Eight-wheeled Freedom by D.D. Miller

Although this book covers the origins of modern roller derby in Canada, it seems to parallel the growth of roller derby in the states, and the author does a great job of following derby at the US and world level as well as Canadian level.  Two things become apparent, the influence of TV and the Internet in helping spread derby fast and wide.  First, the A&E documentary Rollergirls in 2006 and then the movie Whip It in 2009 had outsized impacts on derby creating a huge surge in interest.  Since many people didn’t have cable TV, the A&E documentary was also spread through DVD.  Arguably, that surge is waning in the states while rising overseas.  As far as I can tell, like a generation boom, there’s a lot of skaters who started around 2009 and 2010.  They’re all six and seven-year vets now and many are now in their 30’s and more mellow. 

 When modern derby started, this book notes that it was more of a feminist cultural movement than a sport, and many early skaters were not athletes at all.  This has definitely changed.  I joined in the middle of 2014, and I’ve noticed that the new generation of skaters are not the same as the first generation.  While they certainly have a more rebellious, individualist streak in them, they aren’t wild party girls and punk rockers.  They don’t growl and snarl at you and try to act tough.  While some could argue that it’s unfortunate that this aspect of the sport has been transitioned out,  you can’t be rebellious in one medium forever.  Rebels by nature get tired of old things and things that become popular and move on.  If it were not for the more athletic aspect of the sport, I would argue that roller derby would have died by now had it been nothing but a punk rock sub-movement.  The book terms the genre 3rd Generation Feminism and “riot grrrl.”  While derby has transitioned out of the original punk rock genre, it still remains one of the most widespread female-empowerment tools, and I think fittingly, it’s moved past rebellion and towards professionalism, hard training, skill-development, healthy eating, exercise, and whether you like it or not, the mainstream.  Along with that, and fortunate for me, it has also accepted men in addition to all gender and non-gender variations.  And with that, it has also importantly become a leading promoter of acceptance and support of other gender identity. 

 The end of fishnet stockings, tutu’s, the cheesy penalty wheel (a carnival sideshow attraction whereby a fouled skater picks her penalty including a mass audience participation spanking) seemed to coincide with the end of this punk rock/derby era.  Some would even go as far as dropping their puny nicknames.  The author notes that 2009 seemed to be the most pivotal year for this transition.  At the 2009 WFTDA Champs, two ground-shaking moments coincided.  The Oly Rollers from Olympia, Washington emerged as the national champions, fielding a team of high-level athletes from other roller sports and conspicuously not using nicknamed on their jerseys.   

 

Second, social movements today are expedited by social media.  When an idea catches fire, it goes viral, and derby, in a sense, became a viral phenomenon.  Funnily enough, it started with Myspace which initially drew a more alternative, punk rocker, rebellious, artistic crowd, and then paralleling the rise of Facebook, it switched to the more mainstream version. 

 The author includes an interesting section about modern roller derby, specifically WFTDA, detractors who perhaps rightfully questioned slow derby and all the rule-bending that was used to take advantage of the developing rules that resulted in rather odd things like jammers never being released, taking a knee, lying on the track, etc.  But as the author points out, all sports have their growing pains, and he also points out that it was fortunate that derby was still not widely televised when all these growing pains occurred.  Rather fortunately, derby hit ESPN3, the Internet version of ESPN for the 2015 World Championships which showcased a polished, exciting, dynamic, strategic, and highly talented product with one of the most dramatic finishes ever.  And then again in 2016.  So the story of derby is not only the story of a punk rock, rebellious, feminist movement but also the story of a young sport going through its growing pains.  Certainly compared to major sports like the NFL, NBA, and MLB, derby is young and still working out the kinks, but let us not forget that early American football, basketball, and baseball all went through their growing pains too.  Even the UFC in their brief history had their odd moments of mismatched weight classes, legal strikes to the groin, and fighters using their gi’s (uniforms) to choke each other out. 

 The book is also proof that books are not dead despite the surge of television, the Internet, videos on the Internet, and social media.  In the deluge of information and media out there, you still need someone to bring it all together, summarize the important events and phenomenon, and place everything into context.  After all, the music video did not kill the radio star.  In fact, more people listen to the radio today than watch music videos, and ironically, MTV doesn’t play many music videos these days. 

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