During the course of researching my dissertation, I discovered a lack of relevant written or online sources that discussed roller derby in either scholarly texts, or in an everyday context. However, on a research trip to LAGNA (the Lesbian and Gay News Media Archive) at the Bishopsgate Institute, I discovered that the archive contained a small children’s book entitled ‘I Know a Girl…Who Skates Roller Derby’ (Anderson, 2011).
Although roller derby as a sport originated in the 1930s in America, its changing popularity throughout the 20th Century has meant that it only became consistently popular again in the mid-2000s. As a result, some critics argue that roller derby as a sport is new to mainstream media (Harlan, online, 2019). This is not entirely true.
This children’s book from 2011, unlike the many other examples of roller derby ephemera and visual sources that I analysed throughout my dissertation, is unusual in that it is a positive representation of female roller derby players. Other sources from the 1990s onwards tend to hypersexualise the mainly female players, and so reduce the sport’s athletic and historical importance.
The main reason for the positive representation of women in this book is the portrayal of diversity. The illustration in figure 10 represents women from different ages, skin tones, height, and weight. The text reads: ‘there are big girls, small girls, shorties and tallies. Even little skinny girls and some with quite the bellys. The young skate with the older. The shy skate with the bolder’ (Anderson, 2011, p. 20). This quote is powerful as its message, aimed to a young audience, portrays the sport for anyone to play, regardless of appearance and physicality; something that roller derby is keen to emphasise (Harlan, online, 2019).
The fact that this is a children’s book makes its diverse representation of roller derby players even more important, as ‘children are influenced by media–they learn by observing, imitating, and making behaviours their own’ (Clark, online, year unknown). This book, unlike the many other sources I analysed in my dissertation, could have a positive impact on children’s attitudes towards a goal or an activity of interest that they may feel discouraged about. This is particularly important for young girls to feel empowered through sporting activities, without the sexist attitudes that still pervade women’s sport today.
This children’s book also encourages girls not to be ashamed to take part in this sport. Elsewhere in the book, the text reads: ‘I have learned being myself is the greatest way to be! Whether I am at school, or on the track. I should not worry what others may say about me!’ (Anderson, 2011, p. 26). This certainly does seem empowering, as the message focuses on enjoyment of doing what you love, regardless of others’ negativity.
Furthermore, this wider message of this children’s book is important, as female roller derby players are often judged unfairly, and are stereotyped within mainstream media portrayals. One example of this common negative behaviour comes from a report in 2014 of a student who played roller derby, and who was bullied by her peers about her sexuality, as she was faced with constant assumptions that she was a lesbian due to her playing an aggressive sport (Fullagar and Pavlidid, 2014, p. 68). The student’s response to this mirrors the inclusive and empowering nature of the text in the children’s book already discussed: ‘I get the general, “so you’re a lesbian.” I’m like “whether I am and whether I’m not doesn’t matter, I’m still the same person”’ (Fullagar and Pavlidid, 2014, p. 68).
The illustration in figure 12 illustrates the message with the use of the angry and judgemental faces around the figure, representing the real-life judgemental treatment of female roller derby players. However, in figure 12, the girl centred in the middle is smiling and ignoring the negativity. Also, the fact that the figure is half dressed in her roller derby uniform and half dressed in her school uniform implies she is not ashamed to play this sport, and is proud to be a part of it. Hargreaves notes that ‘in newspapers and magazines, images of sportsmen in action proliferate, but we constantly see symbols of women’s femininity rather than pictures of females athleticism’ (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 163). Therefore, the fact that there is a children’s book showing a powerful example of female athleticism is a good start to positive representations of female roller derby players.
Feminist writer and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, argues that women are told they should not express aggression as it is deemed threatening (Adiche, 2014, p. 24). Roller derby is undoubtedly an aggressive sport that is also female dominated. It was interesting to discover that there are very few sources that demonstrate a positive attitude toward this feminine aggression. Instead, most depictions of roller derby outside this children’s book seem to diminish the power of female aggression through an over-sexualisation of the female players. Instead, this children’s book struck me in the course of my research as unusual and ground breaking. It shows that it is okay to be female and to play sport, and that you do not have to follow what society perceives you as.
In summary, I was frustrated, but unfortunately not surprised, to discover that there was a serious lack of representation of female roller derby players in the popular media, but also within academic literature. Rather than focusing on the sport of roller derby, there was an over-reliance on representing hyper-sexuality, and a reliance on feminine stereotypes and over-sexualisation within the media. Therefore, my dissertation focused on how the media portrays female roller derby players, how media plays a key part in sexism. Lastly, my dissertation more broadly analysed how women in sport are represented in the media, and why this matters as part of a wider project of feminism.
“Rather than focusing on the sport of roller derby, there was an over-reliance on representing hyper-sexuality, and a reliance on feminine stereotypes and over-sexualisation within the media.”
- Adiche, C. N. (2014) We Should All Be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate.
- Anderson, R (2011) I Know a Girl…Who Skates Roller Derby! London: Scratch Communications.
- Clark, L, B (year unknown) Influence on Children Media. Available here. (Accessed: 23rd October 2019)
- Fullagar, S. and Pavlidid, A. (2014) Sport, Gender and Power the Rise of Roller Derby. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
- Harlan, J. (2019) The Long and Surprising History of Roller Derby. Available here. (Accessed: 23rd October 2019).