Saturday night I was fortunate enough to witness the start of a new era for the Carolina Rollergirls – the use of Dorton Arena to host the ever-growing matches and, most especially, the ever-growing crowds. With seating for 5,000 and half the stadium open to fans, the place sold out. 2,500 seats, people. Plus track-side seating. I don’t know how many people were there, but we were many, and we were loud. Take a look at the CRG main page, linked above – the montage of photos is from before the bout started. Take a gander at those stands, filled with screaming fans. This was intense, and easily the best roller derby I’ve seen yet.

First off, the important thing: Carolina whupped the Sin City Rollergirls 127-65. Yes, 127 to 65. The lop-sided score hides just how good the beskated ladies of Las Vegas are at the game, however. They are a team of serious, athletic and very physical players with some amazing teamwork. Oh yes, they’re rough, too. I mean, c’mon, their nickname for themselves is “the Neanderdolls.” Much like Minnesota, the Sin City team play hardball – as amply demonstrated by Trish the Dish, who could skate on one foot with both arms tied behind her back and probably bite someone’s ear off on her way by. Here’s the thing – word on the street is that Trish is super-awesome, and that’s good, because when she’s on the track she is scary. Come to think of it, that’s good, too. I’ll confess I yelled some unkind things from the stands, something I choose not to remember, but no matter what anyone thought of her style – including the refs, who tossed her in the penalty box for two minutes for insubordination after they ignored a couple of blatant fouls against her and she let them know about it in a very direct way – she was all anyone could talk about after the bout. Our gang’s traditional post-bout burrito klatch talked nothing but Trish the Dish. She was the topic on everyone’s mind – we all knew who wore #99. Girlfriend, you can’t buy a solid rep like that.

Of course, the score tells the ultimate story: while Sin City was good at bogging jammers down coming through the pack, Carolina put together some of the most physical blocking I’ve seen in any bout. Mad-At-You might as well have strapped a saddle to Trish at one point, riding her all the way through Turn 3, into Turn 4 and right out into the crowd while the Carolina jammer sailed past. Roxy Rockett took turns on both defense and offense, surprising everyone by not scoring lead jammer a few times but surprising no one by immediately passing the jammer as soon as she was free of the brick wall the Sin City girls are so good at putting up. The star jammers of the night were Princess America, whose locomotive run and single-minded focus on scoring points stood the Carolina Rollergirls in good stead, Violet Femme – who was in top form, just speed and agility on the track – and finally Eris Discordia who, I swear to the gods, must surely be wearing fake skates to move the way she did on the track.

Here’s the gods’ honest truth: I don’t know how she does it, but she is the master of the fake-out. I have no idea where her center of gravity is, but she can dodge like she’s going to go right and then go left instead without appearing to even consider her own balance. It’s like she’s a running back who’s jogging on foot, not a jammer who’s in skates and moving at twice the speed. Here’s a tip, though, Eris: keep the elbows out of the face of the opposing pivot. Getting away with it doesn’t make it look any nicer and Trish the Dish didn’t look like someone I’d go out of my way to piss off.

And speaking of pissed, if you want tickets to the next bout you might go ahead and buy them now or you’ll be pissed at yourself for missing out. Even with the move to Dorton, all things derby are best done ahead of time: buying a ticket, getting in line, hitting the gents’/ladies’, lining up for a soda and, most of all, buying a beer. You know it’s a big crowd when it manages to drink Dorton dry. I do not lie, gentle reader, when I tell you that the roller derby crowd managed to drain Dorton of its last drop of brew by the beginning of the third period. Might I remind you that Dorton used to be home to a hockey team? This is not some church lobby unused to the ravages of a thirsty crowd.

Next bout at Dorton: November 19, vs. Providence Roller Derby, ranked 11 in the nation. Don your red and black if you’re going to cheer for the right team…

Now, surely if you have read this far you are wondering what the hell the title of this post is supposed to be about. Here’s the thing: I mentioned to apostropher that I’d just been to a derby bout and he pointed me to a post at Twisty about derby. One of the many quotable quotes:

Take, for example, that, despite the Rollergirls’ impressive skaterly talents, the “sport” is only nominally about skating. You have already guessed what it’s actually about, but I’ll tell you anyway: sex. That’s right, sex, only not real sex, such as the kind we could all be having if Hugh Hefner hadn’t ruined it for everybody, but phony sex as defined by the horndog ideology of the pornocracy.

Also, this:

The Texas Rollergirls are packaged as raunchy lumps of lower-class hetero feminine fun for an audience whose expectations adhere to a pre-programmed narrative affirming one of patriarchy’s most beloved bogus dichotomies, the bogus virgin-whore dichotomy (at the virgin end of the spectrum, proto-porn figures include Barbie, Wonder Woman, and Miss America). No matter how much fun the skaters are having—and it looks like they’re having quite lot of it—the fact remains that anytime a bunch of women change their names to “Lucille Brawl” or “Apoca Lippz,” squeeze into purple hot pants and set about grabbing each other in front of a crowd that’s paid $12 a head to see the sex class on wheels, patriarchy takes over. It dictates that women can’t own this experience, since according to patriarchal code, women on a stage are by their very nature commodities to be consumed in a purely sexual context by male voyeurs. Hence the glamorshots of the skaters on the website, the Playboyesque biographies, the plaid-skirt-and-white-cotton-underwear capitulation to juvenile male fantasy. Whoever these women are in real life, and regardless of their stature as genuine athletes, for the purposes of roller derby fan consumption, they are all of a type: loose-moraled proto-whores.

The pornocracy? I’m sorry, but I’m not finding that one in my Funk & Wagnall’s. Check the comments, as apostropher suggested to me, for the real action. See, these people watched movies about derby made in the ’70s, so now they’re experts. I’m so glad none of them had to be bothered with experiencing any portion of it first-hand in order to form their opinion! Now, pardon while I rework a comment I’ve already left on another blog into a post of my own.

The thing is, maybe that’s what it’s like in Texas. I’ve never seen them skate, though they have a reputation for being even more physically intimidating and much tougher than other leagues, but for all I know they really just skate around in little plaid skirts and wave their asses at anyone who happens to be standing around with their hand in their pants. So, I don’t know. What I do know is that skaters here in NC tend to view what they are doing as a very serious sport first and, if they consider a political message or subtext or theme, they think of derby as a sort of warning shot fired across the bow of any sexists who might be around. There are definitely skaters who see what they are doing as the utterly legal and in many additional ways similarly smarter equivalent of extremely violent protest in favor of sex and gender equality.

Now, I’m neither so gay nor so blind as to pretend that there is no element of sexual play or expression in derby. However, it’s at the initiative of the skaters themselves. No one requires it of them, and they do not all engage in it. Each skater sets her own standard of behavior, and it is 100% the skaters who set the tone of the bout and the crowd follows along – not the other way around.

Twisty throws in the $12/head thing, leaving it open to infer that skaters get paid to play, and a commenter comes along and states that explicitly. However, they play derby as volunteers. They train every day, they scrimmage, they practice, they volunteer, they sell tickets, they advertise, they do fundraisers, they do every bit of the work and no one is getting paid to do so. They do it because they love the game. Do some of them love it because they are, for some fans, the focus of sexual attention as well as sports enthusiasm? Maybe so – I don’t know, because I’ve never played the sport. And even if they are, isn’t it okay for a self-respecting and respected woman to acknowledge her sexuality?

If it’s not okay for a physically and psychologically powerful and empowered woman to express her physicality and her mental prowess in an arena – metaphorical and physical – which is set up and controlled by that same woman and her teammates, in a sport run by and for women, then when is it?

If it’s not okay for there to be expression of sexuality by a woman who is in total control of how much or how little she decides to make her participation an example of sexual play, when is it?

If a woman facing and overcoming her own limitations and working for years to increase her own skills and abilities and being respected and admired for it is misogyny, then what isn’t?

If it’s not okay for women of all sizes and shapes to step onto the rink and earn the respect of their peers and their fans, where and when and how should they work to achieve that level of respect?

Twisty makes it sound like it’s Miss America on fast-forward, that there is no substance whatsoever to the game. I would be interested to see Twisty tell that to a rollergirl who’s spent the last couple of years sweating day in and day out to hone her skills, learn the strategies, learn the tactics, the management skills, the skills required to be managed, run the committees, do the heavy lifting – well, anyway, I’d be interested to see Twisty say that to a rollergirl’s face. I’m willing to bet the response would be something along the lines of, “Oh yeah? Strap on the skates and let’s go.”

Even if I leave aside the simple falsehood of Twisty’s characterization of derby – I have never seen a fake or preordained fight in a bout, have never seen a faked injury, have seen enough friends on crutches and canes and limping for weeks to feel confident that this sport is for real and the scare-quotes around “sport” are just snobbish bullshit – it’s still patently condescending to the women involved. To go to two bouts and then announce that the Texas Rollergirls “are packaged as raunchy lumps of lower-class hetero feminine fun” doesn’t just denote a complete lack of understanding or empathy, it indicates total condescension. Who’s telling whom what role they’re allowed to fill, anyway? Who’s defining women’s role in sports in this situation? Who’s using the virgin-whore dichotomy to pigeonhole everyone involved, to paint with a too-wide brush? Believe me, I’m thrilled that Twisty is around to point out the patriarchy where it looms, but sitting there on the interwebs and patting them on the head and telling that that even if it’s fun they have no idea how it hurts them is, itself, offensive.

And, in the end, Twisty does a lot of telling us what’s wrong with derby, but what alternative is offered? If this isn’t empowering, what is? If this isn’t a real sport, what is? What’s real sex? What’s real equality? If it needs to be torn down, what shall we build in its place?

I’m not sure what life under the pornocracy looks like (though I’m sure the music sucks – ha ha) but I’d be surprised if it’s derby. Twisty suggests that it’s a bunch of trailer-park GAP models getting dolled up to be ogled by rednecks for money. As I’ve said, no one gets paid to skate and the women are of diverse body styles, intentions and presentations. So what about the crowd? Yes, there are rednecks there – it’s NC, you’d be hard-pressed finding someplace without a couple of them – but there are also parents & grandparents of skaters, children of skaters, husbands of skaters, wives of skaters, bikers, goths, thugs, chavs, yuppies, Bible-beaters, drag monarchs and sports writers. [/jameswatt] It’s not a bunch of drooling misogynists with one hand down their collective pants. If it were, I’d be awfully surprised by the participation of my skater friends who see what they’re doing as making a public and very fun statement of empowerment. And, yes, there’s a lot of class and educational diversity among skaters – some never finished high school, some have Master’s degrees – but none of them are dumb (the game requires too much of both strategy and tactics, too quick a mind, for any good player to qualify as “dumb”) and any element that makes them “raunchy” or “lower-class” is either purely ironic or entirely in the eye of the beholder.

And really, that’s the core of it, isn’t it? Twisty went to one bout and apparently loved it. She went to another and all of a sudden it was all Hugh Hefner’s fault (side note: why give that sad old lech so much power over sex? if you don’t like the way he defined it, define it yourself) and “inane.” Now, given what I’ve seen of CRG, and given what I’ve heard about Texas’ sustained mastery of the sport, I’d lay one dollar down on the side of the table that says it was not that the game was different from one bout to another. The only interpretation I can come up with is that Twisty went looking for a reason to hate it and this is what came of it. At any rate, given that the skaters I know are intelligent, articulate people – how many athletes do you know who go out to dinner after a game and wind up discussing art films? – I don’t see many of them marketing themselves as “low-class” or “raunchy” without a tongue firmly tucked inside their cheek. If ironic raunch doesn’t undermine the patriarchy, what does? If ironic play doesn’t subvert the dominant paradigm, what does? That there’s a skater with the name “Barbie” is so self-evidently ironic, so obviously, on its face, an effort to make fun of the idea that a woman has to have lethally constrained physical dimensions and an idiotic smile on her face, that I cannot help but assume Twisty has chosen to ignore the irony and the play and focus on whatever Twisty wants it to be.

Nice way to live up to the pseudonym, there.

If Twisty is choosing to ignore the realities that make it harder to turn derby into one big patriarchic fuck-fest, how is derby supposed to defend itself? Arguing with someone who ignores inconvenient facts is impossible; trust me, I’ve had the misfortune to talk to conservatives and other nutjobs from time to time and it is just impossible to get through their reality filters. So, out the window goes rational debate; out the window goes a sensible and honest interpretation of derby; out the window goes respect for skaters who’ve given years of their lives to becoming better and better at this sport and want nothing but respect for their work.

So why am I bothering to defend them, and why does it get my knickers in such a knot to see them attacked at random by someone who clearly does not or will not take into account the realities of self-awareness and self-expression and personal initiative involved in all the cultural codes on display at a derby match? In part it’s because I suspect Twisty and I would agree about a lot of things and so I find it vaguely unsettling to find her in possession of an opinion which so plainly does not reflect reality. Mostly, however, it’s because I know women to whom this is the most important thing that’s ever happened. I’ve watched a little girl ask a player for her autograph and beam when she got it, like meeting a rock star. I’ve seen friends who had no intention of joining the team strap on their skates for the first time in ten or twenty years because just being around women who are working that hard and being that honored for it is inspiring.

Yes, there are mountains of inequality in the world. We could devote every day of the rest of our lives to eradicating inequality and live a million years and we’d never see the end of sexism or hate or fear because that’s just how it is. That there are terrible things in the world does not necessitate that derby be ranked among them. That there are injustices in the world is not remedied by undermining the efforts and the self-respect and the community some women achieve in a sport that some people don’t enjoy.

Derby builds confidence and respect and authority and cultural capital for every woman involved in it. Tearing that down does nothing to assault the patriarchy. It only tears down the women who play the game, and the men and women with genuine respect for those who do.

Oh, interesting note: there is an entry for “pornocracy” in Wikipedia. It describes a time in the 10th century CE when the Catholic Church was viewed as being under the control of a number of powerful women who were pulling the strings of the popes. I don’t guess it really qualifies as ironic, but I certainly find it interesting that Twisty would use as a pejorative against derby – a sport played and controlled by women, with no one’s satisfaction required except their own – a term originally coined to mock women who were feared for wielding real power, on their own terms, shaping and directing an institution so frequently used through history to hurt women rather than to help them.

But what the hell do I know, anyway? I’m a gay guy. I’m not about to lay odds on whether that makes me A-OK or simply patriarchy^2.