They talk about mutual support, self-determination, and the satisfaction of a good smack well-delivered. Best known as a 1970’s entertainment spectacle not unlike professional wrestling, roller derby has been reborn as a predominantly female amateur hobby-sport with teams in roughly 200 American cities. The participants are a new breed of surprisingly well educated, middle class professionals for whom the activity is not only an outlet for physical expression but can also be a refuge and a community.
The sport personifies many of the culture’s conflicting images and ideas about women–including those of sexuality, body image, aggression and power. The new players bring a variety of attitudes to those issues but their common interest in the sport reflects a shared rejection of narrowly defined gender role boundaries.
Knocking Girls Down is a documentary about members of The Tragic City Rollers, the two year old Birmingham team. On the roster there’s a librarian working on a master’s degree, an RN at Children’s Hospital, and a metro police officer who’s also a mom. The documentary follows a season with the team on and off the track to discover not only how the game is played but why, and what the characters’ experiences have to say about gender roles in our culture.
The narrative follows the team as it prepares for and travels to “bouts” around the south, but focuses on two key match-ups. The bout at 5th ranked Raleigh, North Carolina is a milestone. TCR has narrowly beaten the only other ranked club they have ever played, and this is the final measure of whether the fledgling team has really arrived. Huntsville is Birmingham’s cross state rival, but was also the group that mentored Tragic City when it was first organized, and at their first meeting Birmingham narrowly lost on a disputed call.
What’s at stake on the track is more than victory for its own sake. It is the survival of the team itself as they struggle to build the necessary fan base and sponsor support. It is a business venture owned and operated by the women themselves. And for them, that too is part of its appeal. But it means that when they are not competing they are often pitching and promoting. Such is the case when the film follows them to an ultimate fighting event at a downtown Birmingham auditorium. As they skate around in their derby costumes to hand out flyers, they are attempting to appeal to the same crowd. But even as they are ambivalent about marketing with sex and violence they find themselves upstaged by the blood in the ring and the bikini clad models in the lobby.
The team’s star speedster, known as The Schnott Nose Kid, is a four foot ten, 90 pound police officer who patrols a high crime Birmingham district in the middle of the night alone, and raises two children by day. She takes pride in having proved herself in a job that values strength and toughness. But as she struggles with personal and professional problems there is a growing sense of her fragility, and she draws comfort from the team as a community. “At work you have camaraderie with the blue family,” she concedes, “but nothing will beat this…there is a sisterhood.”
Temper Tantrum is struggling to find a good part time job to help put herself through college in Child Psychology while planning for her impending marriage. Her interest in children, self esteem and roller derby are linked. “I’ve always been the fat kid,” she says. “I won’t enter into a sob story, but I took abuse. This is balance for me. It’s changed me. Empowered me. It’s made me more apt to stand up for myself.” But a midseason rule change sidelines Temper. If she doesn’t get faster, she may never be able to play. She struggles with ways to adapt as the film progresses, and also with a growing perception that, sisterhood or not, there may be a personal conflict with the coach.
As for the coach, Dixie Thrash is also a player, the team’s founder, and the force that binds it still. She makes fun of her “white trash” rural background but earned an English degree after forays into Marine Biology, Psychology, Philosophy, Computer Science and Women’s Studies. But she prefers hourly wage jobs that allow her to put her time and energy into her avocation. “My heart lies in derby rather than money”, she says. With the team she is hard driving, often profane, at times seemingly abusive. “She’s mean sometimes, admits Schnotty, “unbearably mean. Maybe she glues us together, and we want to beat her up, but I love her to death.”
In the final period of the neck and neck bout with Huntsville Schnotty sustains a season ending injury three days before, in the midst of a divorce, she is set to move out of her home. The team pulls out a narrow win as she is carried out of the arena and then shows up on her doorstep to help with the move. “It’s a family”, says the Schnott Nose Kid. “I’ll beat you up tomorrow; you beat me up the next day. And it’s OK, because you still love each other.”
(Co-directors Michael Letcher and Nick Rymer are my colleagues at The University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio.)