June 19, 2006

Domo Arigato, Mistress Ho-Boto!

It almost feels like my 20s and 30s never happened! With all these fashions and styles coming back from the 70s, here I am at 42 and not at all surprised that suddenly roller derby leagues are springing up everywhere, even in my current town of Albuquerque. Anyone who was slightly conscious during the 70s has to remember roller derby. Featuring hot chicks in hotpants or miniskirts on roller skates traveling around a circular track beating the hell out of one another in a pro-wrestling kind of way, the roller derby packed drama and action that engaged the attentions of many a horny pubescent male. I happened to be in junior high and high school when roller derby was on the air, and I would watch mostly to get the thrill of female flesh flying around and perhaps, oh just perhaps, a peek up the skirt. After all, this was marketing to men in the age of sexual freedom, and women did not have the athletic opportunities to which we are accustomed today, particularly in sports involving physical contact through hitting. So, seeing a mock athletic contest (and I say mock in only the loosest terms, because those roller derby pioneers had to be athletes to time their blocks, take falls and choreograph their moves like they did) at that time was something new and interesting, even if it wasn't going to attract ratings like the Super Bowl or the World Series.

Of course, that all went away as we became more aware of the exploitation of women as objects. Women moved into the mainstream of sports, and today we are much more open and accepting of women as athletes, and powerful ones at that. We enjoy seeing them perform and succeed in sports that, in the 70s and before, were exclusive to or dominated by men, like basketball, soccer and other sports.

But women competing in physical contact sports has always remained in the dark corners of society, although now it is becoming more common. New pioneers are beginning to appear. There are now full-contact women's football teams, Holly Holm is a world champion boxer here in Albuquerque with the chance to potentially make millions of dollars as boxing's next star, and women are even getting into the professional wrestling circuit (though I think they are still considered oddities). I think society sees something that is both disturbing and exciting when women smack each other around in the name of competition. It goes against most of our traditional expectations of women; that they are caregivers and nourishers. Despite our enjoyment of movie and television portrayals of ass-kicking female icons like Buffy and Dark Angel, the women of the X-men and so on, we have trouble reconciling these two visions of the feminine. Either women are ass-kickers, and somewhat scary but exciting, or providers and nourishers and therefore easier to relate to. So how do we reconcile these two sides of the feminine?

Enter our friend, the irrepressible Tiffany. She talked Megan and I out to Midnight Rodeo, one of those country juke joints with the circular dance track around the bar in the middle, to see a Duke City Derby bout between the Ho-Bots and the Doomsdames. Little did I know that Tiffany was leading me to a socio-cultural lesson (and neither did Tiffany, I believe). I went expecting a comic and over-the-top show much like roller derby in the 70s, and in many ways I wasn't disappointed. The skating sirens of the league dressed in wild costumes. The Ho-Bots, as their name implied, wore metallic short skirts or shorts with fishnet stockings, often torn in places, and went by names such as R2-Beat-U, Vixenator, and Molotov Cocktease. The Doomsdames sported a post-apocalyptic style, also tight and somewhat revealing, and tended to have shorter styled hair and names such as Mortal Wombat, Apocalicious and Cynderblock. Penalties were enforced by Hot Wheelz, of the local burlesque troupe Burlesque Noir, dressed in a leather thigh-high dress, and consisted of the offender locked stocks during a match and mock-whipped. The two worst offenders were instructed to spin a wheel, and to participate in the contest the arrow settled upon -- in this case musical chairs in which a stool was set on the ground. Music was played, and when the music stopped a free-for-all ensued between the two contestants both trying to grab the stool until one of them won by straddling the now upended piece of furniture.

The winner of that mini-contest, and my new heroine, was the disturbingly named vixen, Dahmernatrix. (Side note: When I lived in Milwaukee, in the mid-late 80s, it turned out that I lived just 4 or 5 blocks from Jeffrey Dahmer, so the name has some close-to-home meanings for me)

Both Tiffany and I picked Dahmernatrix as our favorite skater independently of each other. Captain of the Ho-Bots, Dahmernatrix had to watch her team lose that day despite her efforts. Serving as the jammer, or the team member whose job it is to pass skaters from the other team and earn points while avoiding getting blocked or knocked down, she consistently sailed around, between and among the pack, scooting out front and doing some blocking of her own. Unfortunately, some of her other team members weren't up to the task that day. "Newbies," she explained to us later after the match. "We'll practice with them this next month and get them used to falling, getting knocked around and giving it back."

When Dahmernatrix agreed to come over after the bout and meet us, Tiffany became extremely excited. Tiffany said it was her best day since Pika Brittlebrush named her in her blog as one of the girls she (Pika) would do. Dahmernatrix was very accommodating and warm, and Tiffany was simply gushing with superlatives about her. Dahmernatrix was nice enough to talk to us about roller derby, her team's loss, injuries, and roller derby leagues in general. She posed for pictures with both me and Tiffany, though I sadly learned today that my picture with her was lost. Megan asked Dahmernatrix if it is true that her day job is spent working at a homeless shelter, and her affirmative answer really pushed her high in my estimation. Okay, yes, I developed a slight crush on Dahmernatrix.

I found myself not only entertained by these women flying around a track at breakneck speed and getting into 3-4 lady pileups, but also impressed at how seriously they took this sport. Though it has its promotional and comic trappings, the participants are dead serious and deathly competitive. Roller derby to them is serious business, as it is to many of their fans who pack Midnight Rodeo once a month during their season.

Thus, the two visions of the feminine, the caregiving and provider versus the ass-kicking competitor, is reconciled in women like Dahmernatrix, roller derby queen and symbol of the 21st century woman, strong and competitive. Yes she can kick ass -- taking the scrapes and falls and inadvertant elbows. And she can give it all back, with her fortitude revealing itself as she throws herself around the track and knocks into her opponents, around and around until her legs can barely support her. The delight in her face before, during and after a battle indicates how much she loves the physicality of her chosen sport. And her costuming, somewhat trashy and sexy at the same time, further proves that real-life ass-kicking women can do it all with panache and humor.

But Dahmernatrix measures up to all those other expectations we typically and often unfairly hold to women. She serves as an example to the newer members of the team without denigrating them for their lack of experience. She takes the time to talk to complete strangers who obviously know nothing about roller derby. But the biggest indication is that her day job is helping homeless men and women at a shelter. Here is a woman who for fun is willing to risk bruises, scrapes, and breaks in physical combat with other women, but who spends most of her meaningful time helping others.

It is interesting that I never learned Dahmernatrix's real name, and probably won't, because while the derby girls consider their roller derby personas their alter-egos, their real lives are a mystery to the rest of us and may be very different than what they portray in their derby characters. We get to know both Clark Kent AND Superman in the comics and movies -- but here I only get to know Dahmernatrix, or Molotov Cocktease, and whatever those characters choose to reveal to me in performance and maybe snippets of conversation after the bout.

As fans of sports, and casual observers, we as society are always happy and a bit surprised when male star athletes do not behave like spoiled millionaires -- when football, basketball and baseball stars do not act like jerks and do something valuable, like acts of charity and selflessness, that we don't expect of them. We think differently about women; we expect them to be selfless and charitable more often. In this modern world, we now are pleasantly surprised when they go against these types and bring out their inner warriors. We are a little taken aback and more than a little curious when we see them enjoy hitting and being hit in competition. It's refreshing, and fun, takes women out of the stereotypes we have put on them and reveals them as more complete beings. Keep enlightening us, Derby Girls! Push the envelope, Dahmernatrix! I've now become your fan. Domo Arigato, Mistress Ho-Boto!


Anonymous Pauline said...

Oh Michael. You and Matty grow more and more alike as time goes by... he too is a fan of Roller Derby... as well as a Styxfan...

Interesting take on women in this blog... me likey.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Dahmernatrix said...

Thank you for your kind words. I say you're a flatterer but my mom swears you speak the truth.
I'll be counting on you to supply the HoBots with a cheering section August 19th, when we face off against the DoomsDames again!

10:53 AM  
Blogger Michael L. Hess said...

There's always some truth in flattery, and I mean every word I said! Thanks for reading it.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Mary B. said...

Awesome. I should go and watch Fayetteville's local roller derby chapter. They had a tent set up at our local Spring Fest, but I didn't pay much attention at the time. This could be fun! :)

8:06 AM  

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