Jam! Tales from the World of Roller Derby

Yes, I’m seriously reviewing yet another comic book, a compilation of derby comics, but this will be my last comic book for a while.  This book came out in 2010, so it actually captures the first decade of what is considered, new roller derby as opposed to the televised version that was much more of a theatrical production.  But keep in mind, even new roller derby has evolved and become significantly less theatrical and more athletic and legitimate.  Gone are the semi-fake fights, the penalty wheel, fishnet stockings, and skirts.  Arguably, gone are also the wild, crazy, punk women who were primarily drinkers with a derby problem.  I think the cause of this change is multiple.  Many women joined in their 20’s, and the ones were not really serious and partied more than they practiced, either got injured or burned out.  The remainder made it into their 30’s, and with that came greater maturity and a greater focus on safety and legitimacy.  I also think it was a phase.  When women brought back roller derby, it was more of this punk, underground, rebellious phenomenon, and then once it became popular and more mainstream, it didn’t feel so rebellious and punk. 

 Arguably, derby’s popularity is waning in America while growing overseas, however, with growing interest in junior derby, we may witness another surge in America when all these highly talented juniors become adults.  In last year’s world championships, both the English and Australian top leagues almost defeated the world champions.  If you look at England, the youth are still fixated on American 90’s gangbanger culture.  So you can imagine that derby will still be popular in England well in the 2020’s. 

 What this comic book captures is actually an incredible cultural phenomenon.  I wrote about this in my own novel about a guy joining an all-female derby league.  Women are discriminated against still, and it is so deeply woven into our culture that we cannot even separate the traits of womanhood with the traits of an oppressed people.  I attempted to do this in my novel, but it may be controversial.  Certainly, testosterone and estrogen play a large part in behavior, but this does not explain how mother animals can so aggressively and courageously protect her children from threats or how a father animal could be so caring and tender toward his children.  However, if we look at any oppressed culture, we witness many similarities which also cross over to what we consider feminine traits.  In my novel, I pointed out that one of the few English words taught to the Chinese was “sorry,” and this is one word that girls are taught to say almost unconsciously to any sort of situation whether it was their fault or not.  English peasants were taught never to make eye contact with their lords, and similarly, girls are taught to avoid eye contact with men.  Oppressed people are taught never to be direct, to speak their mind, but rather to circumvent their interests and desires so as not to threaten the paramount interests and needs of their oppressors.  How many jokes are made about women not being able to tell a man what is bothering her or what she needs or what she really wants?  There is something to the old joke of a guy asking a woman what she wants to eat, and she replies, I don’t know, but when he makes a suggestion, she says maybe something else.  The Japanese are even taught to avoid saying ‘no’ by saying ‘chotto’ which is a wishy-washy sort of, maybe, probably not. 

 So derby is like this big, huge, defiant ‘fuck you’ to the establishment.  It’s women allowing themselves to be loud, direct, violent, physical, assertive, dominant, defiant, angry, expressive, honest, wild, arrogant, sweaty, smelly, all the things they were always taught were off limits.  And women loved it, because it allowed them to be free.  This comic book, like many comic books, replaces our deepest fears and antagonists with monsters, villains, and evil adversaries.  It celebrates the hero’s struggles and triumph over them, even the injuries.  One thing I covered in my novel was the real threat of serious injury.  Derby is not just a theatrical play where women become actors and pretend to fight villains and society’s oppressive rules, but it’s a real struggle where the danger of serious injury elevates it from theater to reality.  When women do triumph in derby, or even get injured and recover, they are not just pretending to triumph, they actually are triumphing in life and proving themselves capable of living free from oppression and fear, at least on the track, but hopefully throughout their lives. 

 While derby is becoming more popular with men, I think it will still resonate with women so long as they are being discriminated against, and their culture is hijacked and twisted to make them feel embarrassed for being assertive, expressive, and equal.  Of course, it resonates with me, because I am also a minority from an oppressed culture, and I enjoy being defiant and rebellious, especially against stereotypes.  While many people may be surprised that a female coworker is in derby, I would bet you they would never expect me to be in derby.  But then why does it resonate with white men who have lived their entire lives with privilege and people expecting them to be strong, loud, aggressive, and dominant?  Besides the fact that so many have girlfriends they have supported and have become skilled skaters and eventually wanted to compete themselves, I would also argue that male derby attracts a certain kind of guy who is more egalitarian and open-minded, who doesn’t agree with the white male alpha archetype, and who simply wants to be liberated to do whatever the hell he wants as well.  I wrote another novel that touches upon this.  While certainly oppressors get the better end of the bargain, they too are squeezed into a mold and imprisoned in the bond between oppressor and oppressed.  They too must suppress their own feelings of guilt, privilege, unfairness, and sympathy in order to perpetuate the oppression, to take and hoard without being overcome by guilt.  You think kings and rulers are the happiest people in the world, but you look at Prince Charles who always seems morose, and he was never allowed to marry the woman he truly loved until the unfortunate death of Diana.  He was a man who was probably dominated by the Queen and the royal family’s expectations.  I don’t think he lived a free and carefree life, so maybe Prince Charles, if he were young, would have loved to do roller derby too.  But let’s not digress too much.  I could also go into how abusive husbands enter a twisted enabling, codependent relationship with their victim, and how the only way to handle the guilt of being an abusive douchebag is to continue the abuse.  And let us not forget that some victims, and let me be clear, some, not many or all, stay in abusive relationships, because they also want to be in that enabling, codependent tango. 

 One thing you do notice in derby is that fine line between being assertive and aggressive and then being an outright bully and dick.  The point of derby is to be equal, not to reverse roles and for women to start behaving like oppressive men.  Oppressors pick on the weak.  Skaters who purposefully hit beginners excessively hard are simply bullies and oppressors.  So you just don’t jump over the wall of oppression and do whatever you want and become a bully if it suites you.  You jump over the wall, turn around and demolish it and treat everyone as they should be treated, as equals.   


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