Seriousness in Women’s Roller Derby

Seriousness in Women’s Roller Derby

Maddie Breeze

Seriousness’ is a commonplace word. Many people are used to hearing appeals to ‘be serious’, to take a particular issue seriously. It is easy to take the meaning of seriousness for granted, to assume that there is a straightforward, shared understanding of how to be taken seriously. The meaning of seriousness is only rarely made explicit, or questioned. Sociology has a long interest in related concepts – legitimacy and authority – but there have been few sociological investigations of seriousness itself.

The problem of how to be taken seriously was a familiar one for participants in my research on women’s roller derby. Contemporary roller derby is a full contact, team sport, played on roller skates, in the UK since 2006. Derby has two distinct characteristics in comparison to more established sports, and these make it particularly sociologically interesting. Firstly, contemporary roller derby initially emerged as a women’s sport, rather than as a ‘women’s version’ of a sport coded as masculine and predominantly played by men (1). Secondly, derby is self-organized on a do-it-yourself (DIY) model, according to the motto ‘by the skaters, for the skaters’, emerged outwith formal institutions and governing bodies, and has no fully professionalised form.

Roller derby has a history of spectacular, ‘sport-entertainment’ forms, which included scripted rivalries, fake fights, and contrived stunts. Elements of this history continued into the contemporary revival of the sport, with skaters adopting made-up ‘skate names’, and taking on a particular aesthetic, which researchers have described variously as ‘unladylike’, ‘non-virtuous femininity’ (Murray 2012:246), ‘pin-up’ and ‘pariah femininity’ (Finley 2010: 359-360), ‘feminine punk’ and ‘violent, sexually raw femininity’ (Carlson 2010: 433-434), comparable to that of riot grrrl musical subcultures (Pavlidis 2012).

When my research began in 2009, skaters celebrated these characteristics. Skaters spoke positively of the opportunity to take on a new name and ‘play dress up’, often combining fishnet tights with team t-shirts, helmets and mouthgaurds, sparkly hot-pants, and theatrical makeup. When participants explained what roller derby was, they regularly used the phrase ‘it’s like a sport for women who don’t like sport’, articulating something of an ambivalent and critical relationship to a broader cultural field of sport.

Initially too, participants echoed roller derby researchers’ interpretations; that by virtue of it’s DIY, women-led status, and elements of gendered performance, it presented something of a challenge to gender norms, both hegemonic masculinity, and normative definitions of femininity. Skaters emphasized how there weren’t any ‘men in charge’ and that they ‘made all their own decisions’ (Tiny Chancer, interview, 2010), as well as praising roller derby as ‘like all the misfits from gym class… just a load of fat people in small clothes, jumping around and being a bit free’ (Orville, interview, 2010). There was a discourse of ‘wearing what you want’ tied to the ‘freedom of the sport, and the DIY aspect of the sport… maybe seen as a bit of a “fuck you” to the sports world, and any kind of sporting authority’ (Orville, interview, 2010).

However, skaters quickly became frustrated with a lack of sporting legitimacy and concerned with being taken seriously. Participants were increasingly critical of representations in popular media and academic research, and the overwhelming focus on their clothes, made-up names, and derby as a gender-subversive subculture, treating roller derby as a ‘big sexy joke’ rather than as a ‘real, serious, legitimate sport’ (Tiny Chancer, field-notes, 2011). I explored these dynamics in my PhD research, using ethnographic methods qualitative interviews, participant observation, and a (failed) film-making project to discover how these sportswomen negotiated being taken seriously, in a broader context where despite ‘the tremendous increased participation of girls and women in sport’ at all levels, sport continues to be thought of as if it was ‘by, for, and about men’ (Cooky et al., 2013: 203).

‘People used to say that it was like a sport for women who don’t like sport, but actually it is for people who really, really like sport’ (Aladdin, field-notes, December 2011)

In many ways, skaters pursued serious recognition in precisely the manner that sociologies of professionalization and institutionalization lead us to expect. Participants deliberately and reflexively altered the way that they organized and represented their sport and themselves. Skaters began to use their real names, rather than their derby names. Fishnets fell out of favour, replaced by branded athletic apparel, breathable and sweat-wicking fabrics. Between 2011 and 2013 skaters redesigned their logos, promotional posters, and team uniforms, to present a more self-consciously seriously sporting image. DIY organization solidified into bureaucratic structures, including policies for membership and team selection, quantifying and measuring ‘skill level’, instituting the value of competition. Skaters across the UK worked together to establish a governing body, and lobbied for official sporting recognition. Recognition was a cause for celebration, ‘now nobody from any other sport can say roller derby isn’t a real sport’ (CC, field-notes, June 2012).

It is tempting to understand such change as a familiar sociological story; processes of cooptation, incorporation, institutionalization, or struggle for position in a broader (Bourdieusian) cultural field in which roller derby refigures itself to become that which it once seemed to oppose; ‘a lot more structured, and a lot more of a sport’ (The Beefcake, interview, 2010). Our understandings of these familiar social processes are often marked by metaphors of inevitability, determinism even. Weber’s ‘iron cage’ looms.

However, this is only one side of the story, and some of the ways that participants pursued recognition as a ‘serious sport’ were more surprising. For instance, during a film-making workshop, I asked skaters’ to discuss existing documentary films, books, and newspaper features on roller derby, before planning their own film. Skaters widely dismissed popular representations, as wrongly failing to take roller derby seriously.

Participants were particularly disgruntled with the common ‘by day… by night…’ trope, which runs along the lines of by day, skaters work as nurses, primary school teachers, and librarians, but by night they take on an alter-ego roller derby persona and become a fearsome woman warrior on eight wheels. Participants laughed at, as well as criticizing, this spectacular formulation which often focused on gender-normative day jobs, asking ‘what else do they think we do in the day? Of course we have jobs!’ (Sally Tape, film-making workshop, 2011). This was not a presentation of roller derby conductive to serious recognition.

When it came to planning their own film however, which it was agreed should emphasize roller derby’s seriousness, one popular plan was to make the film about ‘a traditionally male sport, like rugby or football’ but in the camp style of the typical roller derby documentaries that participants so heartily rejected. Participants excitedly talked through how to apply the ‘by day… by night…’ formulation to a film about amateur football players, featuring men working as secretaries, teachers, and librarians by day and transforming into their dedicated and aggressive alter-ego football personas on the pitch by night, feeling confident enough to wear short shorts, celebrating diverse body types. Transposing roller derby’s lack of sporting legitimacy onto a ‘traditional male sport’, exposed the contingency and absurdity of the gendered double standards at play. Rather than make roller derby intelligible as serious sport, skaters opted to make a serious sport unintelligible via the stylistic conventions of roller derby.

This is just one example of how participants used satirical humour to negotiate the tensions, contradictions, and double standards of (not) being taken seriously. In my analysis I argue that in such instances, skaters are both making claims for recognition as a serious sport, at the same time as exposing, and challenging the gendered definition of sporting seriousness. I think that some of the ways that skaters pursued seriousness in their representational practice relied on not taking seriously prevalent definitions of serious sport. And that through laughter, both at themselves and at those ‘others’ perceived as refusing to take roller derby seriously, skaters were able to make claims for their inclusion within sporting institutions and their serious recognition at the same time as criticizing, re-working, and rejecting the terms of such inclusions and recognitions.

I think that in these representational practices skaters found a way to ‘play the game’ of serious sport, at the same time as trying to change its rules. The apparently non-serious, ways that skaters negotiated the imperative to be taken seriously highlight how institutionalization is far from an ‘inevitable’ top-down structuring processes, but rather was deliberately and reflexively enacted, just as the consequences of participants’ own, agentic and collaborative actions solidify and come to constrain their future actions. The research provides an example of how one group of people negotiating being ‘within and against’ an institution.

(1) In 2017 men’s roller derby is well established in the UK, although it remains noteworthy that men’s teams and leagues emerged a few years after women’s. There are also examples of ‘co-ed’ mixed teams, and trans and non-binary inclusion is becoming encoded as standard practice.


Maddie Breeze is a Lecturer in Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University, currently investigating imposter syndrome in higher education as a ‘public feeling’ (Cvetkovich 2012). @maddie_breeze. The findings reported here are drawn from MSc and PhD research at the University of Edinburgh from 2009-2014, ESRC Funded, grant number: ES/H012567/1. The research has been published as a book and in Sociological Research Online.

Image Credit: Gomisan / Flickr / Creative Commons