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Wealthy young women will always be lazy, impractically shod, and insect-phobic. All Bostonians are scrappy braggarts who like fistfights. Anyone seen enjoying tequila is a serious alcoholic destined for a DUI. And all gay people are extroverted, needy, and hypersexual. You'd think the unscripted nature of reality programming would allow for fresh, revelatory "characters" that defy TV convention, but as any viewer can attest, this hardly ever happens.
That's why Rollergirls, with its merry, messy cast, feels fresh as a full bottle of Renuzit. Every one of the show's stars is a paradox on wheels, for better or for worse. Think you can guess what a woman nicknamed "Punky Bruiser" might be like? Think again.
Rollergirls documents a season in the Austin-based, all-women Texas Roller Derby (TXRD). The revival of women's roller derby in the last few years has garnered a lot of press and attention, due in no small part to the flashy Suicide Girls aesthetic favored by most teams. Their saucy outfits and juvie-hall handles ("Blanche Davidian," "Ginjure Scraps," etc.) have gotten some critics' granny panties in a bundle, as if all female athletes ought to be obedient neuters. Bah! It's a blast seeing women kick ass on the track in ripped fishnets and Kool-Aid dreads. Besides, silly, quasi-tough nicknames are cool.
The credits sequence, featuring a lot of quick cuts and a rollicking tune by the Donnas, seems to promise a bawdy good time with a band of distaff hellions. But the show itself, now on its fourth episode, only partly delivers on that promise. Sure, we get to see various Rollergirls swigging whiskey, getting "whore" tattooed on their gums (albeit in Spanish), and hip-checking each other into the boards. But we're also privy to some surprisingly vanilla moments off-track.
The women of TXRD might adopt intimidating alter egos, but in real life, they're mothers (Cha Cha), teachers (Sister Mary Jane), soft-spoken geeks (the aforementioned Punky), well-scrubbed tomboys (rookie Venis Envy), and sticklers for the rules (tight-lipped Hades Lady, who treats her job as chief recruiter more solemnly than do some Marines.) While the league's image is characterized by sexy mayhem, its participants are surprisingly committed to keeping things running efficiently.
There's no tattooed dead weight here: Even the notorious Miss Conduct stays up late decorating the venue as if she were the chair of the junior prom committee. It's clear that these rebels are serious about their cause, and a lot of the senior skaters seem to relish the power trip like prissy cheerleaders.
That said, the Rollergirls moniker (which could be interpreted as condescending or sexist) turns out to be intriguingly accurate. See, these ladies are girls in the same way the Jackass guys are boys. The Rollergirls travel in giggly hordes, T.P. each other's cars before bouts, have slumber parties, and aren't immune to adolescent quarrels and crying jags. Maybe it's a trick of editing, but the Rollergirls seem to live and breathe roller derby with the single-minded enthusiasm of children. Watching these carefree Texans, I can't help but feel a pang of envy; most women find themselves putting their hobbies--and girlfriends--aside as adults. The Rollergirls are living my seventh-grade dream.
At this point, you might be wondering if the Rollergirls actually have time to skate amid all this worry and whimsy. They do: A different bout is featured in every episode, often creatively edited to assure suspense. This is one of the annoying aspects of the show. The action is hard to follow and the cuts are epilepsy-inducing in a tired, '90s way. Also, most of the girls' voiceovers sound excruciatingly staged and were obviously scripted in postproduction. (The stilted line-reads are a giveaway.) And as in many reality shows, mismatched footage is cobbled together, resulting in people's hairstyles changing mid-scene as if we wouldn't notice.
Of course, if you want to see some unedited, commercial-free roller derby action, you can always boogie on down to the MN Rollergirls' next bout--we Minneapolitans are lucky enough to have our own league!
I guess I can see why women's roller derby might struggle for legitimacy. Before one bout, a radio announcer beckons listeners to "come down and see some beautiful girls," as if titillation is the bottom line. (The Rollergirls don't adhere to conventional standards of beauty, and looks and weight aren't a factor in tryouts.) Athleticism does seem to take a backseat to spectacle. While the rules of roller derby are explained in each episode, we rarely hear any specifics about the girls' gear, personal stats, or signature moves. I can't imagine a show about a men's sport focusing so little on its physical demands.
When Hades Lady mentioned getting her cornea scratched during a bout, I wanted to hear more about it. Instead, the episode focused on her catty behavior toward fellow skater Clownsnack. If I want to see women snapping at each other, I'll watch Desperate Housewives.
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