Transform-Hers: Roller Derby, Cyborgs and The Future of Female

Published in Hit & Miss Issue 4, Magazine Autumn 2011

In Ridley Scott’s epic 1982 dystopian sci-fi movie Blade Runner, replicants who have defied the ban on their kind from returning to Earth are ruthlessly hunted down and ‘retired’ by Harrison Ford’s pensive investigator Rick Deckard. Replicants are almost indistinguishable from humans, ‘skin jobs’ with superior strength and agility, who Deckard pushes to bloody and desperate measures as they battle to survive. 

Modern-day Perth, or Melbourne, or Townsville may be a long way from Blade Runner’s futuristic Los Angeles, but they do have one thing in common with that grim metropolis: replicant-like cyborg women are roaming the streets amongst the unsuspecting townsfolk, changing their parts, redecorating their chassis’ and gathering in ritualised meetings. Driving their bodies and minds further and further in pursuit not of survival, but of glory.

In her seminal 1991 essay A Cyborg Manifesto, feminist Donna Haraway imagines a new brand of human: a half person who walks the line between what is traditionally considered ‘machine’ and ‘human’. Haraway argues “for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries”. These cyborgs challenge traditional ideas of gender and race and are a kind of post-human, and you are already one of them.

Were she to watch a game of Roller Derby, Haraway would surely recognise the cyborg of her mind's eye. In Roller Derby, the body is re-imagined as a machine, both superficially and intrinsically. Padding and mouthguards certainly make the body look alien, but they aren’t so different from those used in any other sports. But now combine them with quads, which profoundly affect the gait of the human body: suddenly the skates are simply strange appendages belonging to a creature that looks like a human but isn’t quite. These cyborg women are flying, weaving, and fast.

Now consider the hard-wired and hard-wared bodies: the prevalence of tattooing and piercing, which make the body appear more machine than flesh. Now look at the names of the players: usually less a name than a description of action. Kitty Decapitate. Karmen Adairya. Britney Speartackle. Williams Ice-O-Matic. That last one is the name of a 1930’s fridge, could you tell?

The cyborg extends further than the physical world too- while rollergrrls are fast asleep and dreaming of electric sheep, their avatars stay logged on in the infinite realm of the internet. League websites generate avatars for forum-members, who introduce themselves to one-another via their electronic doppelgänger’s. Training sessions and social events are organised on Facestalk, so the online identity multiplies again.

The post-human machine must be maintained and conditioned, so fuel of Powerade, supplements and carbohydrates are consumed, bearings are dismantled and oiled, padding is replaced and trucks are loosened. New skates- like any new part- require adjustment, and wheels wear out, but not all parts are replaceable. These are cyborgs after all, partly human, so knees and ankles must be dealt with by human doctors. Muscles are built and developed, callouses harden, and mouthguards are moulded to fit.

When it comes time to bout, the players are less individuals, than parts in a team-machine. Again, names are descriptions of action as players jam themselves through gaps left by blockers. Ruthless bench managers bark commands to the obedient parts and positions on the track are reduced to A, B, C, D and E. The human element of the post-human roller cyborg reveals itself as the bouts wear on- sweat drips, bruises blossom and players continually thwarted by too-quick blockers roar in animal frustration as they are skittled across the track. But the wheels stay on and as each jam is re-set, the eyes of the players gleam with a robot-like intensity of purpose. As Haraway said “the boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us”.

But what does it all mean? Are we cyborg rollers doomed to the same fate as that of Rutger Hauer’s replicant character Roy, who is defeated as his own body breaks down on him? Roy had reached the end of his pre-determined lifespan and he dies alone in the rain, reflecting on his artificial life “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I've watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time; like tears in rain. Time to die."

Like Roy, Roller grrls across Australia have seen things that the ordinary humans of Australia wouldn’t believe. Can-openers from the shoulder of 6 foot blockers and fan banners glittering in the stadium light near the Suicide Zone. Luckily for us, these moments are not lost to time, but live on forever in Hit & Miss Magazine, online and in the collective, undying consciousness of every Roller Derby grrl in Australia.

Time for glory!

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