So you've seen trailers for 'Whip It,' Drew Barrymore's first crack at directing a movie, and now you're asking -- could any of this roller derby stuff possibly be real? By day Margot Atwell is a mild-mannered book editor, but catch her on nights and weekends and you'll likely meet her alter ego, the hard-skating Em Dash, a member in good standing of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league. We asked Em, er, Margot, for her take on the upcoming Derby flick 'Whip It.' Read on for her professional opinion of the coming-of-age-on-skates dramedy.
So you've seen trailers for 'Whip It,' Drew Barrymore's first crack at directing a movie, and now you're asking -- could any of this roller derby stuff possibly be real?
The short answer is: Yes! Roller derby, which originated in the 1930s, was incredibly popular in the '60s and '70s, drawing tens of thousands of spectators before flaming out and vanishing from the national stage. But in 2001, a few enterprising lady Texans revived the hard-hitting, full-contact spectacle as a new all-female sport with real rules, punk-rock flair and feminist undertones. Although many leagues still skate on banked tracks (like the skaters do in the movie), in the past few years hundreds of flat-track leagues have popped up all over the world as well.
'Whip It' is based on a book (and script) by former roller-derby skater Shauna Cross, who's skated with the L.A. Derby Dolls and the Texas Rollergirls. I'm in my second season with the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league, based in New York City, and it's obvious to me that the film had a lot of input from real skaters -- it hits the right notes in things like the fashion, the camaraderie ... and, not least, the attitudes of the totally badass women on the track.
OK, so it's a real sport. But is it as hardcore as it looks on the screen?
When watching the movie, it's easy to be distracted by the dramatic jumps (which you'll see if you attend a real Gotham Girls Roller Derby bout) and the elbows to the face (which you won't). Though the film takes some mild liberties with the rules of roller derby, it really is a full-contact sport, like ice hockey, only on four wheels -- and with fewer pads.
People always ask me, "With all this slamming into each other, don't you get hurt?" Yes. As in any contact sport, roller derby has a high risk of injury. In an amusing sight gag, Drew Barrymore's Smashley Simpson seems to have new injuries every time she appears on screen, though they never seem to keep her off the track. In reality, rollergirls do endure injuries, from bruises and fishnet burn (no, really!) to the more serious -- snapped collar bones, torn ACLs, separated shoulders and broken legs. Amazingly, one of the first questions most injured skaters ask is: "When can I get back on skates?"
What about the rest of it? Real derby girls do have derby names like Surly Temple, Ariel Assault, Lucille Ballistic and Fisti Cuffs. We call each other by these names even when we aren't skating. Jealous? The 'Whip It' website has a derby name generator. It recommended Bruisie Thrasher for me, though I'm happy with Em Dash, the derby name I've chosen for when I've got my skates on.
'Whip It' really nailed the essence of what I love about the sport. Like real derby skaters, the ladies in 'Whip It' train hard and take their sport seriously -- but not too seriously. They still joke around and have fun with each other on and off the track. The central team of the movie, the Hurl Scouts, are fiercely protective of each other, and work together as a team in their long-odds matchup against undefeated bad girls the Holy Rollers. (I won't spoil the ending in case you haven't seen it yet.)
The mean-spirited rivalry between the main character, Bliss Cavendar/Babe Ruthless (Ellen Page), and her derby nemesis, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), didn't seem very accurate to me based on the way most derby leagues are set up. The Gotham Girls league is made up of six teams (Bronx Gridlock, Brooklyn Bombshells, Manhattan Mayhem, Queens of Pain, Wall St. Traitors, plus the All-Stars), and we practice together as a whole league twice a week. Because we are a totally DIY organization, we work together to sell merch, put on bouts and get the word out about our events. This means that we are all pretty close no matter which team we're on. Our coaches are also skaters themselves, so skaters from different teams help each other to improve their skills. Every day other than bout day, our love of the sport trumps our desire to beat the pants off each other.
In the movie, Bliss faces misconceptions about the sport and people who think she's too small to play, or not tough enough. Being on the slender side myself, I smiled as she proved her detractors wrong and drew from reserves of strength she didn't know she had. Over the last two years, I have learned to skate and hold my own on the track. Just like Babe Ruthless, I have developed confidence as I set tough goals for myself and push myself hard until I meet them. And like Ruthless, I've learned that I am faster and stronger and tougher than I ever imagined.
Want a crack at becoming your own hero? Gotham Girls has tryouts in December, and leagues in cities around the country are always looking for new skaters, refs and other support staff. Check out the Gotham Girls Roller Derby website to learn what it takes to be a rollergirl, or visit the 'Whip It' site to find a league near you.
-- By Margot Atwell, aka Em Dash