Monday, October 5, 2009

Roller derby women in "Whip It!"

by Jordan Kisner

This week, women's roller derby is dominating the box offices in Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It. Whip It stars Ellen Page (of Juno fame) as a teenage girl who secretly joins a roller derby team in order to escape from the monotony of her life in a small Texas town. The film is ably directed by Barrymore, who is also featured as one of Page's teammates, and Kristin Wiig of SNL and Alia Shawkat (the memorable Maeby Funke from Arrested Development) are just two highlights of a truly awesome female cast.

There are two elements of Whip It that make it worth seeing, especially for feminists. The first is the introduction it provides to the world of roller derby, one of the most intense contact sports available to women and one of the most interesting integrations of feminine and masculine gender roles in one place. These women are tough: shoving each other into railings, tripping each other and throwing elbows, all while careening around a track on eight wheels apiece. These women are muscular, aggressive, and tattooed. At the same time, they wear minidresses and fishnets to play, along with heavy, punk-infused makeup. They play as dirty as the worst hockey teams, but in push-up bras. While the movie suggests that the almost campily feminized apparel is just for show, it shows us that the physical power engendered in the women who play the sport proves empowering for them personally: Ellen Page's character, Bliss, doesn't dress or style herself differently after she picks up the sport, but she does become more inclined to stand up for herself, cheerfully hip-checking a high-school bully over a railing.

The other strong point of Whip It is the fraught relationship between Bliss and her mother. Bliss' mother, played with sensitivity and vulnerability by Marcia Gay Harden, has a vision of the kind of life Bliss will have, one that involves a long line of beauty pageants and an advantageous marriage. In essence, she is the kind of Texan mother that my own mother had: traditional and well-meaning, if somewhat unable to creatively imagine her daughter's potential. She wants the best possible future for her daughter, only Bliss' personality and goals are at odds with her mother's vision. The most interesting, provocative moments of the film are the scenes between Harden and Page; their loving, if frustrated, attempts to reconcile their ideas about the kinds of goals young women should have are so believable and sweet that many if not most women will recognize something of themselves and their mother (or perhaps their generation and the previous one) in their relationship.

All in all? 4 out of 5 stars, a fun feminist flick for your weekend.

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