This includes the involvement of individuals across the globe from different socio-economic backgrounds, races, religions, etcetera engaging in dialogue and sharing knowledge.  The roller derby movement has boomed since 2001 and has expanded to include leagues in Australia, Korea, Italy and Russia among many other states.  Interview data revealed that in 2012 Toronto held the first ever International Women’s Roller Derby World Cup.  The participant went as far to state that she believed roller derby was, “…going to go to the Olympics.”  The building of an international roller community has provided women with the opportunity to build networks based on shared values and beliefs.  Thus, it can be said that roller derby contains the international dimension of social movements.  However, there are several questions that this preliminary research does not address.

To start, the roller derby movement in London, Ontario seems to lack racial diversity.  Observation and survey data reveal that most of the women identify as Caucasian and most of the bout attendees also appeared to be Caucasian.  Moreover, survey data highlighted that most women who participated occupied middle management careers and a majority had some degree of college or University education.  This highlights that many of the women involved enjoy a relatively high degree of privilege.  Furthermore, it offers a narrow representation of the population.  Future research would benefit from studying the international roller derby phenomenon.  This could answer questions of whether movements across the globe reflect this small representation of the population.  In addition, it could uncover whether or not locals or ex-patriots who had previous experience with the game, started roller leagues in other countries.  Thus, although roller derby may be a new social movement, there is the potential that it is a movement restricted to a certain race and class.


New social movements share a focus on diversity and a shift towards grassroots and local activities.  The organization of roller derby itself evolves from a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos in which the women own and operate their own leagues.  Observation data revealed that the women who participate in the teams each have specific roles for the league.  So, some women arrive early to prep for the match, others are responsible for community outreach and some organize the “fresh meat” nights.[7]  These roles are all volunteer based and cater to the lives of the participants.  As a result, roller derby allows players to become as actively involved as they want in the sport.  Through this DIY approach, many participants addressed the empowerment and community support that develops out of this.

Jarive examined how alternative sport communities have the potential to mobilize meanings that contribute to a greater social significance.[8]  So, this could involve a feeling or relationship that extends beyond the sporting activity.  In terms of roller derby, the interview participant reiterated the support network that she found within the roller derby league.  She even went as far to say that “I never met, never had friends like that before…” in conversation about the women she participates in derby with.  The data revealed that the support network is incredible both in the sport and outside of it.  The interview participant herself said she would be a maid of honour for one of her fellow teammates.  Moreover, several survey participants highlighted the sense of belonging they felt after joining the roller derby league.  This speaks to the feeling of community and collective identity that stems from participation in the sport and a shift towards understanding roller derby in a greater context and as more than just a sport.

Kivisto, a social movement theorist, discusses how immersion within a social activity creates an individual identity that is in turn determined by the group.[9]  Considering this in terms of roller derby, the organization, customs and structure of the league reflect a collective identity that reinforces individual creativity.  So, women are able to customize their own uniforms and choose their own names, but these decisions are rooted in roller derby culture.

It is important to note that social movements do not require a political effect.  As noted previously, new social movements are about challenging ideas of what is “right” and are often rooted in culture.  The women who are involved in roller derby challenge standard norms that bind women, for example standard notions of femininity.  Based on the opportunities that roller derby presents, those involved are able to develop a community that together challenges cultural codes, a key element of new social movements as outlined by several new social movement theorists.


[1] Davis-Delano, L. R. “Using Social Movement Theory to Study Outcomes in Sport-Related Social Movements,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 43, no. 2 (2008): 116.

[2] Touraine, A. New Paradigm for Understanding Today’s World (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 155.

[3] Hargreaves, J. “The ‘Women’s International Sports Movement’: Local-Global Strategies and Empowerment.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 22, vol. 5. (1999): 470.

[4] Sage, H. G. Power and Ideology in American Sports (Champaign: Human Kinetics, 1998), 285.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hargreaves, J. “The ‘Women’s International Sports Movement’: Local-Global Strategies and Empowerment.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 22, vol. 5. (1999): 462.

[7] Fresh meat refers to try-outs for potential new roller derby recruits.

[8] Jarive, G. Sport, Culture and Society: An Introduction, (New York: Routledge, 2006), 275-6.

[9] Kivisto, P. (ed) Social Theory: Roots and Branches, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 179.

What have I uncovered?

Interview Data:

My interview provided me with the opportunity to discuss roller derby with a woman who has been playing for four years.  We discussed various aspects of the game and touched upon what sparked her interest in the sport and her progression through it in her four years of participation.  This was to help me build an understanding of the sport while discovering her motivation for playing.  Moreover, I sought to understand what continues to draw her and other women out to play as well.  I wanted to gain insight into the feelings and thought process surrounding roller derby so I could later analyze the information and seek links with new social movement theory.  What stood out from the interview was the participants acknowledgement of identity and the alternative nature of the sport.  The participant pointed out that being able to choose an alternative identity is something that draws women to the sport.  For instance, they are able to choose a unique name and style of uniform, pointing to a non-conformist nature within roller derby.  The ability to transform into a derby girl is meaningful as women from a cross-section of socio-economic and educational backgrounds can play.  According to the interviewee, they can shed their day identity to become a roller derby queen by night.  This is both a means of empowerment and freedom of choice and seems to be a defining characteristic of roller derby culture.

A further important aspect that stood out from the interview data was the system of support that the roller derby team provided the interviewee.  For this participant, the team became a female support system during a tumultuous time in her life.  Although unexpected, this seems to be a unique aspect of the game as relationships extend outside of the realm of roller derby.

In terms of culture, the participant alluded to the idea that roller derby is something innate within a person.  She indicated that there is something within people that makes them want to participate in an aggressive, female only sport like roller derby.  She highlighted the fact that roller derby is not for everyone, both to participate in and watch.  This raises questions in terms of a movement that is not created but is natural.  Thus, perhaps roller derby stems from an innate sense of culture within certain women.

Finally, an interesting element within the interview was the participants belief that roller derby would become a mainstream Olympic sport.  As an activity that has resisted corporate sponsorship and has maintained a do-it-yourself ethos, this is an interesting suggestion.  Moreover, roller derby has been characterized by individualism and uniqueness within a team setting.  This raises the question of whether roller derby becoming an Olympic sport will change the way the game and the whole international movement is shaped.  Considering the information gathered through this interview process, I will examine the possibilities of drawing connections with further survey and observation data collected.

Survey Data:

The survey data revealed that the women ranged in age from 23 to 42 years of age with a median age of 32.  The group lacked racial diversity as thirteen of the fifteen identified as Caucasian and two did not respond.  The group varied in socio-economic status however a majority of those surveyed had middle management positions.  In addition, the women varied in terms of education with one not finishing high school, eight with college diplomas, three with a bachelors degree, one masters, one PhD candidate and one accredited PhD.  All the participants surveyed identified as the female gender and of those that participated, five had children.  Five of the women were married, seven were single, one engaged, one partnership and one separated.  In addition, thirteen had piercings and ten had tattoos.

Of the fifteen women surveyed, when asked about what motivated interest in the sport many cited the athletic challenges within a new sporting paradigm.  Others made reference to seeing roller derby in the media when they were younger, while others had friends who played who encouraged them to join.

When asked how the women chose their roller derby names, the data provided highlighted several different responses.  A common theme in several answers was the need for something fierce and tough.  Other participants however, chose names based on parodies, nicknames or favourite bands.  One respondent chose her name for a cousin who was affected by cystic fibrosis.

When questioned about the correlation between roller derby and gender, five respondents said roller derby did not affect their gender in any way.  Four participants highlighted how roller derby is empowering for them although did not elaborate on how it empowered them.  One of these women did, however, refer to the increase in self-confidence as a result of feeling empowered after participating in roller derby.  Two of the women discussed how they are often stereotyped as being a lesbian and wanted to challenge this assumption.

One participant gave a very thorough answer addressing how the sport was initially marketed as “Hot Girls Hitting Other Hot Girls in Fishnets”.  She stressed the recent shift away from advertising roller derby as an entertainment event to a focus on derby as a sporting event.  This was a means to become a more positive role model to those who attend bouts.  Particularly, she stated that there are many young girls who look up to them, often seeking autographs after bouts.   Thus, this respondent said that in a society that is highly sexualized and focused on body image it was important to develop a sport that represented all women, regardless of size or shape.

When questioned about how roller derby affects the players outside of the sport, many responded with feelings of increased confidence, physical fitness and energy.  One respondent discussed the increased sociability with other women who play derby.  Another stated derby was a means to deal with regular life stress.  Of the women who completed the survey, eight did not participate in outside community organizations.  The remaining six were active in other sports teams, community groups for their children and volunteer organizations.

Observation Data:

Observation provided an important element in this preliminary research project in terms of contexualizing the study population.  The roller derby bout was held at the Western Fair Agriplex, located in the East end of London, Ontario.  Various entertainment complexes, like a hockey arena and Casino, surround this area.  Moreover, this part of London is often characterized as a lower socio-economic and high crime area of the city.[1]  The bout was held in an open warehouse with nine sets of bleachers surrounding a circular flat track.  Both teams had separate benches with an announcer and scoreboard located at the corner of the track on the same side as the two teams.

At the inside entrance of the Agriplex several vendors were set up selling roller derby merchandise.  The women who ran these vendors seemed to be involved in the roller derby bout taking place.  A variety of items were sold including funky leggings, purses, baby onesies and candy.  There was also a vendor set up supporting the Make-A-Wish foundation through monetary donations.

The demographics of the crowd revealed that most people who attend the bouts tend to come in groups, potentially family units or friends.  There were approximately 50 children in attendance who looked to be age 12 and under.  Almost one hundred per cent of the crowd appeared to be Caucasian from approximately age 25 to 60+.  A majority of the spectators were dressed in casual attire, for example jeans and t-shirts.  In addition, several had signs to show support for a specific player, for example, one sign read “Sad Panda will make you cry”.[2]

At the beginning of the bout, each team took it in turn to circle the track while the announcer shouted each player’s derby name.  During the bout, the interaction between the players appeared to be encouraging and supportive.  The players on the bench shouted reassurance and advice to their teammates on the track.  Moreover, several showed support through gestures and contact, for example high-fives and touching hands or the lower back of a teammate.  As each bout finished, both teams would circle the track and shake hands with both the opposing team and audience members who came down to participate in this end of game activity.

The uniforms of all three teams varied as each had unique colours and logos.  Many women wore fishnets and knee high socks.  The creative element of the sport allowed the women to choose between sleeveless tops or regular t-shirts.  Some wore shorts while others had skirts.  Moreover, many of the players decorated their helmets while  several others donned face paint.  In addition, many of the women had visible tattoos.


[1] These are stereotypes that affect the East end of London and I did not collect data to verify whether they are sound or not.

[2] Sad Panda is the derby name of one of the players in the Forest City Derby Girl league

What’s the word on roller derby and social movements?

Globalization has resulted in a more interconnected world and a rise in consciousness in cultural exchange and social movements.  While scholars within the social movement paradigm tend to focus on political processes, new social movements tend to shift away from this and focus on culture.  To highlight this shift it is important to point out that much of past scholarship has centered on Marxist ideology or the functionalist tradition.  Marxist social movements are about challenging an imbalance in social order and structural class conditions.  Marxism is rooted in class conflicts and class interests, mostly in relation to capitalism.  Thus, collective action is often revolutionary in uprooting the system and redefining it.  The functionalist tradition on the other hand looks at how events create a circumstance in which groups come together to form a collective identity.[1]  This was often due to imbalances in social order and is referred to as “…an action without an actor.”[2]  In opposition to Marxist and functionalist traditions, new social movements represent a departure from standard acts of protest and “…incorporate factors of identity including, race, class, gender and sexuality as sources of collective action and social movements.”[3]

Alain Touraine has highlighted that new social movements lack economic focus or the reformation of social relations.  What new social movements do, according to Touraine, is defend individuals and collectives against an order that decides what is normal.  These movements guard against “…the impersonal logic of profit and competition…” and appeal to notions of identity.[4]  Moreover, new social movements share a focus on diversity and a shift towards grassroots and local activities.  Maheu insists that this does not necessarily mean achieving a political outcome, but rather challenging cultural codes defined by what opportunities or restrictions the current system maintains.[5]

Once a social movement develops, Crossly claims that it morphs into the society that it represents.[6]  So, the organization, customs and structure begin to reflect the collective in which the movement can be traced.  This is important in understanding the intersection between social movements and roller derby.  Roller derby offers a new counter-cultural movement without a political agenda but characterized by a defined set of values and rules.  Unfortunately, much of the literature to date does not examine the interconnectedness between roller derby and social movements.  Instead, scholars tend to look at roller derby in terms of challenges to heteronormative notions of what it means to be a woman.

Much of the literature surrounding roller derby has focused on the female body as an instrument to challenge standard notions of female femininity.  This ideal frames women as passive, fragile and the body as controlled.  C.E Storms has highlighted how roller derby provides an alternative means for women to experience their bodies.[7]  This is rooted historically as women in the Victorian era viewed roller-skating as a source of freedom, as it introduced an alternative means to socialize with men.  This was because chaperones that typically accompanied these women to roller arenas were unable to roller skate or keep pace with the women.  It is important to note, however, that women who historically participated in roller-skating were often of a higher socio-economic status.  This is because their privilege enabled them to have more disposable income and free time to partake in this activity.

Roller derby experienced it’s second wave of renewal with the Riot Grrrl movement, as mentioned in a previous post.  The Riot Grrrl movement originated in Austin, Texas stemming from a type of third wave feminism.  Out of this the Texas Rollergirls evolved, reflecting a counter-culture that challenged standard heteronormative notions in society.  The group challenged the idea that women must feminize their appearance to be accepted as athletes.[8]  The image that roller derby girls exude is one of in-your-face femininity.  So, uniforms hyper-sexualize the player’s bodies in a way that gives them control but at the same time challenges the conformity of traditional sports.  For example, uniforms often consist of ripped fishnets, spandex underwear and colourful knee socks.  Individual expression is encouraged as player’s can modify uniforms in accordance with their desires.  Thus, pressures to fit into a specific mold in order to play the sport do not alienate women in roller derby.

Literature has also revolved around the roller derby names as symbols of rebellion against typical norms in sport and society.  Central to roller derby culture is choosing a name that will be registered in an international database.  Picking the right name is seen as a form of art as it is part of your identity as a roller derby girl.  The name is often a pun or a play on words and in many case women adopt sexual innuendos and violent terminology.  But, new players must ensure that their name is not too close in sound to names that are already registered.  (An example of a name I have considered for myself is Lucille Brawl, a play on words for Lucille Ball, an American comedian.  If you are interested in checking out the International Roller Derby Names Roster, check out the link on the sidebar of this page).  Some literature has pointed to the fact that derby names represent the counter-cultural identity of roller derby and a low versus high femininity.[9]  This is essentially the idea that the combination of sexualized, pin-up girl style uniforms and names create a femininity that challenges the high femininity of mainstream sports and media.

Considering the research that has centered around the female body and notions of femininity in roller derby, my research is a shift away from this.  Instead, I am seeking to draw parallels between roller derby and new social movement theory.  However, the present research is important in providing insight into how roller derby is presently understood in various literature.  Based on an exploration of various new social movement theories, I am hoping to understand the values alternative sports like roller derby provide to new social movements.  Moreover, I am seeking to understand women’s motivation to play roller derby in London, Ontario and if the evolution of the sport there could potentially be a form of new social movement.

[1] Maheu, L. (ed). Social Movements and Social Classes: The Future of Collective Action (London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1995), 107.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kendall, D. Sociology in Our Times (Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011), 615.

[4] Touraine, A. A New Paradigm for Understanding Today’s World (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 155

[5] Maheu, L. (ed). Social Movements and Social Classes: The Future of Collective Action (London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1995), 111-6.

[6] Crossly, N. Making Sense of Social Movements (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002), 28-9

[7] Storms, C.E. “There’s No Sorry in Roller Derby: A Feminist Examination of Identity of Women in Full Contact Sport of Roller Derby,” The New York Sociologist, 3 (2008): 68.

[8] “Sporting-Self or Selling Sex: All-Girl Roller Derby in the 21st Century,” The Free Library, (2008).

[9] Ibid.


Extra, Extra! Read All About It!

Interested in some recent news about your local London, Ontario roller derby teams? Check out these links for some up-to-date info on your favourite roller girls:




Also, check them out on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/forestcityderbygirls?ref=ts&fref=ts

The Rules

Interested in finding out more about game play? Check out my videos page for links to videos that explain the in’s and out’s of roller derby! A few minutes of watching these and you’ll be able to throw out roller derby terminology like it’s your job.

How am I gathering information?

The primary focus of this research is on the three all female roller derby teams in London, Ontario – the Thames Fatales, the Luscious Lunch Ladies and the Timber Rollers.  The data was collected through a critical ethnographic approach involving an interview, non-participant observation and fifteen surveys.  As a preliminary pilot project, this research is only a brief look into the three leagues.  As a result, time only permitted for one interview rather than several in-depth interviews over a period of time, typical of ethnographies.  The interview was semi-structured and the direction of the interview was shaped by responses to open-ended questions.  It was approximately 30 minutes in duration and was recorded and transcribed for analysis.  The woman who participated in the interview has been involved in roller derby for approximately four years.  She is a member of the Timber Rollers, a new travel team comprised of the Thames Fatales and Luscious Lunch Ladies more experienced players.  The Timber Rollers is now a Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) apprentice team.

Unobtrusive non-participant observation was useful in a preliminary project as it served as an introduction to the context of the study population.  Observation was completed in London, Ontario at a roller derby bout showcasing the new Timber Rollers team as well as the Thames Fatales and Luscious Lunch Ladies.  Two bouts were played back-to-back and observation took place over a period of 6 hours.  I observed as a fan where I listened to comments of those in attendance and took field notes for further reflection later.  Observing from an etic perspective was important in identifying silent actions and norms typical of the roller derby scene.  In addition, Hennik highlights how non-participant observation as a data collection method is useful in complementing other forms of data collection, like surveys.[1]

Fifteen members from all three teams completed the sample survey.  The survey consisted of fourteen questions five of which were open-ended questions that required written responses.  I adopted this approach so that written responses could be analyzed in conjunction with transcription data to find common themes.  Moreover, the motivation behind qualitative surveys according to Jansen is to “…determine the diversity of some topic of interest within a given population.”[2]  Thus, I was hoping to get a brief overview of the sport from a range of players.  I chose to only conduct fifteen surveys as this is only a preliminary look into roller derby in London and surveying all the players from all three teams would not have been appropriate considering the time constraints of this project.  Questions on the survey ranged from gathering demographic and socio-economic information to the psychology behind players motivations to join roller derby.  The interview, observation and survey data was collected between February 2013 and March 2013.

[1] Hennik, Monique, Inge Hutter and Ajay Bailey. Qualitative Research Methods, (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2011), 171.

[2] Jansen, Harrie. “The Logic of Qualitative Survey Research and its Position in the Field of Social Research Methods,” Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Sozialforshung), 11 no. 2 (2010): 2.

Why Study Roller Derby?

Roller derby and the evolution of roller-skating have experienced many changes since their inception in the early 1900s.  The first bout (this means game) of roller derby took place in Chicago in 1935 however popularity surrounding the sport has fluctuated throughout the twentieth century.  Interest in the sport declined in the 1970s as a result of the gas crisis making it difficult for teams to travel for bouts.[1]  Although several attempts were made throughout the 80s and 90s to revive the sport, it wasn’t until 2001 that roller derby began to gain real popularity.

Roller derby as we know it today was revived in Austin, Texas in cooperation with the Riot Grrrl Movement, a punk inspired third wave feminist movement with roots in the 1990s.[2]  The resurgence of this all female sport has reclaimed and reconstructed heteronormative notions of female sexuality and femininity.  Historically, women were encouraged to partake in activities that reinforced femininity as passive, fragile and aesthetically pleasing.  Roller derby challenges this by incorporating aggressive athleticism and rebellion, infused by colourful uniforms, fishnet stockings and girls sporting tattoos and piercings.  Rising up from grassroots organization, roller derby is booming and has become an international phenomenon.  Women who participate in roller derby are part of a subculture that challenges cultural codes bringing rise to the question of whether or not roller derby could be viewed as a new form of social movement.

My interest in this topic stems from various experiences at roller derby bouts in London, Ontario.  London is home to three all female flat track roller derby teams – the Thames Fatales, Luscious Lunch Ladies and the Timber Rollers.  The subculture surrounding the game is atypical to women’s sport in general.  Rather than being owned and operated by a controlled organization, leagues are run by the women themselves.  As an alternative community, roller derby has adopted a do-it-yourself ethos highlighted by the games grassroots origins.  The women don colourful outfits, ripped fishnets and short skirts and resemble pin-up girls rather than athletes.  The sport highlights both a hyper-sexuality of women’s bodies and a deep sense of rebellion and in-your-face indignation.  Research has shown that women’s roller derby is often seen as a challenge to traditional norms, both as a sport and in regards to gender.  Finley asserts that “derby girl” has itself become a constructed alternative femininity.[3]  In this way, roller derby has become a source of freedom, much as roller-skating for women in the past was. My experiences at various bouts and the subculture surrounding roller derby have caused me to question whether roller derby is more than just a sport and is actually a form of social movement.  As the majority of research surrounding roller derby surrounds the construction of gender, this research will provide insight into the game as a source of social change.

[1] Beaver, Travis. “Roller Derby Revolution: Sport as a Social Movement,” University of Texas at Austin. 1.   

[2] Storms, C. E. “There’s no Sorry in Roller Derby: A Feminist Examination of Identity of Women in the Full Contact Sport of Roller Derby,” The New York Sociologist 3 (2008). 79-80.

[3] Finley, N. J. “Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvering in Women’s Roller Derby,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 39 no. 4 (2010): 371.