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Opinion Piece

Roller derby could herald a revolution for gender equality in sport

Originally published in The Guardian on 18 June, 2014. 

A pair of quads on the changing room floor.
A pair of quads on the changing room floor. Photograph: Linda Nylind

It’s famous for its fishnet stockings, quirky names, brutal mentality and a film starring Drew Barrymore. Sweeping across the country, roller derby is becoming an unstoppable phenomenon.

Revitalised on the back of third-wave feminism, roller derby, a contact sport on skates that is created, owned and managed by women, is a direct challenge to the male domination of sport. A sport that says women can be just as aggressive, just as competitive and just as entertaining. And a sport that demands women get top billing – just as men do everywhere else.

However, recently men’s leagues have started to pop up around the country. And in doing so they have opened an important debate about how we tackle male domination and sexism in sport.

Men have always played a role in roller derby, usually through supporting the female players as officials or referees. In recent years that has started to change. Men have decided they want to play. The Men’s Roller Derby Association was established in 2007, with teams starting in Australia soon after. This culminated in March this year with the first Men’s Roller Derby World Cup being held in Birmingham in the UK, where the Australian teamThe Wizards of Aus took fifth place.

For many, this development has been unwelcome. Skater Joan of Darkwrote in a blog post:

“ … men get top billing in EVERYTHING. With very, very few exceptions, it’s all about the men when it comes to popular sports. So part of me feels like, just one! Couldn’t they leave us with just one without trying to come in and take over?”

That reaction is not uncommon. There are many women’s leagues that still don’t allow men to play, fed by concerns men will push women off the centre stage, in sponsorship, TV coverage and news reports. The filmThis Is How I Roll documents the challenges faced by male team The New York Shock Exchange while trying to establish themselves. Most male players have similar stories.

Men's roller derby is growing in popularity across the world.
Men’s roller derby is growing in popularity across the world. Photograph: Kim Lee/Roaringstorm Photography

But that view is changing. Skater I.V. Anarchy (Emma Burnell) a coach for the Wizards of Aus, explains:

“How can you challenge the dominant paradigm and then in the same breath try to exclude men from playing? If roller derby as a collective is going to band together and lock arms and say ‘we’re here to empower women only’ you’ve just alienated half of the population and achieved the exact same thing male dominated sports do already.”

This argument is now winning out. In their latest rule set change The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) removed all references to gender and men’s teams are gaining more acceptance around the world. As Burnell argues:

“I love the saying, ‘derby for all’. And when I say derby for all I mean anyone who wants to put on some skates and learn how to play the game regardless of gender, or orientation, should be able to play the game.”

H.P. Shovecraft, who played in the Wizards of Aus, describes this as the “powerful transformative nature of the game”. He discusses his own experience:

“I was a sad, boring, overweight public servant. I had never experienced what it was like to feel powerful. I’ll get out on track and I’ll feel in control and that I have power. Something that I never really felt that I’ve had before.”

Most roller derby players will tell you that ‘derby isn’t a sport, it’s a lifestyle’. It consumes people’s lives and creates its own society. And it’s here that things become complicated.

The acceptance of men’s roller derby presumes an ideal: everyone should have access to all forms of sport. Gender doesn’t matter. But you cannot push aside an ongoing history of female oppression. We still live in a male-dominated world, particularly in mainstream sport. And given how strong this power dynamic is it is naive to think that roller derby is not at least partially susceptible to it, particularly as it becomes more mainstream.

Many could argue we are already seeing this dynamic play out. Men are taking up more of the derby space each year. The Men’s World Cup received significant press, while locally, many female leagues are now asking to train with male teams, often leaving equivalent female teams behind. Questions have to be asked whether women are being pushed out of the game and being excluded from yet another sporting competition.

Perhaps what is required is respect of the gender politics in which roller derby is engaged. Men’s roller derby is an opportunity for men to move into a woman’s space – at the invite, essentially, of women. And in doing so men who play roller derby have the opportunity to show the rest of the world how men can be willing to play on women’s terms, accept women as key leaders and allow themselves to play second fiddle to the women’s game.

As roller derby moves from niche into the mainstream and accepts men into its leagues, it needs to maintain the existing gender politics or else fall into the same sexist pitfalls as other sports. Done successfully, it may herald a revolution in sport for gender equality. And the players in men’s derby are essential to that process.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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