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Denver Roller Dolls & The Female Signifiant

Gender & Communication Final Project

Teresa Peterson

on 4 February 2013

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Transcript of Denver Roller Dolls & The Female Signifiant

History of the Game So, what is roller derby? Conclusion Theoretical/ Practical Implications Research Question: Theoretical Framework Our group selected the Denver Roller Dolls as our observation site in order to stay away from the usual bar and gym scenes where many scholars and students have sought to analyze gender and communication.
Roller derby presents an opportunity to understand and analyze a complex gendered atmosphere. There is no place that interrogates gender like a roller derby arena. Methods “Derby embodies
everything you’re not supposed to do...That’s why it is so much fun” (Finley, 2010) Supporting Claims
and Evidence How do roller derby skaters manage their gender identities in a sport that embodies hyper feminine symbols and a traditionally masculine practice? Meet "Tiny" our Denver Roller Dolls contact. Focus Who Cares? Symbolic Representation of hyper femininity
in combination with emphasized masculine athletic performance. Goals What role does signified hyper-femininity and the integration of traditionally masculine physical play have in constructing skaters gender identities and performances? Roller derby is a unique site of gender creation and performance. It is uncommon to find a sport and culture that subverts both hegemonic femininity and hegemonic masculinity at the same time. Various sub-fields of the social sciences have provided insight into different aspects of women's roller derby. Our research presents an opportunity to understand roller derby and its implications for gender in communication. In searching for communication research with a focus on athletics and more specifically, roller derby, we were surprised to see the sheer volume of literature on derby published after the 2001 roller derby revamp. Interestingly enough, majority of the research did not focus on communication or gender and communication at all which makes our research project especially timely and salient. We looked at articles from the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Sociology of Sport Journal, Leisure Studies as well as media studies and were surprised to find that many scholarly journals have published a range of work on the relationships between punk music and roller derby, the continuum of the oppositional binary in sports and the media representations of women athletes (roller derby specific). Although all of these publications were interesting and provided unique insights into the world of roller derby in academic analysis we found the following three articles to be the most appropriate to our analysis. Process Data 1. Contact 2. Observation Pick-Up Derby
League Practices
League Scrimmages First we found the contact email on the Denver Roller Dolls website. We were given access to the practice schedule and then our group split up and observed a variety of practices. During and after each practice we observed, our group members recorded field notes. We engaged in informal conversations with derby players, coaches,the announcer, and referees. We reviewed a variety of literature from multiple fields within the social sciences. Literature Observation The Internet We consulted the Denver Roller Dolls official website, Facebook and Twitter pages in order to understand the sport and this individual league. "Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvering in Women's Roller Derby"
Journal of Contemporary Ethnography
"Resistance/Transformation of the Oppositional Binary: Exposing Sport as a Continuum"
Journal of Sport & Social Issues
"Same Sport, Different Gender: A Consideration of Binary Gender Logic and the Sport Continuum in the Case of Ice Hockey
Journal of Sport & Social Issues
"The Female Signifiant in All-Women's Amateur Roller Derby"
Sociology of Sport Derby
"Communication Differences Between Male and Female Team Sport Athletes"
Communication Reports
"Tough Girls in a Rough Game"
Feminist Media Studies
"Doing Gender"
Gender and Society Argument Then... Now... The Rules of the Game http://denverrollerdolls.org/about/the-game-we-play/ Roller Derby was created in 1935 by entertainment promoter, Leo Seltzer. The sport originated in Chicago, Illinois, as an endurance sport, like track on skates with style. From the founding of derby until it was first televised the sport had a loyal working class following and was a great success across the United States (Kearney, 2011, p. 284). In the 1960s however, the sports popularity began to wane and in order to maintain viewers attention “Herb Roberts reconfigured the sport as ‘Roller Games,’ a more sensational version that involved various dramatic stunts” (Kearney, 2011, p.284). The ‘Roller Games’ stunts have been compared to the modern day World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) industry, where the theatrics have taken over the legitimacy of the sport. Due to the dramatization of roller derby the sports popularity died in the 1970s. There are still many misconceptions of the “realness” of the physicality of the sport because of its historical theatrics. However, in 2001, Roller Derby was restored to the game that we know today (Finely, 2010, p. 368);a full contact, high-endurance sport, played on an indoor oval track that no longer allows the fake fighting that are remembered from the 1970s. Carlson describes Roller Derby as consisting of “fast-paced skating, hard hits, and body-pile-ups”(2010, p. 429). Key Findings In our field observations as well as in the literature we reviewed, the subversion of traditional and emphasized femininity, the contingency of gender performance, and the recreation of the female signifiant were readily visible. Our argument highlights where we saw the best examples of the former sites of gender construction and performance namely in the actual playing of the sport, the dress and makeup, derby and team names, as well as the skater demographics. Dress & Makeup Team Names Derby Names Playing the Sport Through our observations during our field work noticed that most if not all of the announcers, coaches, and people helping out at the practice site who were not derby skaters were men. This was an extremely compelling aspect that could be an interesting path for further research. We had a lot of material to work with so we chose not to analyze this portion of our notes. Derby names are yet again an example of the subversion of hegemonic femininity. The derby names are "as much a part of roller derby as the distinctive quad skates the athletes wear" (denverrollerdolls.org). Derby names function in creating the persona and inevitably the gendered identity of the skater. No one derby name is the same and the menacing and feminized pseudonyms subvert traditional femininity by combing adjectives or nouns usually seen as unfeminine, negative feminine associations (ex."slut") with something traditionally feminine, aggressive or powerful. MelissaVandal AnaSassin Am I Mental Kish of Death Vicky "Slick Vick" Cruz Razorcat MurderfaceMaully SheBe Dangerous Lil Miss Menace Al Bustya All of the Denver Roller Dolls’ team names incorporate some aspect of femininity, whether it be the actual name itself or the colors and symbols in the banners that displayed the team names. The aspects of femininity in the names, colors, and symbols are also combined with something that is traditionally or sexually unfeminine, yet not necessarily masculine. For example, the teams named Bruising Altitude or Mile High Club. It is not commonly or traditionally feminine to be bruised, or bruise someone else; furthermore, Mile High Club is an example of a sexual innuendo that is traditionally looked at by society in a negative framework. These team names allow for multi-gendered behavior by the players both on and off the track. The team names, colors, and symbols remake traditional femininity to make it something completely new and different.) Finley would argue that the incorporation of both traditionally masculine and feminine naming and symbol use for the team names allows these women the opportunity “to transport femininities into new settings in ways that do not reconstruct hegemony” (Finley, 2010). In our observation of the Denver Roller Dolls it became clear that this roller derby league is reconstructing gender through their creation of their own female significant (Carlson, 2010) as well as offering an alternative for maneuvering hegemonic gender performances. Intersectionality A privileged sport? Carlson warns that “although skaters
engage in gender critique at the micro level, this critique does not speak to other lines of difference or to broader issues of inequality, such as class- and race-based disparities” (438). Insufficient for those who are not involved in derby. Her online survey found that %77 respondents to her online survey for derby league members from the league she studied were white and %84 held at least a bachelor’s degree.
“Indeed, middle-class, white females in sports may be seen as outsiders of sport with respect to their gender but insiders with respect to race and class (Cooky & McDonald,2005)” Doing Gender West and Zimmerman West and Zimmerman provided a gender conscious lens for us during our observation and analysis of the Denver Roller Dolls. ‘Doing Gender’ looks at gender not simply as a category which people naturally belong to, based on their sex, but rather as a performance which people must achieve through their actions. They claim that “when gender is something that is already established, people must act in particular ways to establish their gender” (126). West and Zimmerman’s theory on gender as something people perform implies that everything we do is gendered. All actions are done in a way that categorizes a person’s gender. They say that by participating in acts which are usually reserved for the opposite sex, that very pattern gets disrupted. The violent full contact of derby for example disrupts the pattern of male-only violent sports. Derby, in fact, when viewed through West & Zimmerman’s theory on doing gender, is one gigantic challenge to gender norms. Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvering in Women's Roller Derby Nancy J. Finley From Finley’s article, ‘Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvering In Women’s Roller Derby,’ we get the terms emphasized femininity, pariah femininity, and gender maneuvering which have become extremely useful for this project. Emphasized femininity “describes the form of femininity that supports the dominance of men. It is a handmaiden to hegemonic masculinity” (Finley, 2010). One form of emphasized femininity in the sports world would be cheerleading (sideline cheer rather than competitive cheer) because cheerleaders are literally on the sidelines of the main sporting event therefore falling into the subordinate role to the men who are participating in the sport. Pariah femininity on the other hand undermines the typical gender roles when women participate in normative masculine athletics. By engaging in athletic practices normally reserved for the opposite gender, women interrogate gender relations between men and women as well as traditional femininity. Finley uses the example of a woman in an ‘authority’ role which contaminates the typical female relations with hegemony but, she warns, once these actions take on the identity of “another type of femininity,” by being labeled feminine and therefore becoming stigmatized, they also become pariah femininities. The ‘authority’ role inhabited by a woman is now the ‘bitch’ role which is undermining and therefore the threat from this role is subverted (Finley, 2010). Viewed as pariah femininity, roller derby challenges and confronts masculine hegemony on the track and in the arenas through gender maneuvering: the re-negotiation of gender roles. The analysis of our field observations shows how derby girl’s “resistance, adaptation, mockery, and parody of hegemonic femininity, pariah femininities, and sport,” completely subvert traditional feminine gender roles and expose the contingency of culturally emphasized femininity (Finley, 2010). The Female Signifiant in All-Women’s Amateur Roller Derby Jennifer Carlson ‘The Female Signifiant in All-Women’s Amateur Roller Derby’ written by Jennifer Carlson, asserts a similar thesis to our group. Carlson found that in observation and analysis of derby, “skaters’ sport participation is characterized by an interrogation of emphasized femininity without necessarily undermining the masculine/feminine gender binary” (2010). The ways in which derby girls embody both hyper feminine and hyper masculine roles is most fascinating to us as well as Carlson. By recreating gender in this way the skaters expose the absurdities of the gender binary and traditional gender roles. Skaters take traditional symbols of femininity (makeup, revealing and tight clothing, glitter, and “feminine colors”) the signifiant and combine them with actions and symbols that are not traditionally feminine (contact sports, bruises, symbols of death, aggression, sexual pride, uninhibited sexuality)in order to interrogate and subvert the meaning, the signified, of those symbols and actions. In other words skaters systematically question the gender binary and recreate what Carlson calls the female signifiant. Finally, Carlson highlights the revaluing functions of women roller derby skaters symbol use in regard to the female body. These skaters, in the altering of gender roles also change the understanding and valuation of the skaters body. Her body is no longer valued by its aesthetic appeal but instead is valued by its utility. The skater’s body is valued for how well they can perform on the track rather than evaluating the sexiness of her parts. Because after all, a big ass is better for blocking. In roller derby makeup is flamboyant and hyper-feminized. This creates a feeling of theatrics that enhances the experience of the event as well as making a mockery of a stereotypically feminine symbol of a woman who secures her identity through a makeup mask. Carlson would argue that the makeup used in roller derby takes a symbol of traditional femininity and recreates the purpose and meaning attributed to that makeup. Yes, the skaters’ makeup is feminine, but it is hyper feminine and theatrical. The makeup is not meant to identify the skater as woman, but rather to create the identity of her roller persona. Skaters do not discredit these feminine qualities just because they are traditionally associated with makeup but instead skaters use this symbol while tying it to “tough” less traditionally feminine skater attributes to disrupt and recreate traditional gender roles for women. The physical aspects of roller derby allow women to experience themselves differently than most women’s sports. Roller derby affords these women an opportunity to “enrich their subjectivities through the styles and attitudes” signified through dress and makeup, “along with the body capacities derby requires” (Pavlidis, 2012). West & Zimmerman claim that everything we do is gendered. That is, one cannot escape gender categorization. Derby provides a space for the enactment of multiple genders at the same time. By wearing a pink helmet, rainbow socks, neon and sparkled spandex they draw on traditionally female gender roles and by participating in the full contact aspect of the sport itself they draw upon traditionally male gender roles. Performing aspects of both gender categorizations causes the exclusive male-female binary to breakdown because skaters prove that gender maneuvering is possible. Furthermore, roller derby creates an opportunity for the players to take bits and pieces from multiple traditional gender roles. The sport allows the players to take parts of these gendered roles and create a completely new one. Not only are the players enacting multiple gender identities when the play roller derby, but the sport itself creates an arena for multiple gender performance and identity. The gender-maneuvering that skaters participate in allows for the differences between men and women to be highlighted and then made a mockery of. We observed a parody of cheerleading from the skater’s bench during a practice. By cheering on other skaters in a way that made traditional cheerleading seem foolish, these derby girls drew attention to the fact that those foolish cheering roles are what women are expected to do in the sporting world. Therefore these skaters signified the problems with the traditional hegemonic relationship between women and men in the sports world. The skater’s we observed also signified how absurd it is for women to be so concerned with their body image. No matter what body type was on the track they all wore the same outfits. This could be considered a traditional example of hegemonic masculinity. It is more common for men to wear similar outfits to each other without the concern of body image or size - clothes serve one purpose, to cover your body. Finley talks about how derby skaters take this traditionally masculine idea and made it hyper-feminine. All skaters wear the same thing: spandex, tights, sports bras, and “panties” all exemplifying an extremely hyper-feminine wardrobe. The only attention individual bodies received was for utilitarian purposes. Smaller girls become the ‘jammers’ while larger girls become the ‘blockers;’ on the track, looks are irrelevant. Yet at the same time looks are very important to most skaters, who wear makeup and extravagant outfits. Derby girls embrace the fact that they are women and can wear beautiful and flamboyant makeup. The beauty of this is that these women are at once denying the need to wear makeup and embracing the fact that they can wear it. Future research should examine not only the individual gender performance and creation of identity but should research the homosocial and community building aspects of roller derby. In our observations, in the video interviews we watched, as well as in our informal conversations we found that the skaters created a space for themselves to be a community of women skaters who found a sincere solidarity between themselves. Roller derby leagues provide a space for this particular group of people to function and thrive without the pressures of traditional femininity and traditional relational behaviors between women.
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