Sport, Gender and Power: The Rise of Roller Derby
Adele Pavlidis and Simone Fullager Fanrham
Surrey, UK: Ashgate. 2014, 208p
Reviewed by Susan K. Thomas
Since the early 2000s, roller derby has experienced a resurgence in numerous countries. A search online provides hits that reflect roller derby activity in Sweden, Latvia, Japan, Brazil, and several dozen other countries (53 according to Frogmouth blog). Roller derby is a full-contact team sport that enables women to compete while embracing speed, power, and sexuality as derby girls (grrls). In Sport, Gender and Power: The Rise of Roller Derby, authors Adele Avlidis and Simone Fullager use ethnography and autoethnography to conduct a multilayered study of roller derby in Australia. The study not only reflects the empowerment of women within the derby community, but also the often unspoken subject of roller derby’s darker side.
The text is divided into seven distinct chapters that provide background of the sport, the authors’ theoretical approach through a literature review, and clear insight into the authors’ methodology. Pavlidis participated in roller derby for 18 months, providing a foundation for her understanding of the sport and its management, which are often reflected in her personal journal entries from the period when she was involved in derby. The authors interviewed 36 women in derby, selecting portions of ten interviews to incorporate into the text. The selection contains a balanced perspective of the sport. The remaining chapters explore the inspiration that women find within derby, the little discussed dark side of the sport, and the management, both local and national, of roller derby.
In their theory chapter, Avlidis and Fullager pull from feminist, queer, post-structural, and affect theories as they examine the embodied culture of roller derby. Through their use of Judith Butler and Rosi Braidotti, the authors identify gender as a cultural creation. However, Avlidis and Fullager acknowledge sexual difference in that it “allows women, as diverse subjects, a space from which to speak on their own terms, in their own voice, despite how difficult this may be” (30). Additionally, the authors incorporate theorists Sara Ahmed, Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari in their discussion of affect theory, which is defined as “relational and produced through cultural contexts that shape, and are shaped by, the performance of identity and power differences” (33). Avlidis and Fullager explain that roller derby as a sport and culture is produced through the repeated actions that transform and restructure women’s identities (33). These affects not only create the sport, but also establish tension between the derby girls. The authors effectively ground their theoretical approach in chapter 2 and successfully apply it throughout the text, creating a balance between ethnography, autoethnography, and theory.
Avlidis and Fullager consider the physical body and the larger body of league and sport in their chapter “Feminist Sport Management: Affects and Governance in Roller Derby.” They explain that while the attraction to roller derby has been the empowerment through physical play as well as a sense of belonging, derby has evolved in structural governance. Leagues are complex organizations where some women gladly take managerial roles that ensure clubs run smoothly, have income to compete, and that ensure derby girls train consistently. In this chapter, the authors examine the complexities of sports management in roller derby, which often includes an insistence that derby organizations be run by women for women. Avlidis and Fullager consider the efforts of smaller and larger leagues, their organization, and structure in relationship to sport management research, which is dominated by male-bodied sports. They also incorporate Foucault’s notion of power as they consider the governance of women by women.
While many women join roller derby because it is an empowering space, the authors effectively expose the darker side of the sport. Avlidis and women interviewed for the project identified that they had joined for a number of reasons such as female empowerment, community, and involvement in sport. However, through their belonging, they often questioned their role in the sport. Avlidis wondered whether she was the right kind of derby girl, or if she was tough enough or mean enough. Others felt marginalized within the community as women formed cliques that would easily include or exclude others. One woman, Debbie was deeply committed to the sport, but grew frustrated with others who did not take it as seriously. Still others found that the marketing and management of a league and skating events to be as important as the skating itself. The explanation of the dark side strips the sport of its feminist and empowered perfection that is so often projected to the public.
Avlidis and Fullager have created a text that is significant in its incorporation of affect theory and sports management research in their relation to women’s sports, specifically roller derby. The excerpts from interviews add dimension to a text that easily could have become a cold, flat examination of roller derby. However, the authors have structured the book to make it not just readable, but also enjoyable in its accessibility.
Susan K. Thomas is an independent scholar, having earned her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas (2012). She is employed as an assistant researcher and copy editor at KU’s Achievement & Assessment Institute. Her current research interests are in the LGBTQ archive, the marginalization of LGBTQ fetish cultures within the LGBTQ community, and the creation and shift of queer social spaces.