Roller Derby on the Screen

November 20th, 2014 | 2 comments

No, I will get up on my roller derby high-horse and say that Whip It is a bad movie. I will not say that the violence is too glorified, nor that the campy showmanship is too much, nor that the gratuitous bum-shots are inaccurate and distasteful. I will say that for a movie-going, show-watching, non-derbying civilian, the presence of derby on the movie/TV screen is lacking.

Of course, any fictional depiction is exactly that: fictional. However, a derby movie or show could stand to more often be dramatized and exaggerated in ways that would draw curious, non-derby-ers into the sport in a more down-to-earth way, instead of marginalizing viewers simply as awe-struck spectators. For example, I imagine it difficult for the average person to picture one’s self in a sport that ignores egregious penalties such as horribly intentional blows to the face, in favor of seeing a belly-shirted girl thrown to the ground in serious pain. In derby, “We are not strippers on skates” and we are also not WWE Smackdown. Though we love to strike awe into the hearts of our beloved fans, the presence of derby in the movies and TV has historically and currently proved a poor reflection of what we do. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

CSI New York - Jamalot 2005

CSI New York – Jamalot 2005

And so I present to you, the menu of items with which, even if exaggerated in true Hollywood style, someone out there might create the Remember the Titans or Million Dollar Baby of roller derby.

Phenomenally Awesome and Sisterly Relationships between Teams

During a bout, there is no mercy. Even, and especially, when scrimmaging among your own team. But hard hits make you strong and we do it to make each other better. CSI Miami, CSI New York, Bones, all feature the relationship between teams as the fuel for murder. Whip It comes close with the team bonding and the after party and their positive, playful rivalry. But, come watch a CDD bout and you’ll see an incredible hit that sends someone flying, followed by a hand up and pat on the butt.

CDD All Stars vs. Carolina Roller Girls 10/15/14 Photo Cred: Dan “Jugglenaut” Purdy

CDD All Stars vs. Carolina Roller Girls 10/15/14
Photo Cred: Dan “Jugglenaut” Purdy

You’ll see both teams form a protective wall around a downed player to give her privacy from the crow if someone is down or injured.

Psych is the only crime show to feature derby girls as a criminal team instead of sloppy, catty murderesses. (Spoiler alert: they’re thieves. Hey, equipment is expensive, I feel that.) However Psych misses the ball on a few other items on our list.

Variety of Characters

On the Derby Dames alone we have a full spectrum of characters, from our types of nicknames and uniform variation, to our playing styles, to our shapes and sizes. This variety gives us a range of strengths and a degree of unpredictability. The media tends to show teams as the cookie-cutter “derby-girl,” i.e. a general body type and physical make-up, and minimal variation in gameplay. No one stands out for any given movement or play, mostly because there are no visible plays. Watch one CDD bout, and you will see dynamic, intentional derby in action.

Pack Work and Game Play

Clip from Psyche

Clip from Psyche

This is a pack

CDD All Stars, Photo Cred: Dan “Jugglenaut” Purdy

On-screen derby demonstrates no visible strategy, no lateral movements, no speed control, no pack work, no active blocking in general. The interaction and 3-dimensional play between blockers and jammers is the true beauty of roller derby. CSI Miami’s episode does a pretty good job about accurate game play, but much of the action that occurs on screen is more reminiscent of 1970s derby which mostly consisted of jammers racing to get in front of a straight, single-file, pace-line that had minimal contact with one another, aside from glaringly fake penalties. Which brings us to . . .

Actual penalties!

The penalty system in roller derby is so complex that it is still being developed and tweaked to this day. But that is no reason to overlook the glaring penalties, particularly high blocks that appear all over the TV. In this scene, number 111 was just punched in the face by an opposing player, but received the penalty herself for punching a red, and was then sent to this . . . penalty box? In the middle of the track, and shaped like a carousel/gazebo? What the heck is that thing?

CSI New York

CSI New York

A punch to the face is not only a high block, but will probably lead to ejection from a bout. The hits you see in Whip It, etc. lack control and intention. They happen because the girls want to beat each other up, and not once does it appear that they are helping their jammer to get through a tight opposing wall. Not to mention in Whip It and others: where are the lines on the track?! This could definitely explain the ref’s inability to call penalties.

Whip It

Whip It

COOL- CDD Belmont Bruisers vs. Hard Knox Brawlers 07.2012

Petit Zombie legally blocking opposing jammer. Photo by Dan “Jugglenaut” Purdy


Finally and most importantly:

Contributions to society

Dames in the 2013 Charlottesville Holiday Parade

Dames in the 2013 Charlottesville Holiday Parade

Committee meetings, fundraisers, beneficiaries and community volunteer work keep our team stable and strong. It would be nice to glorify our 501c3 status and contributions to our community in a movie or show, as opposed to glorifying this:

Poster for the short-lived “Roller Derby the Musical,” portraying completely unnecessary awkwardness

Poster for the short-lived “Roller Derby the Musical,” portraying completely unnecessary awkwardness

There are plenty of great documentaries spanning from the late 1940’s to today that will give you an experience of the sport and culture of roller derby that is both intimate and comprehensive. There are stories that follow our history in the late 40’s to the 70’s, evolving from a group race into [basically] WWE on wheels. There are films that explore the dynamic among and within current teams as they work their way up the WFTDA rankings, and deal with the logistical challenges that we face, running semi-professional, non-profit organizations, and as the rules and standards of roller derby continue to develop and grow and play.

So, watch on my friends! Enjoy the available films and shows for pure entertainment value, and maybe one day you will see a tear-jerking, knee-slapping, gut-wrenching, soul-satisfying derby film but for now, I will end on this note:


with inspiration from:
Rae Elise the Kraken

2 Responses

  1. Gretel von Metal says:

    Three good examples of accurate documentaries are Hell on Wheels about the formation of modern roller derby in Austin, TX, Brutal Beauty about the Rose City Roller Girls (both available via netflix, though not currently streaming), and Blood on the Flat Track (available to stream at which follows a season of the Rat City Rollergirls.

    ps. I’m a nerd

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