Any time a group of 40-year-old skater dudes support a cause that appears vaguely feminist; I get worried.At first glance women's roller derby, eagerly goofed on in the Drew Barrymore flick, Whip It, seems like an empowering phenom. Women strap on 70's-style roller skates, and skate around in a big circle over and over again apparently with the goal of out-circling each other (I'm guessing). Occasionally they seriously hurt each other with the kind of blows to the head that would get an NHL player benched for a year.
The fundamental difference between women's roller derby and, say, the WNBA? Guys show up for this. Some of roller derby's most loyal fans are men. Droves of them appear regularly, PBRs in hand, at Seattle's local Rat City Roller Girls meets. Again, this seems like a good thing. For once the boys are willing to let the women show off their athletic prowess via strength and competitiveness; something 95-percent of American men are hardwired not to do.
But all is not right in post-feminist roller girl world. First off, the uniforms. I've seen more spandex on strippers. These aren't clothes that facilitate speed or agility, they're basically saucy cheerleader costumes designed only to titillate. There's absolutely nothing wrong with dressing sexy if you're a stripper or trying to get into the next Girls Gone Wild shamefest, but it sends a creepy, skewed message. A blogger far more erudite than I summed it up best over at Mean Feminism:
If Roller Derby is really about how awesome the girls are at their sport, then it should REALLY be about that. It should really be about how empowering it is to see women being competitive and athletic and downright bad ass regardless of what they're wearing. Why does "embracing your femininity" in this context turn into wearing sexy clothing? Are there no other ways for women to assert their femininity? And if not, maybe we should reconsider what's so great about (socially defined) femininity in the first place. And if it's primarily about playing with sexual norms and doing some kind of Suicide Girls type performance with a little bit of violence added in for spice, well then I think we should stop pretending it's feminist and empowering.
Conversely, our women's pro basketball team just brought home the most prestigious prize in their sport. It was a very big deal, a very big win and somehow these young athletes managed to do it without flashing their tits or slapping each others asses in the prescribed faux lesbian way.
Yet the Storm's win barely registered in Seattle. Sure, they had their one-time cover pic in the Seattle Times and there was a small parade for the team just up the street at the Key Arena.
But where was Sherman Alexie??? The writer who wasted entire essays in The Stranger moaning about the death of the Seattle Sonics. I'm guessing even for a self-styled "male feminist" like Alexie, a women's pro basketball team (even the best in the country) .... just doesn't rate.
A year ago, as I was walking up past Key Arena, there was a Storm game starting and a few (mostly female) fans were filtering into the arena. A gaggle of college guys in an SUV roared by, hanging out the windows. The guys started chanting "Go Storm!" in hyper lispy, effeminate voices as they cat-called the unamused fans.
And that's the rub: legitimate women's sports is seen as a bad joke in America while entire magazines are devoted to Tiger Woods' philandering, LeBron James' betrayal of his home town and Bret Favre's rather feminine indecisiveness.
A recent indie Canadian film, Breakfast with Scot, revolved around a gay couple adopting a decidedly fem boy. The butcher of the couple is a Toronto sports announcer. When his straight boss threatens to cut his hours, he's told "you'll be covering women's volleyball forever." No small irony, a gay man was being threatened with the ultimate put down of covering women's sports.
Recently, the Universal Sports channel aired women's rugby playoffs held in England. It doesn't get anymore "bad ass" than rugby. When the cameras panned the stadium I was shocked. The stadium was well over half full and the spectators were pretty evenly split between male and female fans. Something we'll never see in America as long as Sports Illustrated runs covers like this.
Remember the first step in dehumanizing is objectification and to create mindless consumerism you must first commodify sexuality. Don't believe me? Watch Mad Men.