Disappointing study of the resurgent roller derby phenomenon

Greta Bladh
Umeå Centre for Gender Studies

Colleen Arendt
Gender, Sport, and the Role of Alter Ego in Roller Derby
114 pages, inb.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Routledge Focus)
ISBN 978-1-138-56910-2

Colleen Arendt states that her overarching question directing her study of women in Roller Derby is Why Roller Derby? Why now? This question is induced by the steadily increasing number of women engaging in Roller Derby on a global scale. Arendt frankly wants to know why this is so. What is the appeal of roller derby? In order to answer this, Arendt conducted 40 semi-structured interviews, producing about 3000 recorded minutes of data, which was then analyzed and structured according to themes corresponding to the chapters of the book: “Obstacles to playing roller derby”, “Benefits of playing roller derby”, “The role of the alter ego/derby persona”, and “Why derby? Why now? Roller derby as a rebellion and emancipation”.

Throughout the entirety of this c. 110 pages long book, the empirical data takes precedence over analysis and theoretical input. Even the introductory chapter consists of several quotes from participants of Arendt’s study. However, these quotes seem to hover above both space and time, as spatial and temporal contexts are not directly disclosed. It is through hints such as the writer’s own location as a scholar in the United States, as well as mentions of the currency as dollars, that the reader may to presume that the fieldwork has been conducted in North America. The clues of spatial context are also disclosed through mentioning “the individualistic neoliberal nature of the United States” when discussing the willingness to participate in such a violent game as roller derby, while having close to no health insurance (p. 23), as well as referring to Title IX in chapter 5. At one point, Colorado and New York are mentioned. Actually, it is not until the appendix that it is clearly stated that the study is carried out on U.S and Canadian soil. This fact should surely be presented in the introduction, and explicitly so. Furthermore, in spite of having read the book from the first to the last page, including the appendix, this reviewer could not find out when the interviews were conducted. Which is problematic, as Arendt’s pivotal concern is Why roller derby? Why now? Again, the reader is left speculating as to when the fieldwork was conducted; my best guess is some time close to present day.

An overall impression after reading Arendt’s work, is that it had more potential than was delivered.

Another quandary I ran into is the correspondence of the title of the book to its content. As mentioned, Arendt’s main question concerns the reasons behind roller derby’s recent exponential growth, and by the title, one would think that the role of alter ego would have something to do with it. Nonetheless, as early as on page 2, she states that “…alter egos are largely disappearing in favor of derby personas, which are less extreme personality differences the women experience by skating under inventive, clever pseudonyms they create.” To Arendt’s defense, one chapter is dedicated to the role of alter ego/derby persona and the derby name, presenting both liberating experiences of women using an alter ego/derby persona, and disclosing sentiments among the participants with no particular affinity to such expressions on the flat track. However, the use of a derby name, as opposed to using one’s real name was for most participants an important reason for playing, giving them anonymity, and thereby enabling them to manage their careers as well as ensuring safety. This anonymity allows women to safely “experiment with gender expressions” (p. 71). So perhaps, rather than emphasizing alter ego, it is the role of the derby name that is of issue regarding the allure of contemporary roller derby.

The final chapter deliberates the emancipatory potential inherent in roller derby as it is played today, by providing a space for women to transgress gendered expectations on women in today’s society, with its immersion of masculine aggressiveness and women centered organization. The lack of theoretical analysis in the previous chapters is somewhat remedied in the final one, as Arendt puts gender theory to use and explicates how roller derby challenges gender binaries, and “provides gender transgression zones” (p. 79), which is a vital part of roller derby’s emancipatory character. Following on this, in the concluding section of the book, Arendt states that “

[…] true emancipation is hard to find, given numerous individual and societal constraints (namely overarching power structures). This study suggests that derby not only provides an awareness that is in itself empowering, but also serves an emancipatory function that is slowly, but undoubtedly, transforming what we know about women, sport, society, power, and gender. (110).

However, albeit somewhat encouraged by the previous words, I am inclined to wonder, what is “true” emancipation? Unfortunately, Arendt do not elaborate on this, which would have added an additional dimension to her analytical reasoning.

An overall impression after reading Arendt’s work, is that it had more potential than was delivered. A study on roller derby through a gendered perspective, and taking its emancipatory potential into account, is for me, as a gender studies scholar with sport as a research topic, very exciting. Nevertheless, in the end, after reading Arendt, I am left disappointed in a study presented with the context of the fieldwork postponed until the last pages in the appendix, and even there finding some contextual parameters lacking. Even more so, I would have wished for a more theory integrated analysis in the empirical chapters. An explanation for these shortcomings could be found in the format, Routledge Focus, a book series signified by “topical, flexible, and rapid publishing”, as stated on Routledge’s homepage (https://www.routledge.com/reference/collections/11864). Perhaps the amount of given pages wasn’t enough, nor was the time frame for publishing sufficient to assure a realization of a study’s potential in its presentation.

Copyright © Greta Bladh 2019

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