I recently attended a presentation of master’s theses by folklore graduate students. One concerned an ethnography of women who participate in flat track roller derby, and the role that their narratives seem to play in the importance of the sport to them.
A few points: they describe their bruises like trophies. There are fan sites dedicated to showing off derby bruises (or search Pinterest or Tumblr for #derby bruise). A recent roller derby bruise contest had 101 entrants, with the winner getting a $600 skate package.
Skaters are proud of other areas of their lives, where they are mothers, doctors, hairdressers, and so on, but they come to the track for “me time” that includes being so tough the refs say they’re scared. Roller derby women reclaim a narrative authority that serves to rewrite the dominant narrative about women’s feelings and roles in society. Folklorist Elizabeth Thompson was especially interested in how the body itself plays a role in the narrative process of creating and recreating meaning. Empowerment was a strong theme throughout.
These stories of embracing pain as either a method or emblem of empowerment and capability rather than a signifier of victimhood reminded me of the experience of natural childbirth. We are bombarded with reality shows and movies depicting women giving birth that emphasize pain is to be avoided. There used to be a cable show that followed three pregnant women each episode; it seemed rare for one of them to deliver vaginally; in one episode the woman’s mother told her, “You can’t do it without the epidural.”
My experience giving birth naturally (first to a 9 pound, 5 ounce baby then to 10 pound, 11 ouncer) was one of incredible empowerment, and trust in my body’s strength and capability. This is not in any way to denigrate women who need epidurals or C-sections (and thank goodness we have these life-saving technologies!) but our culture does push a message that has resulted in 1/3 of all US pregnancies being delivered by C-section, a rate much higher than in Europe and far surpassing what is medically necessary. This seems to result from an equation that reads, if pain = victimhood (as in rape and domestic violence) and a lack of control, then lack of pain must = empowerment.
But that simplified view of pain and its meaning takes away the opportunity for millions of women to know their bodies intimately, to trust them, to have the opportunity to know what they are capable of by pushing them to the limit. These are similar themes to those expressed by roller derby team members.
A narrative that equates liberation with pain avoidance also reinscribes a cultural view of women as soft, vulnerable, weak, and needing protection. (Once when a man used the word pussy in a derogatory fashion to describe another man as weak, my partner said, “I’ve seen a pussy up close and in action, delivering a ten pound baby. I guarantee you, you will never be as tough as a pussy.”) Of course, there are multiple stories of, and cultural attitudes toward women’s abilities and roles. Another attendee at the presentation mentioned that after women of the Eastern band of the Cherokee worked to revive women’s stickball, it was outlawed or threatened to be outlawed again because the women were considered too violent!
The idea of how “taking control” of our bodies relates to liberation reminds me of the way that feminist criticisms of pornography have given way to personal porn sites, where women claim liberation and empowerment by managing their own sexual objectification and keeping the profits. When we take control by scheduling a c-section at the convenience of our busy executive schedule, is that definition of empowerment cutting us off from a different kind of power that requires working with our bodies rather than dominating them? When women take control by running their own porn companies as a way to “control their bodies, access their sexual desires, and to enjoy safe and consensual sexual pleasure” that subverts patriarchal rape culture, is that act capable of “flipping the script?” Or are we instead adopting the script and embodying it as our own?
Like most things gender, it’s complicated. The emphasis in Thompson’s thesis on embodied knowledge — on seeing the body itself as a kind of narrative — takes me all the way back to what started this journey for me, the ways that we encode our children from very young ages by the kinds of clothing choices we provide. What forms of knowledge are we asking our daughters to embody? What roles are we preparing these girls for?