I was so hungover I could barely swallow, but a friend called in the late afternoon while I was watching Twin Peaks and chowing berocca and told me she’d been offered Victorian Roller Derby League tickets last minute. I buttoned my western shirt, pulled on my boots, and stumbled out into the early evening light.
I’d never been to a Derby, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Once, on a plane somewhere over the Java Sea, I saw Drew Barrymore’s Derby flick Whip It, which was pretty bollocks. But something about it stayed with me, the aesthetic, the women, the crack of their skates on the rink.
We wound through suburban Melbourne, following the tail lights of dozens of other cars towards the track in Reservoir. A huge aircraft hanger of a space, it rose out of desolate fields and carparks mashed with cars, a crowd mingling out the front under a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Once inside, it was painful bright lights and noise, a press of tattoos, leather jackets and denim. We sidled our way towards the front, getting a viewing space, and the referee put his whistle in his mouth, and there was a shriek, and they were out, circling the flat track to the commentators’ bawling, baring their teeth and flashing their underpants. Dennnnniiiiiiiim Destruuuuctor! Kittie von Crushhhher, Bella Dubois and Generrrrrral Panic…
It wasn’t like any sport I’ve ever seen. Women of all ages on the teams, a myriad different bodies and shapes. And in the weeks that have passed since that evening, I find myself thinking back to it again and again, the roar of the crowd, the blare of music, the teams circling the track in packs, spinning and howling through each play.
Last month, I wrote a piece for the Age on women and sport, wondering what it would take for women’s sports to be elevated to the level of men’s.
In some ways, what amazed me about Roller Derby was that it truly was a women’s sport. It was theatrical, it was performative, it had stories and narrative and music and ferocity and yet it was about athletic possibility, about play and prowess.
Roller Derby drew me in because it incorporated sex into sport in a way that I’ve never seen before, and that made me want to shout out about it.
Normally, when I think women’s sports and sex, I see the calendars female sports teams make to raise money when the sponsors inevitably dry up. I think for a moment of what it means to be a beautiful female sportsperson in a sport that women are allowed to play, and what it means not to be. I think of the high rates of violence against women and misogyny that seem to be part and parcel of a male-dominated sporting culture.
And yet sex has the potential to be a creative force, a form of creativity. And Roller Derby, in front of an audience of both genders that clapped and howled the sport along, wasn’t about ‘sexiness’, but about sex, about play, about the performance of characters, about physicality, about competition and humour and respect, the women coming off the track to laugh and touch and drink and spit their mouth guards into their palms for next time. It wasn’t about what women should be, but about what women are, and all the bruises that come along with the falls.
There were lots of families in the crowd. Watching the kids clap and hurt with the women, grimace as they hit the ground and scream as they got back up, wiping smears of face paint over their faces, I saw for a moment what I would have felt watching those women as a child. Powerful, epic, like there was something to look forward to at the end of growing up, and it would come on a set of skates, under a Reservoir night, in a pair of hot pants and the boom of the backtrack, as part of a team.