Just a big sexy joke? Getting taken seriously in women’s roller derby
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Roller derby is an emergent women’s sport; self-organized on a not-for-profit, do-it-yourself model it initially developed outside existing sports institutions and remains un-professionalized. Roller derby thus occupies an ambivalent position of gendered alterity in relation to a broader cultural field of sport, where women’s struggles for sporting legitimacy are well rehearsed in the literature. Existing research interprets roller derby as a unique context, particularly conducive to re-configurations of both gender and sport. Despite such uniqueness, research participants increasingly claim roller derby’s similarity to other sports practices, become concerned with its recognition as a ‘real, legitimate sport’ and orientate their practice towards getting taken seriously. I develop an ‘insider’ ethnographic account from analysis of five years of participant observation with one roller derby league of approximately 100 members, including 26 in-depth interviews and a collaborative film-making project. The thesis responds to a broad question, ‘how is getting taken seriously negotiated in practice?’ and analyses shifts in participants’ gendered self-representations, the bureaucratization of a 'by the skaters, for the skaters' organizational ethos, and the institution of competition. As participants work to diminish distinctions between roller derby and ‘sport’, they enact a set of related distinctions between; what the league used to be like and what it became; who roller derby is and is not by and for; and practices that are and are not condusive to serious recognition. As participants’ definitions of roller derby move away from ‘a sport for women who don’t like sport’ towards ‘a sport for people who really, really like sport’ a second over-arching question arises; in seeking serious recognition did the league eventually become what it once defined itself in opposition to? Concentrating on moments when participants’ claims for serious recognition refuse and rework the gendered terms of such intelligibility, I argue that a sociological analysis of seriousness is crucial to understanding such fateful dilemmas. Enactments of non-/seriousness enable skaters to create new organizational and representational praxis, identities, meanings and relations, as they negotiate the possibilities and limits of working together to make something relatively new. Non-/seriousness is how participants move between roller derby, sport and gender as inevitable, singular, certain and beyond their influence and yet malleable, contingent, multiple, ambivalent and created in their own actions. Four interludes, between chapters, reflect on non-/seriousness in ‘insider’ research. The interludes interrupt and expand upon the thesis’ central analytical contentions; that analyzing non-/seriousness both enhances and unsettles our understanding of familiar sociological preoccupations with gender, organization and mid-ranges of agency between dichotomies of voluntarism and determinism.