Derby Girls vs. Bachelorettes: Who’s Winning, America?

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images courtesy ABC/ Mike Butler - IGP Photo

You guys, this flu going around is TERRIBLE. If you haven’t gotten it yet, I will totally not judge you for paper-masking it up 2003 SARS-scare style. I was in bed with it for five long days. The very slight silver lining to being home sick is that you get to catch up on your Hulu queue.  Hulu queue is one of those accidently delicious euphonic phrases that might get you kissed if you say it to the right person, incidentally. Although probably not if you are cruddy with flu-sweat.

ANYWAY, before I go to my Hulu queue, I usually check out the featured episodes on the landing page just to make sure that I’m still really not interested in finally getting into American Dad, or Hart of Dixie, or whatever.

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The author at a roller derby bout. Photo by Mike Butler - IGP Photo.

I did so during my unfortunate quarantine, and that’s when I noticed that both The Bachelor and Bunheads featured Roller Derby plot-lines in the same week. This was especially interesting to me because I recently retired after three seasons of skating with the B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls, aka the BAD Girls, aka your friendly local flat-track women’s roller derby league.  Like most people in our media obsessed culture, I feel all validated and stuff when things I know about are on TV! But also, like most people, I feel possessive and a little superior about the things I was into before they were cool.

Modern roller derby was born in Austin around the turn-of-the 21st century. Traditionally, derby was associated with a punk-rock ethos and seen as a club for women who were disenchanted with mainstream femininity. Over the last few years, derby’s indie-popularity has reached a rolling boil and begun to froth over into pop culture.

I love roller derby for lots of reasons, mostly feminist ones. Like the fact that roller derby celebrates all kinds of femininities! In derby, you can be a girly girl and it’s still ok -- expected even -- that you kick some ass. Or you can be totally not girly at all. You can be a total homo (like me) or really into your hetero hubby. I have seen so many women find power and confidence through this sport! Roller derby is totally epic. And I don’t mean that in a “This breakfast burrito is totally epic, man” kind of way. I mean that in a life-affirming journey over treacherous seas kind of way -- I’m talking denotatively EPIC.

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Both The Bachelor segment and the Bunheads derby scenes were filmed at the Doll House, famed warehouse home of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls (L.A.D.D.). On The Bachelor, Vaguely-Handsome-Chiseled-Bachelor-Dude takes his gaggle of slim-shiny-haired suitors to the Doll House where they are told they will learn the basics of roller derby and then compete in a bout against each other. After several injuries and a trip to the hospital for one contestant, they all realize that roller derby is actually really freaking difficult and, instead of the bout, they free skate around the track (womp womp).

ROBYN, SEAN LOWE, LINDSAY, JACKIE

What does it mean that contestants on The Bachelor are doing roller derby?  On the one hand, I want to be like: Yeah! Mainstream culture is getting feminist! It values representations of a women’s sport that embraces women’s physical power and independence! But, on the other hand, this is The Bachelor we’re talking about. It’s right behind Jan Brewer and the wage gap on the list of Stuff Holding Women Back.  Having a bunch of adult women doing derby as part of a competition to win marriage to an alpha-male kind of annihilates whatever inherent feminism derby might bring to the situation. However, back on the first hand, the producers of The Bachelor wouldn’t have the opportunity to appropriate derby for their nefarious purposes if it hadn’t exploded in popularity via a totally DIY, grassroots movement -- the representation, however disappointing, is still a testament to the impact roller derby has made on our culture at large. It’s sort of like how on America’s Next Top Model, you can always tell a girl is doing well by how much crap the other girls are talking about her in the confessional.

On Bunheads, which is an ABC Family show about a ballet school, a student looks to roller derby to provide an outlet for her aggression. She gets obsessed with it and ends up ditching her BFF during a crucial life-moment because she’s too busy skating, a plot line you may recognize from the movie Whip-It.

Bunheads

Whoa! ABC Family. That means Grandmas in the Bible Belt are up on roller derby. Is it only a matter of time before Derby Moms on Lifetime?

Of course, anyone who’s played the game will tell you that these most recent portrayals only reveal a tiny slice of the magnificent, sweaty, hard-hitting pie that is modern roller derby.

For starters, L.A.D.D. skates on a banked track. Out of over 1,400 leagues world-wide, only 22 skate on a banked track. The rest skate on varying flat surfaces on a track of standardized dimensions. Also, you’re way more likely to find women in compression pants than fishnets at your average roller derby practice.

What do these recent representations of roller derby on network television tell us? (I mean, besides that some exec at ABC probably skates for L.A.D.D.?) Is the Bunheads plot a sign that even in ABC Family territory, girls are being given the message that being tough and aggressive is a totally cool thing for a girl to do?  Is it a big deal that The Bachelor took a sport that has empowered a crap-ton of women and made it into just another forum for women to compete for patriarchal security?

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If you’ve been to a roller derby bout, I’m curious to know what you all think of the sport in the context of feminism. And if you haven’t been to one, you can get tickets to the B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls 2013 season opener here. Let’s talk about it, KQED!

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