Memphis Roller Derby: Something Out of Frank Miller

Chapter 1

The Memphis Roller Derby is something out of a comic book; but not the standard, tamed, mainstream comic book.

DC would never publish anything on the roller girls. Sure, Detective Comics had scantily clad female heroines that eluded to sexuality: Wonder Woman with her bondage implying golden lasso, the stereotypical cheerleader in a short skirt that was Supergirl, and that hot little Wonder Twin pixie. But these girls had no yin to their yang, no underlying conflict, no badass attitude. Marvel might be brave enough run a series on the roller derby. But even they would likely fall short. Sure, Marvel gives their characters more depth and muddies up their morality. But I’m not certain they could do justice to the complex mix of violence, attitude, grit, sex, and vanity that goes into the roller girls.

Roller derby girls are not for a mainstream audience. They would be more at home in a publication with some independence and a cult following.

The Memphis Roller Derby belongs in a Frank Miller graphic novel. I envision the roller girls pouring through the streets of Sin City with a wake of destruction trailing them.

For those who may not be familiar with the roller derby, it is a sport–a real sport–where women on four-wheeled roller skates (quads) speed around a track and knock each other down. It is more complex than that, but any spectator will be magnificently entertained even if that is all she/he understands.

If one is looking for a deeper appreciation of the sport, she/he should know that each team has five skaters–one jammer, one pivot, and three blockers–on the track at a time.

A roller derby girl is something beyond a girl and something beyond an athlete.

The jammers are what the competition is all about. They are easily recognizable by the star on their helmets. They start just a few seconds behind the rest of the group. Once they are rolling they must bob, cut, and weave through the pack. After passing each of the blockers and pivots, they must lap around the track and maneuver through the moving pack again. For each opposing skater that they pass on their second and sequential laps, their team scores a point.

A pivot in a striped helmet from each side leads the pack. The pivot sets the pace and keeps the group tight to thwart the opposing team’s jammer while attempting to establish a clear path for her own jammer to get through.

Following the pivot are three blockers. Their job, appropriately, is to block the opposing team’s jammer from getting past them. They also try to push the other blockers aside so their own jammer can skate past. In essence, they are there to knock people down.

That’s the sport. The sport is, without debate, the leading factor in making a roller girl a roller girl. But no matter how important it may be, it is just one of many factors.

While most female athletes do not use their court, or field, or diamond, or whatever as a stage, roller girls take advantage of the spotlight to raise their sport to a form of self-expression.

Each roller girl is part of a team, and each roller girl relies on that team. The jammer scores the points, but she needs the help of her four teammates to score those points. No one skates alone.

At the same time, every skater is encouraged to express her independence. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association mandates that all skaters “wear a uniform which clearly identifies her as a member of her team.” That leaves a lot of room for fashion statements and accessories.

A roller derby girl is something beyond a girl and something beyond an athlete. She is a little sugar, a lot of spice, and not always so nice. She is usually hot, tattooed and high speed, like a Suicide Girl at 100 miles per hour.

No one can keep a girl like that from expressing herself.

In the next installment of this four part series on the Memphis Roller Derby, you’ll meet some of the girls and learn some of their preferred personal expressions. Personal expressions could mean costume choices, derby identities, or just a lot of cussing.

Author’s note: This series of articles focuses on the Memphis Roller Derby, but your local roller derby team is likely to have a lot in common with the Memphis girls. Check out Nashville’s girls, or Knoxville’s, or any of the other teams peppered around the southeast and throughout the country.

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