Notes on: Pavlidis, A & Fullagar, S (2013) Narrating the multiplicity of “derby grrrl”: Exploring intersectionality and the dynamics of affect in roller derby, Leisure Sciences, Volume 35, Issue 5 pp. 422-437 | DOI: 10.1080/01490400.2013.831286

Dave Harris

Women participating in roller derby have created a new kind of leisure practice that challenges gender norms, although not without tensions.  This is a qualitative study in Australia, showing the intersection of identities, and paying particular attention to the affective relations at work.

Roller derby has been reclaimed by women as empowering, involving 'desires for fierce competition, creative expression and collective pleasures' and 'intense affects such as pride, passion, aggression, love, shame and loss' (2).  Yet there are tensions.  The work serves as a case study to examine the 'gendered embodiment of women's leisure and sport experiences, although with more emphasis on social relations and affect as they intersect.  Particular 'identity markers and material conditions related to age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, [dis]ability, and class' intersect.

Roller derby was once a masculine sporting culture, involving 'strong, fit bodies and tough competition', but it has now been feminized introducing 'art, costumes, and music' as well (3).  It takes place between teams of five.  It is a contact sport although the rules prevent serious injury.  It is popular in Australia.  Women have to negotiate particular power relations, and manage their resistance from a number of different sites.  However there is no single reading, for example of resistance or alternatives.  Their own narratives identify complexity.

The first resource turns on the 'concept of intersectionality'.  The second one looks at cultural theories of affect and embodiment.  The idea is that experience is shaped by affects such as 'shame, pride, pleasure' (4), and these in turn are shaped by social relations of identity.  In particular bodies in sport lend new significance to class and race, possibly in ways that white middle class heteros would find embarrassing.  Roller derby is a source of pride which focuses these intersections.

Sociology, feminist and cultural theory have thought about affects in leisure and sport as matters of socio-cultural rather than psychological meanings.  The affective turn emphasizes multiple identities rather than an essential self [one source is Deleuze and Guattari!].  Feminists are particularly interested in how affect is performed through gender relations.  All this has revalued emotional meaning, based on the early work by Butler on gender as performative.  Affect now means the practice of emotions and embodied feelings in social interactions and discourse.  It is sometimes used to challenge conventional notions of feelings and psychology of biology, since the emphasis is on relations and cultural contexts.  Leisure and sport are ideal sites to study affects as they are embodied.

The post structuralist notion of intersectionality was originally coined by Crenshaw addressing the identities of black women and how they had been made invisible in feminist writing.  Gender and race are the most frequently discussed intersections, sometimes with class, although other axes such as 'disability, place, culture, religion, age and sexuality' are less common.  Intersections can involve both oppression and privilege, and both are needed for a critical understanding.  Social change has also affected the debate by noting '"fleeting and fluid identities"', quoting Styhre and Eriksson-Zetterquist (6).

Roller derby makes an ideal case study.  It tends to be largely white, as with most Australian sports, and whiteness becomes a norm to identify others.  Whiteness involves privileges including 'certain affects; cultural inclusion and pride within a leisure space they feel entitled to enjoy'.  It is clear that inequality and preferences are involved, possibly 'the form of exclusion that can also be understood through power relations', especially the affective issues of feelings of not belonging or being shamed by difference.

For the white participants, sexuality and gender mark differences, and it would be wrong to categorize them just as 'woman', 'a cultural imaginary that assumes the masculine is default for human identity' [citing Braidotti and Irigaray].  There are parallels in the binaries between heteros and homos, as queer theorists have argued.  This might be a source of omission even for a post structuralist feminist: feminist terminology is not intended to eliminate other categories rather to consider how some become stable or shift, pointing to 'power relations between women'

Ethnography and semi structured interviews were used, while poststructuralist feminism emphasizes embodied meanings and the effects of language.  The authors were a student and supervisor respectively.  The first author was a participant this provided access to a number of meanings.  Fullagar stayed as an outsider and this helps reflexivity.  However, she was an insider to queer culture.

40 interviews were conducted, additional textual material gathered from places such as blogs and websites.  Two narratives emerged from the interviews were turning on the experiences scholarly organizations of the sport, and feelings about the transformative effects of the sport.  Writing the research is made visible in order to expose different readings and different links between theory and practice than denying that some underlying realities been accessed.  They chose academic writing rather than as something more like a screenplay or poetry, however.

The aim was to explore into sections between gender, class and sexuality, bearing in mind that narratives themselves need to be examined to see how they tell stories.  Individuals have multiple stories.  Narratives themselves are productive.  They did not use themes, but read narratives against other possibilities, according to theoretical interests.  Two particular narratives have been chosen for this article to show what the affects of intersecting identities and 'diverse leisure meanings' (9).  The organizing question when analyzing transcripts was to ask how the meaning of participation was articulated, what sort of identities were invoked, what contradictions [intersections, tensions]  existed within and between narratives.  Participants were aware that research is a matter of story telling, and they openly 'staked out a claim for their version of the sport, and a certain kind of subjectivity for themselves' (10).

In the first narrative, a woman of 30 was a graphic designer employed in a government department.  She was white and hetero, involved in roller derby for several years, and an active sportswoman in other areas.  She is in one of the largest and strongest leagues and has been a key in its success.  She was committed, originally single, then living with a boyfriend which caused problems of balancing commitments, as did work.  She had been marginalized in the past, rejected as a female sportsperson by her father.  Her hetero relations had also been effected. She was  'competitive and serious'(11).  She saw nothing particularly unusual about contact sports for women.  She saw roller derby as legitimate and creative, and thinks the injuries are overreported.  She did not see the need to adopt particularly sexy costumes or images, and was annoyed by media focus: she claimed a functional purpose for things such as fishnets.  She did not see roller derby as alternative: her league was coached by professionals.

The authors agree that while most sports are patriarchal, modernist and 'techno capitalist'(12), roller derby does not support these ideals.  Nor is it mere entertainment, like professional wrestling.  This demeans the women who take part and their athleticism, and they dislike being thought of as 'soft...too emotional, too feminine'.  This is also the basis for Ahmed seeing such connects humans as showing the danger of working only with 'feelings'.  The first participant wanted to win and experience the pleasures of combining strength and power. She found  'girlyness' frustrating and shameful, even disgusting.  Emotions got in the way, including frustration leading to tantrums.  As a result, a particular intersection produces a specific affective practice - competition and wanting to win have to be related to the sport as real, and herself as a 'white female heterosexual athlete'.

Her status was privileged, university educated and fairly well resourced. This permitted travel and also the rejection of 'the queer, feminized and playful aspects of roller derby'.  She saw it as empowering, and felt anger and shame at some other displays by women, especially if it involves something dangerous and sexual.  She wanted to preserve heterosexual femininity in a contact sport.  She saw success as an individual matter rather than a collective effect of patriarchy, so she was one of those young women where individual success was achieved at the price of letting feminism fade away [also cited by McRobbie 2009, apparently].

Competition, aggression and power are usually seen as masculine, something for women to have to negotiate to compete while remaining hetero.  This participant has experienced shame at  being unfeminine, but she is willing to risk it in order to play.  Sometimes, women felt pressured to show themselves as real, avoiding aggression, strength and pain, and wanting to look nice.  This participant wants to play hard but also stresses the rules and the guidelines.  She wants to separate sport from sexuality, again a result of the particular intersection of her categories.  She does not mention derby when she dates men, because they assume that she is easy, or into S and M. Ambivalence about roller derby remains, and increased as competing commitments emerged.  Even when she met a man who would accept her participation, she still wanted to separate her life from her sport, indicating some shame [actually, shame about being proud to be a roller derby player].

The second participant was younger, white, and a university student, who did not define her sexuality.  She was a rural dweller [apparently, urban dwelling was another one of those identities seen as important in the first case].  She saw participation as helping her assert herself.  She seemed reflexive and also detached from her responses in emotional terms.  By the second interview, however, she'd got more involved in organizing the league and was more impassioned.  She identified heterosexuality and gendered performance as a component, noted that lots of people assumed the sport was dominated by lesbians, but did not attempt to separate out her specific derby identity.  She creatively played with identity instead, finding her own image and voice.  She stressed openness and multiple readings.  She played by wearing a dress and confusing her family about her orientations and accusations of lesbianism—such reactions were part of the appeal [as was the ability to dress up and act out].

She saw the sport as fun, but it also involved 'feelings of belonging and love'(16), experiencing the players as a unique community.  In this way, the sport became 'a site of femininity, in its multiplicity, and strength and toughness'.  This helped marginalize feelings of shame or rejection by men, and allowed her to express aggression and competitiveness.  Instead of coldness, these feelings were experienced as a different emotional orientation, as Ahmed suggests, a matter of collective pride, being part of the community 'where female sexuality is configured differently' (17).  Participation brings constant happiness,  'produced through the oncoming practice of roller derby', its complexities, and its exhilaration and freedom.  Developing skills sometimes provided frustration as well [all sounds like the necessary conditions for flow]. She talked about the tensions in the league around sexuality.  Some of the women were gay and this caused friction in case the whole league became seen as gay.

This narrative shows different intersections of identity with different effects, enabling her to develop aspects of identity that were marginalized elsewhere.  Overall, the negotiations 'between pride and shame, joy and disappointment, winning and losing, heterosexuality and homosexuality' were played out in different ways (18).  This shows that identities are fluid, emerging within changing networks [which include technologies and artefacts, although these have not been discussed so far].  The same interactions appear as well in 'globalized, highly mediated leisurescapes'.

Roller derby may not be an oppositional subculture, with sustained challenge to gender inequality, but it may have 'more nuanced opportunities for social change', because it provides 'a diverse leisure space' by women.  It certainly challenges the usual notions 'that position women as meek, fragile and defined in relation to men'.  It acts like the Gay Games to make sport more inclusive and cooperative and permit more diverse sexualities and genders.  The two narrative showed different possibilities, pride on the track and shame off it for one, the possibility to enact alternative sexualities for the other, separateness from queer derby culture and revelling in it.

Wearing discusses leisure spaces as heterotopia in Foucault's terms, open spaces for struggle and resistance.  Yet there is no simple subject engaged, rather social practices with complex intersections, experience of subjectification [glossed here as positive 'self-formation', 19].  Women perform and regulate their own narratives and identities.  Women are positioned differently in these spaces [with different amounts of cultural capital], and this can produce tension among groups, at least the emphasis moves away from 'static, social structures', fixed categories and identities.

Intersecting categories can produce '"compensating, overshadowing, saturating, hiding and drowning one another" [citing Staunaes, 20], and can reinforce or counteract each other.  Practices engaged in in sport to privilege some subjectivities over others - for example, both participants were white women, missing the effects of racial background, yet even they produce 'subtle and nuanced intersections of identity' and differences.  Roller derby is not either resistant or subversive, but exhibits diverse narratives and subject positions.

Discussions of affect should also be seen as more relational [specifically argued against Massumi who sees it as autonomous] and embodied, always involving self and others and shared judgements [especially in team games].  Sports also take place 'amidst everyday negotiations' about gender.  Intersectionality is particularly useful when discussing subjects in leisure or sport spaces.  Becoming and belonging is never just linear or stable, and this produces 'challenges for league organizers', (22) and managers, and this needs to be addressed in the literature, and by researchers [pleas for a 'whole life' approach]  [a new reason for asking for socio demographic variables in research?].  It is not just a commitment to the politics of diversity, since that ignores systematic inequalities, even among women, and there are some shared elements such as desire and pride in these cases.

Looking at affect has helped understand the 'multiplicity of leisure subjectivities'.  It also helps 'inform a feminist imaginary for leisure' [with a reference to Irigaray], which in turn might help us 'imagine a more inclusive, just society'.  Affect complicates static and singular interpretations [with a strange quote by McRobbie on a series of interpellations producing a range of entanglements for young women, as they enjoy both freedom and success].  'Educational achievement, age, ability and geography' also produce multiple configurations.  [So where do we stop - why no religious affiliation, or occupation?].  Examining narratives highlights desire for freedom and success.

Roller derby 'is an everyday site', a place where pleasure and pride can be celebrated publicly.  Pleasure is gained by rigorous training and exercise and dressing up and enjoying music, or belonging to a sporting community.  Sometimes the women create their own derby communities.  There are some standard aspects of the communities, however, possibly induced by monoculturalism.  The possible future affects of greater structuring of the sport will need to be considered.

McRobbie, A. (2007). Top girls? Cultural Studies, 21(4), 718-737
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