Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Cherry Bombs vs. The Hellcats

Imagine a world where "fights like a girl" is a compliment, family fun includes your father wearing a curly blond wig, the national anthem is sung like a rendition of "November Rain," and if it happens to be your birthday, you are treated to 26 women in fishnets, helmets, and roller skates, lining up to give you your birthday spank. This is the world I was introduced to last night, when I attended my first all-girls roller derby in downtown Austin. The Cherry Bombs fought the Hellcats in an epic battle for the TXRD ( championship.

I went to the Derby expecting to love it - the perfect expression of today's feminism as fashioned by this strange city. The first half of the game I was blown away by these two teams of tough women, frank in their sexuality and unapologetically looking to kick ass. Their names expressed this intersection of sex and violence: Honey Homicide, Miss Amerikill, and Cherry Chainsaw, to name a few. They wore tight neon uniforms with short skirts, many in ripped fishnets, some with their brightly colored underwear inevitably exposed by the crouched stance of a roller girl in action. When a penalty was called, the offending roller girl would spin the "penalty wheel" and would have to compete against a chosen member of the opposing team; there was an arm-wrestle, a pillow fight, a tug-o-war, and "anything goes" - where two girls race to finish two laps of the rink and anything goes in stopping the opponent. Before the race even started, the two women were on the ground, wrestling and fighting each other. They had to be separated in order for them to be able to actually skate and finish the race.

There was live music, before the derby and at half time. The opening band was called "Wicked Celtics," ( described in the program as the hypothetical love-child of "Scott Stapp of Creed, that dude from Nickelback, and James Hetfield of Metallica." After their show they had a table for autographs and a sign that read, "Wicked Celtics autographs, $48.99 or best offer." I thought it was weird that the derby began with the national anthem but when the lead singer of Wicked Celtics performed, I understood it was meant somewhat ironically. Or maybe it wasn't; maybe I'm just in Texas.

At halftime, Cruiserweight ( performed, the self-proclaimed "official band of roller derby." The lead singer, a woman with cat-eye glasses and a tattoo of an electrical socket, sang pop tough-girl tunes, a continued celebration of the roller girl persona.

Roller girls would frequently flip over the railing of the rink in an effort to save their ribs from breaking when pushed full-speed into the ropes. As the derby went on, the wounds became more visible: bloody noses and burned thighs. Although I cringed at each hit in the derby, I admired these women for their temerity. I thought at least in football men wear all that padding, but these women are truly putting their bodies on the line for the sport.

Early in the third quarter, tragedy struck. In writing this, I can hear myself as a mother in ten years: "it's all fun and games until..." In this case, until Cherry Chainsaw of the Cherry Bombs gruesomely broke her ankle. When she went down, you could hear her scream and the derby came to an immediate halt. At first I thought it was part of the show, the level of dramatics being so high - women crying and even vomiting, all with stunned looks on their faces. But as the announcers repeatedly called medical personnel to the rink, it became clear that this was not part of the show. Cherry Chainsaw's mother was sitting in front of us and she rushed to her daughter's side. It took about 20 minutes to get Cherry on a stretcher and to the ambulance that had been called to the Convention Center. The crowd stood in stunned silence as the announcers filled the void with narrative about Cherry, how she is a single mom, this was to be her retirement derby, her contributions to the game, etc. Johnny Stranger, the Cherry Bombs manager, walked around collecting money for Cherry's medical bills with the announcers continuing, "unfortunately, roller derby is a skate-at-your-own-risk sport and Cherry Chainsaw does not have medical insurance; we all know how much she would appreciate your help."

Once Cherry was out of the arena, the game went on. The managers had decided, for time's sake, to jump straight to the fourth quarter. I thought the mood on the rink would be slightly subdued, but rather it was heightened. The level of brutality grew and three major penalties were called. There were two fights.

My sense of liberation in the first half turned to aversion in the second. Half-time seemed to perfectly slice my reaction to this "anything goes" style of all-girls roller derby. At the risk of sounding too much like Carrie Bradshaw, I left wondering, in our quest for equality, must we match men in everything? Was this an unexpected turn in women's lib, or a showing that we can be just as brutal and stupid as men, but in this case with fewer benefits and more to lose?

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