Notes on: Pavlides A and Fullagar S (2014) 'The pain and pleasure of roller derby: Thinking through affect and subjectification'.  International Journal of Cultural Studies: 1-27  Doi: 10.1177/1367877913519309

Dave Harris

Focusing on pain helps us think about issues of mind body, real and virtual, feminine and masculine.  Tough roller derby girls able to endure pain are now 'a powerful figure in contemporary western popular culture' (1) but there is a complex relation to pain and pleasure, and various ways of dealing with 'painful affects': it is not just a matter of overcoming pain.  There are a general implications for analysing 'multiple feminine subjectivities'.

Roller derby has emerged as an apparent celebration of embodiment and pain, part of the process of becoming '"derby grrls"'(2).  Embodied affects in general are important, say Deleuze and Guattari.  Pain has particular significance in gender relations as well.  Thinking about pleasure and pain gets us to consider 'women's sporting corporeality', exceeding the usual mind body dichotomy important in patriarchy.  The point is to ask '"what can a woman's roller derby body do"'[hints of Deleuze again,maybe this] rather than what is a derby girl: their identity emerges through sporting performance.  They also show themselves capable of managing local leagues.  The sport itself combines music, art, fashion and style as well as athletic performance, different uses of bodies, and alternative subjectivities.

Cultural studies has become increasingly interested in affects and subjectification, or becoming.  The process of undergoing pain is central to this particular process, and overcoming it helps the women deal with gender power relations as well as 'the government of self' (3).  Apparently, Braidotti (2011) has also seen difficulty and pain affecting transformative politics as a leading to an understanding of its complexity and even its '"dignity"'.

Sport is dominated by masculine trajectories, involving the need to 'become fitter, stronger and more competent' (4): pain and injury are to be overcome.  Mental toughness is also required.  Pain can end careers, yet it leads to complexity.  For example women in sport can be seen as butch, and sometimes have to offer hyper femininity to avoid discrimination.  Roller derby women do this 'to some extent' in costume for example.  Pain signals the beginning or a restart, it is something proud of and bruises are a mark of having developed sufficient knowledge and skill . This produces a relation to pain that is 'cultural, unstable and mobile' (5).  It is an effect of contact in sport, an essential way of establishing limits and potentials of embodiment of this in itself is unstable and unpredictable.

[History of roller derby ensues.  It is mostly organized by the participants in a do it yourself philosophy.  It focuses on gender overtly, producing 'a cultural assemblage where style, belonging and creativity are embodied through physical capacities, teamwork and competition in an eclectic mix of visual art, high performance training, large scale events, anti corporate sentiment, democracy, subculture and music'.  It is also developed through websites, which extend the activity to poetry fashion and crafts, producing 'virtual derby communities'.  Currently there are 900 leagues worldwide.  Inevitably, issues are raised in the academic literature {list on 6}]

Sport is attractive to women including many first time participants.  It is competitive and risky, and injuries are relatively common: unusually, these injuries are 'collectively celebrated' as other participants stop and the crowd watches and applauds.  This produces an unusual pleasure which needs to be understood by examining affect.  The literature on affect is associated with post structuralism including Deleuze and Guattari and Ahmed.  Affect helps us rethink the links between minds and bodies, and this is useful in gender politics in particular, where female bodies take on particular qualities separate from the desirable qualities of minds.

Derby texts, including websites and interview transcripts as well as 'auto ethnographic field notes' (7) are analyzed [the first author is a participant].  Experiences are intense as is the involvement.  It provided problems in doing ethnography, negotiating the links between political imperatives while paying due attention to critiques of representation [citing Lather 2001 -- another article but the notes here are similar].  Multiple methods are the response, discourse analysis of the virtual spaces, interview transcripts, and experiences represented in field notes and memory.  Together these are not seen as leading to the truth, but 'as constituting a derby assemblage', to be depicted through fragments.

Pain is not just biological and psychological, but social and cultural as well.  Early work pointed out that it is hard to depict it in language and knowledge.  There is a journal, Pain, and the International Association for the Study of Pain.  Usually pain is seen as opposed to pleasure.  The experience of pain can clearly be affected by attaching meanings to it, in a cultural context.  Naturalistic assumptions can be challenged by arguing that it is not so much interiorized meaning, but the 'relations between "surfaces"'(9) that is the topic, not just tissue damage, but more 'signifiers, impressions and texts that trouble singular notions of pain'.  This is clear in roller derby - we now need to ask 'what does pain do?'.

Roller derby culture is a matter of 'fleshy interplay between skins and screens', a matter of a 'constantly negotiated proximity and distance, fantasy and embodied sensuality'.  Embodiment is a matter of multiple relations, not the usual ones of pain as a matter of self sacrifice, or something that is not feminine.  Skins and faces produce '"the feel of affect"'[all that stuff about faciality here might make sense?].  Engagement in the web can produce mediated experiences of affect.  Affects are managed in various ways, 'explicitly linked with notions of community and difference', central to the assemblage of self or and community'(10).

Roller derby wants to see itself as 'real' sport, so injuries, bruises and pain help.  The real sport is not just a spectacle.  Injuries 'are ritually celebrated with pride' (11), with photographs distributed on social media, even displayed on official websites.  This helps the women challenge conventional notions of femininity, and open it out [claiming a link with Irigaray, through the opposition to binaries].  Injuries 'are often accompanied by a smiling "derby girl"', and other conventionally sexy images are also displayed.  Participants claim to be both tough and feminine.  This is not unlike women's football or professional wrestling, where 'non debilitating pain' is also a sign of authenticity and real mess.

Experiences of pain involve '"shared understandings about the meaning of pain that can be categorized as a denial, or authenticity, solidarity, and dominance"' [12, citing Smith 2008].  Although pain is real, there is also a need to deny it so as not to be seen as weak.  Pain is also the basis of community, for example in masculine martial arts - its solidarity emerges by affecting others and being affected.  There are gender dimensions, however, since plane overcomes the affect of conventionally sexy costumes in roller derby.  It is not just a matter of using mind over bodies, rather that 'pain expands femininity beyond ideas of service to others' (13).

The celebration of pain characterizes the contemporary version of roller derby [which must surely raise the suspicion that it is just another part of the spectacle?].  Pain brings certainty, but there is also 'imagined pain', often discussed in roller derby virtual communities, where women 'empathize, sympathize and celebrate injury and pain'- such pain is 'central to the formation of community and the post feminist identity', linking with McRobbie 2009.

This opens up the possibility of new ways of thinking about individual and collective subjectivity.  Pain draws our attention to the conventional borders between inside and outside, or to issues of identity.  Women swap stories about how to deal with it without complaining.  The normal '"girly" affects, such as sadness, worry, and fear are very much rejected'(14).  Masculine monopolies are challenged, and so are cultural limits to what women can do.  However, there is a danger that this will involve a valuing of masculinity - the work suggests that the binary has been transcended.

Pain is also central to a number of other texts about coping through do it yourself remedies.  The point is to cope with pain not just mask it as in masculinity.  There is a definite feminine version of toughness, the participants argue, and it is specific to roller derby.  Pain is welcomed as a release from the limits of gender, a definite emotional orientation towards others, expressed by participants as being able to both take it and give it.  Participants see themselves as different from other women, even people who play other women's sports like hockey, where, apparently, heterosexuality dominates the management of pain.  Roller derby goes beyond even the 'gay/straight spectrum'(15).  Pain is seen as a necessary to the transition to become a derby grrrl.

At the same time there is 'a strong focus on safety'.  Sometimes excessive pain produces an awareness of 'the limits of self' (16), more commitment.  Women talk about the effects of quite serious injuries, and these include questioning derby grrrl subjectivity.  Others have experienced the sport 'as "healing"', somewhere to channel feelings positively, to overcome emotional pain.  Some women maintained gender binaries form of anxiety about whether they were becoming masculine, although this seems to have led to different understandings of women in at least one case.  It is unusual for serious injury to lead people to abandon the sport - the pleasures of participating in communities seem strong.  It is not just a matter of pushing past pain in order to get better, but a more complex experience and understanding.

There is long been an interest in the beautiful sporting body, which Fiske once described as 'a "depoliticized ideological celebration of physical labour in capitalism"'(Understanding Popular Culture, 18).  The body type is contrast it to the excessively strong, offensive, or dirty bodies according to Fiske, with professional wrestling as the main example.  Body types in roller derby 'traverse the size and aesthetic spectrum', and the body is made visible rather than depoliticized [I have my doubts - it must be hard to avoid the politics of the spectacle].  Some participants are 'dominatracies'[a classically sexualized type, of course].  Some bodies are dangerous weapons, 'women's arses are weapons and the bigger the better'.  Skates themselves can cause injury.

Elias argues that sport is becoming increasingly civilized, and this is reflected in roller derby [exactly, it would be impossible without the rituals and the rules, and the violence is really rather restrained]: there is an emphasis on professionalization and safety.  Yet this is not always linear, 'and it does not necessarily take into account women's desires': women like a civilized language to counter a civilizing discourse, they find pleasure in inflicting hurt on others or themselves [still pretty civilized versions, though?] Injuries and pain were seen as a consequence of playing.  Even those who like hurting people are not really pathological, not deviant or victims of trauma, but all having normal lives.  The talk can sometimes appear as sadistic intent, even misogynistic and masculinist, but it is really more complex, about remaking the world, using force and other capacities to exercise power, to push beyond their normal limited self.  Some had had a nasty experiences of gender inequality, including sexual assault, but saw derby as a matter of overcoming the past.

Pain is not represented adequately in words.  Players and crowds display supportive gestures if there is a serious injury, stopping the game, the players kneel and the crowds go quiet, in are 'ritual scene'(20).  The authors see this as a moment of genuine solidarity, where pain transcends words, dichotomies are suspended, 'and a different way of being in the world becomes possible, is immanent' (21) [similar scenes in male contact sports too, of course and it is another sign of civilized behaviour].  It is not like struggling to overcome throwing like a girl [with a reference to Young 1990], nor just acquiring bodily capital [with a reference to Wacquant], but something emerging from negotiation between 'pleasure and pain, pride and vulnerability'.

The tough roller derby grrl has become 'the powerful figuration in contemporary western popular culture'.  There is a complex terrain negotiating gender involved.  If we focus on the connections between pain and pleasure, we can go beyond the old dichotomies between mind and body, real and virtual, feminine and masculine.  The subjectification that takes place as is affective, and unites both toughness and vulnerability, violence and clear.  We study the activity we can see how these things become visible.  Digital communities play a major part, for example in circulating images of injuries.  Pain and injury lead to a 'strong sporting female self'(22), and some important imagined 'collective belonging' and 'alternative subjectivities'.

It might be that women have simply come to occupy positions traditionally allocated to men, but they experience the process of subjectification differently.  They have gendered bodies already marked by a history [so do men].  The sports create a particularly useful spaces 'for troubling and expanding gender norms', escaping normal processes like civilisation, and therefore a potential 'counter narratives to a focus on the normalising, governable subject.  Pain is an important dimension, connected with individual and collective change, it is can be dignified [but Braidotti meant the pain of political struggle].

The drive to make bodies faster and stronger, at least until age or injury puts a stop to it, 'is specifically gendered as masculine'.  For women, it is more about 'affective community' as well, and exploring women's subjectivity.  It is not just about exerting mental control over bodies, but more of a negotiation permitting 'a reimagining of women's corporeality'[in the hands of skilled critics and commentators anyway].

Braidotti, R.(2011) Nomadic Subjects. N. York: Columbia UP
Smith, R (2008) Pain in the act: The meaning of pain among professional wrestlers' Qualitative Sociology 31: 129--48
Young, I (1990) Throwing Like a Girl aand other essays in femininst philosophy and social theory. Oxford:Oxford UP

Images of pain from a site suggested by the authors

bruises on derby grrl

Images of derby grrls I found myself:

roller derby


Looks a laugh!