Archive for the ‘Roller Derby’ Category
Saturday morning, and I’m in a sports hall in the shadow of Wembley Stadium. Two dozen grown men are swooping round an oval track on four-wheel roller skates, barging their opponents to the floor. Meet the Southern Discomfort men’s roller derby team. Buoyed by their first international game — last October they played the Quad Guards from Toulouse, whom they “beat handsomely” — they are now preparing for the biggest game of their careers. Against women.
“The girls have experience on their side, and will be a much better functioning machine,” one of the team’s organisers, a Johnny Depp lookalike going by the name of Kinky Stuntz (real name Matthew Heales), told me over a pre-training full English breakfast in the nearby bikers’ haunt, the Ace Cafe. “They have a lower centre of gravity, so they can absorb the knocks without going down. And they can hit pretty hard too.” Just how hard remains to be seen.
Roller derby, a full-contact game featuring two teams of five skaters, is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. The rules are notoriously complicated. The bout is split into two-minute “jams”, during which each team nominates a “jammer”, who — wearing a helmet emblazoned with a star — tries to lap the opposition, gaining one point for each opponent they lap. The rest of the skaters try to block those on the opposing side while allowing their own jammer through.
Huge in 1950s America, when it attracted crowds of thousands, roller derby became over-commercialised in the 1960s and died out. Then, in 2000, it was resurrected in Texas by the feminist punk counterculture. There are now 1,135 teams worldwide, spanning every inhabited continent, with 73 in Britain.
This tough new generation of skaters wear Gothic clothes, paint their faces like horror-film extras, and take on outlandish alter egos like “Fishnet Stalker” and “Attila the Nun”. Bouts take place to blaring heavy metal music and frequently result in injury. The game has an anti-corporate “DIY” spirit, open to everyone, regardless of athletic ability. Last December, the England team came third in the first ever Roller Derby World Cup, in Toronto.
Crucially, modern roller derby is all about third-wave feminist girl power, where women present themselves as a dominant force, sexually in control. Until now, the sport has been strictly women-only, with men restricted to refereeing and coaching. One popular joke is that the only difference between a rollergirl and a lesbian is two drinks. But things are starting to change. The bout I’m to witness between Southern Discomfort and the London Rockin’ Rollers, one of the top British women’s teams, marks the first time in Britain that women have lined up against men.
This has provoked a vigorous debate. Derby Girl, a popular blogger, is an outspoken critic of men’s roller derby (or, as it is known pejoratively, “merby”, or “dangle derby”). “Why do we have to share everything we have worked so hard for?” she writes. “I think it’s time to be tough about this one, ladies.” Kinky Stuntz sees things differently: “It’s not like we’re coming here to take over their house. We just want to live in it with them.”
Back at the men’s training session, an older-looking man is adjusting his skates. Someone tells me his name is Gerry Atrick. “Nah,” he says, “I’m Class-A Slug.” Is he worried about playing a full-contact sport against the fairer sex? “Bloody worried,” he says. “We’re in a no-win situation. If we try and play our physical game, we’ll look like bullies. But if we hold back, we’ll lose. When one of us goes down, there’ll be a massive cheer. When one of them goes down, there’ll be a massive boo.”
The bout takes place the following week in a boxing hall in Bethnal Green, east London. Class-A Slug’s worries have got the better of him: he doesn’t turn up. The men get together for a pep talk; many are smoking nervously. The captain, a heavy-set man by the name of Henry the Sk8th, makes a Henry V-style speech, but it’s tempered with caution. There’s a fine line between playing to win and being seen as bullies. “Don’t do anything silly,” he says. “We don’t want to see any girls with broken legs.” He pauses. “And watch their tits.” Then they yell a war cry intended to inspire gallantry: “Don’t be a douche!”
In the women’s changing rooms, an Asian skater called Flash Bang Wallop scrawls “You skate like a boy” across her cheeks. The captain, an imposing woman in a golden helmet and face paint called Mighty Mighty Bash (an England international, whose real name is Ashley Bonham), is talking tactics. “Get your bums in their faces,” she says. “Make them uncomfortable and put the boot in. But try not to hit them in the goolies.” A debate about their opponents’ testicles ensues. Being a female-only sport, the crown jewels fall within the “legal hitting zone”. But this might not be in the spirit of the game.
“I’m not bothered,” says Murder Urs, a deceptively diminutive mother of several children. “I like beating up boys. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. If something breaks, it breaks.” She then joins in the warm-ups, which feature instructions like “Push your bra strap towards the sky!”
The women have mixed feelings about playing men. “We have to do it,” says Jack Attack, a tattooist who has painted her face like a skeleton. “Otherwise we’re just as bad as them.” It would be sexist, she explains, to deny men the opportunity to compete. Betty Swollox, 26, a cheery admin assistant, agrees. “The whole point is not to discriminate against anyone, whatever their sexuality, gender or whatever,” she explains. “My boyfriend plays for them. He’s not getting special treatment. He is going down.” Loud laughter.
Purrfect Catastrophe, a 40-year-old biologist from University College London, is more circumspect. “I just hope it won’t get to the point where the men overtake the women,” she says. “All the other sports are dominated by men. This is the only thing we’ve got, and it’s something we want to own.”
It is time. The skaters take to the track, and after the 300-strong spectators have been whipped up with some gurning and gyrating, the game begins. Immediately, there is an upset: a willowy and slightly satanic chap called Reaper, who used to be a figure skater, turns the women inside out and laps 10 of their skaters before they’ve even got organised. The largely pro-women crowd falls silent. At the end of the first jam, the score is 11-0 to the men. Southern Discomfort are jubilant.
Then the women hit back. The skeleton-painted Jack Attack leads the charge, with support from the pint-sized Lady Lazarus and a girl called Red N Roll, who sports white face paint with scarlet tears. The second jam ends 20-11 to the women. The men look bewildered.
The hits get harder. People are falling now, men and women. Several blokes are sent to the sin bin for fouls
In the next few jams, the women’s superior experience starts to show. Through a series of fluid set pieces they widen their lead. The hits get harder. People are falling now, men and women. Several blokes are sent to the sin bin for fouls.
Class-A Slug’s prediction of boos and cheers proves inaccurate; painful wipeouts on both sides are met indiscriminately with an enthusiastic cry of “Ooooor” from the crowd.
The women hit their stride and proceed at a blistering pace. A tiny girl called Deadly Devito wows the crowd by slipping through one of her team-mates’ legs.
At half-time, the score is 117-52 to the women. The men are falling apart. Von Bitch, a senior female skater with half her face painted red, is triumphant. “The boys are losing it,” she says breathlessly. “They’re hitting much harder, forgetting who they’re playing. Women still rule roller derby.”
In the men’s changing room, the atmosphere is subdued. A sweat-sodden man called Noise Tank, who is lying on the floor, says that the men are being penalised unfairly. Reaper mumbles that he had “grossly underestimated the girls”. As the team heads out for the second half, Henry the Sk8th tries to lift their spirits. “Remember to have some fun,” he says. This, however, proves difficult. The women are unstoppable, and Southern Discomfort put in some desperate challenges. Three men are sent off in quick succession for “recklessness”. The crowd goes wild.
After that, the contest turns into a massacre. The final score: 219-104 to the women. The men are gracious but dejected. “That was painful,” says Reaper. “I just feel incredibly tired.” Has he any final thoughts? He considers. “You know,” he says, “the girls are just really good.” Up against other men, these guys were impressive. A rematch with the French is anticipated for the spring, which they hope will revive their confidence. Nevertheless, nobody can deny that roller derby remains a woman’s game — for now.