Whip It was not only a directorial debut for Drew Barrymore, it was a debut of women’s roller derby resurgence that began merely at the turn of this millennium. Hollywood’s spotlighting of lesser known athletics has led to their subsequent national and international growth before. Documentary Planet B-boy attributes the international exposure to breakdancing simply after 1983 Flashdance’s introductory clip of kids dancing in the streets. About’s skateboard guide, Steve Cave, lists the 1989 release of Gleaming the Cube, a movie that first featured Tony Hawk among other future professionals, as a major event that boosted skateboarding popularity. Has the passion of Barrymore’s pet project impacted roller derby in the same way?
Despite the novelty of roller derby in Hollywood, Whip It’s financial and artistic grade achieved a big fat mediocre. Box Office Mojo ranks Whip It #6 behind Zombieland (#1) and Toy Story I & II (#2) according to gross profits made that opening weekend. Kyle Buchanan gives a more historical perspective on the film’s monetary losses in “A Dispiriting List of Girl-Targeted Movies that Opened Better than Whip It” on movieline.com. To summarize, the list includes several movies that star Hillary Duff and Lindsay Lohan, and dramatize the following topics: boyfriends, princesses/drama queens, animals (horses and mermaids), and gymnastics (not to belittle the athleticism of this sport). Film critics from New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today grant Whip It one thumb up for an eccentric cast and one thumb down for a predictable plot.
A quick read through roller derby team websites and blogs, however, show a very different story. Ivanna S. Pankin, founder of Las Vegas’ Neanderdolls and owner of the online derby store Sin City Skates, states that even if the movie had sucked it is a free marketing tool that educates people about the sport’s existence. For the past year she has prepped her business to respond to sales booms after the film’s release. Sojourney Beaver, Las Vegas’ general league manager and new recruits coach, says that for every person who asks, “There’s derby in Las Vegas?” another person asks “What’s roller derby?” After Whip It’s release, Beaver found 22 more women at the next beginner’s practice, about four times the normal 1-5 newbies who show up at the start of the season. Although most of these new recruits denied the film had anything to do with their choice to start derby, a few admitted they had no clue a derby team existed in Las Vegas until they saw flyers posted at theaters. Similarly, LV member Bootsi Call quotes 380 tickets sold at the following bout compared with the average 100-200 fans.
Luckily, Ivanna says, Whip It didn’t suck because it was written by roller derby skater, Shauna Cross, who shows the reality of skating culture in the film that members and fans love most. As LV member Shawna the Dead puts it:
“Oh fuck. 2 things. The camaraderie and the challenge…it [the challenge] is ever-evolving. There’s always something new to learn and ways to improve your game… It’s pretty amazing that we have an almost global alliance of women who kick each other’s asses, then hang out talking about how fun it was. I love that about derby. It’s a global sisterhood. Or at least it will be.”
That’s the face of it, but roller derby skaters often share a life-changing story like the characters of Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis experienced in Whip It. Take Shawna the Dead, the first and only, meaning one, member of LV Neanderdolls. A mutual friend introduced her to Ivanna S. Pankin and Trish the Dish, the coaches of a memberless derby team. The coaches had played with Arizona Roller Derby (AZRD) and finding no team in Las Vegas, they started one in 2005. Shawna felt awkward having undivided attention while she fell and sputtered over the rink, but each practice she returned out of guilt as the sole member and from the coaches’ strong encouragement. At this time Shawna felt her “life was a mess” with serious involvement with drugs. The team grew until October, 2009 when it beat AZRD in its first bout by 10 points. Neanderdolls soon developed into a top-ten nationally-ranked travel team. Because of this crucial experience Shawna cannot emphasize enough her gratitude to the coaches for turning her life around.
Beaver also started when Neanderdolls was a travel-only team. The way she describes her personality before roller derby is similar to Alia Shawkat’s character in Whip It. She never played sports in high school or college, considering herself rather bookish, but after moving to Las Vegas, she found out about the team at a bar. She is still surprised that after a year of watching bouts she talked herself into attending practice, which just like the film showed, involved painful lessons. As the sport helped her become more assertive, she stepped into the team’s current leadership roles and is proud to call herself a “weiner” to this day.
As a recruit-in-training for Las Vegas’ 2009 teams, The Notorious V.I.Ps and Tommy Gun Terrors, I hear more stories. Roller derby really is a mix of professional women including waitresses, marketers, engineers, architects, artists, technicians, and therapists ranging in age from 20 to 50. They basically run a small business, each member contributing her skills at least 4 hours per month to a committee, if not three. A board of directors runs the committees and carries out financial decisions. Despite the bruises and the broken bones, some have quit smoking, some have started exercising for the first time in many years, and they share tips on healthy eating, stretching, and strength conditioning. And to show how serious they are, at their bouts they intimidate each other with tutus, skirts, capes, long socks, and fish nets. Oh, and hips, hits, and fists.
Whip It may already be off Hollywood’s radar, but for roller derby participants and fans, it is sure to become a cult following.
More than 80 teams have officially joined the standardized national Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Former figure skaters, hockey players, and speed skaters are raising the athletic bar, but anyone can join after passing a skill’s test. Google roller derby in your city to find teams. If a team does not exist, visit WFTDA.com to learn how to start your own and find official rules. Roller Derby can help you “be your own hero”.