Roll Out, Roll Out!: Applying Historical Research and Critical Theory to Roller Skating’s Ethos of “Girl Power”
Jennifer Dawn Whitney
“Is roller skating having a revival?” asked one member of the 4000-plus “Planet Roller Skaters” Facebook group at the start of 2020. With its global membership expanding daily, the existence of this active social network indicates a growing interest in the centuries-old pastime. Complementing the renewed public interest in roller skating is its surging presence in U.S. popular culture. Since 2017, images of smiling girls and young women spinning, leaping, or dancing in brightly colored roller skates have been commanding attention across conventional and social media outlets. Likewise, in the spring of 2018, celebrity influencer Willow Smith posed with a pair of Moxi roller skates on the brand’s Instagram page, while just this academic year, roller skate-themed school supplies and playground-ready fashions have been sailing off the shelves at retailers such as Old Navy and Target. Based on these examples, it seems clear that some sort of revival is taking place. But what exactly is this renewed interest in roller skating all about? With hints of nostalgia, contemporary roller skating in the United States is represented, in turns, as skilled sport, fun and healthy recreational activity, and stylishly accessorised pop culture phenomenon—laced with an ethos of “girl power.” In what follows, this article will address roller skating’s gendered legacy to determine how it has arrived at its current state as visual emblem for feminist empowerment.
Key to this piece of writing is my effort to connect the value of exploring girls’ histories with a theoretical underpinning. To situate this aim, the following two paragraphs take a short detour to establish a critical, contextual, and methodological scheme before returning to the discussion at hand: the role of “girl power” in U.S. roller skating culture. I will be exploring this theme from the perspective of Girlhood Studies. Connected to the work of Childhood History, Girlhood Studies took shape in the 1990s by and through critical research in Women’s Studies as well, which defined it in gender-specific terms. Interdisciplinary by design, Girlhood Studies seeks to bridge discussions at the crossroads of the social sciences and the humanities, including: anthropology, education, history, literature, media and communication, philosophy, psychology, politics, and sociology. Rooted to the work that comes out of this discipline is the idea that girlhood as an identity—or set of identities—is not fixed. That is, girls, types of girlhood, and the way we understand these identities each vary depending on the cultural moment to which they are a part. Girlhood may be assembled, experienced, and perceived differently based on how markers of identity such as gender, race, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, regionality, class, religion, age, and disability intersect. These intersections of identity determine marginalization and/or privilege and inform the real-life experiences of what it means, and what it feels like, to be a girl. When considered together, and explored by way of example, a “genealogical” approach that examines the changing and sometimes contradictory lineages of—in this case, girlhood—allows us to “map how things and ideas are possible within a given context.” While disrupting the often presupposed linearity of history, this strategy illustrates that critical theory and histories are interconnected and useful to each other. Each is vital in revealing how and why particular moments take shape, connect, and reflect specific cultural values, anxieties, and systems of beliefs (ideologies) at work in the culture.
It is one thing to recognize the value of bridging history and theory, but it is another to make these connections tangible. So, how do we make these connections? To explore how girlhood identities are constructed at a specific cultural moment, begin by engaging with the objects, artefacts, images, representations, and/or practices of girlhood; these require historical contextualization and critical analysis, and they demand to be taken seriously. Another way of framing this is to choose a topic, theme, and/or case study. In this article, the relationship between “girl power” and roller skating serves this purpose. To give such research the historical and theoretical scaffolding it deserves, begin by asking questions. First, what is the historical context of the topic? Every topic, theme, or case study is informed by a particular historical and cultural moment and is part of a constellation of events, ideas, and ideologies that contribute to its (shifting) existence. Context can and should be explored theoretically to expose who is included and excluded in events, ideas, and ideologies, and how the intersections of identities are imagined and involved. From there, the following question can be addressed: what does the topic, theme, or case study reveal about its cultural moment? This question assists in tracing the topic’s legacy; enables the teasing out of tensions, complexities, and ambiguities; allows for layers of nuance and potential discordance; and may even result in conflicting findings, which is a result that can be embraced! Because I have identified my theme as “girl power” and roller skating, the questions I want to answer are: (1) What is the historical context that informs the relationship between “girl power” and roller skating? And (2) what does the relationship between “girl power” and roller skating reveal about its contemporary cultural revival? I will answer each question separately so I can explore them in an illustrative fashion.
1. What is the historical context that informs the relationship between “girl power” and roller skating?
Patents have existed for various types of skates since the early-nineteenth century, but the roller skate as we know it today, with its lace-up boot or sneaker shape and four wheels (known as quad skates), was popularized in the United States in the early-twentieth century. Seen as a recreational activity, spectator sport, and, occasionally, mode of transportation, modern quad skating practices fulfilled a multitude of purposes. Correspondingly, various skating sites were designated to support the activity: the white middle and affluent classes could roller skate at the numerous mid-century erected rinks; attend stadiums to view large-scale competitive events such as the early form of roller derby of 1930s and 1940s; and cruise into fast food joints where they would be waited on by roller skating carhops. In popular culture, early cinema was especially keen to depict skillful men on skates undertaking lightheartedly haphazard endeavours, and Charlie Chaplin was key among these graceful stuntmen. From the start of the 1900s, there have been significant moments of quad roller skating popularity in the mainstream, many of which have been marked out as a fad, despite sustained interest ranging over decades, including from the 1930s through the 1950s, the 1970s though the 1980s, and again in the early-2000s to the present day.
Affluent and middle-class women and girls who strapped their feet into roller skates throughout the 1900s were marked out as a particular type. The 1910s hosted suffragists on wheels, rabble rousing for the right to vote, while in the 1970s and 1980s, the hot pants and glitter-clad devotees of roller disco suggested a hypersexuality (linked in part to more racially and sexually diverse dynamics at play in these settings). Finally, in the televised roller derby of the 1970s—where stunts were akin to the performed and counterfeit displays of wrestling—competitors were cast as over-the-top and excessive with physical sequences that combined femininity with uproarious violence. Taking a step back to examine the constructions of femininity in the West exposes a philosophical idea that helps explain why these women and girls may have been considered both trailblazers and hellraisers. The dictates of the Romantic period determined that an active femininity was a troublesome femininity. In the early 1800s, thinkers such as Edmund Burke and John Locke formalized the period’s ideas about gender into philosophical treatises. For his part, Burke argued that femininity was at its best when it was “small” and “delicate.” These markers were translated onto women’s bodies as beauty ideals, while, simultaneously, they were also deployed to enforce behavior: delicacy was equated with submissiveness, modesty, domesticity, and stasis. Such “virtues” of femininity were normalized into the social fabric of the West for centuries, where white affluent and middle-class femininity served as the standard bearer. Valerie Walkerdine outlines how this construction defines contemporary understandings of white femininity, noting that if one were to break with such standards to pursue a more active and public lifestyle, she might run the risk of transgressing “a set of discursive barriers” upheld since the Romantic period that would label her “as forward, uppity, over-mature, too precocious.”
While affluent and middle-class white women have played a regulatory role in upholding these strict and proscriptive characteristics of idealized femininity, many feminists of the same ilk have used their privilege to combat its confines—both on and off eight wheels. Much repudiation came to the fore in the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s to 1980s. However, feminism’s pivot into the third wave, which began in the 1990s, is worth examining here as it both articulates the parameters of “girl power” and connects this mode of thinking and being specifically to roller skating culture in the United States. Throughout the third wave, notions of girlhood were rewritten. As Stacy Gillis and Rebecca Munford explain:
Some of the strongest, and most self-consciously clamorous, voices of third wave feminism are those emerging from “girl” culture. In spite of its homogenised media representation—and second wave reception—“girl” culture is an extremely eclectic phenomenon which includes the Riot Grrrls of the punk movement, the Hello Kitty-accessorised and lipglossed Girlies exemplified by the writers of zines such as Bitch and BUST, as well as the more anodyne mainstream proponents of “girl power” identified with the Spice Girls. Although these various groups are not always politically aligned, they do have in common a vigorous reclamation and recuperation of the word “girl” as no longer a simply derogatory and disrespectful term but one that captures the contradictions shaping female identity for young women whose world has been informed by the struggles and gains of second wave feminism.
Out of the third wave feminist movement, markers of girlhood were reclaimed with new and provocative signification centered around the theme of empowerment. And, notably, as a part of this recovery process, the provenance of girl culture was taken up, and extended to include, young (predominantly white and affluent/middle class) women. Such a phenomenon occurred with gusto in women’s Flat Track Roller Derby. In Austin, Texas in 2001, the contemporary sport of was born. As Nancy J. Finley describes, this newly formulated roller derby “emerged from a DIY (do-it-yourself) subculture” akin to the Riot Grrrl and punk mentality Gillis and Munford identify. In this sense, roller derby, as a third wave-specific subculture, was directed by “‘alternative’ . . . sensibilities and became entertainment full of sports parody, punk music, masquerade, and mockery.” Because of its third wave bone fides, roller derby encouraged the women involved to “challenge conventional femininities” and “disrupt hegemonic gender relations” by engaging “with conventional definitions of femininity while simultaneously mocking them.” With overtly girly outfits of tulle skirts and bows alongside fishnets, bruises, and pun-heavy derby names (like Estro Jen), the roller derby of the early twenty-first century upended traditional feminine ideals and engaged with some of the most potent forms of “girl power” imaginable.
2. What does the relationship between “girl power” and roller skating reveal about its contemporary cultural revival?
Modern roller derby has been going strong for almost twenty years. In this time, it has moved away from its Riot Grrrl sensibilities and DIY-performance aesthetic towards the visual and practical cues of a recognised team sport: it has levels, seasons, leagues, uniforms, training and tests, referees, international competitions, and championships. While the empowerment component of roller derby remains intact within its very design, the playful wink to the visual and material cultures of girlhood has been mediated and recuperated through the revival of individualized roller skating activities in the twenty-first century. Here, expressive and performance-based femininities alongside the accoutrements of girlhood reign supreme. Roller skating gear is often branded in feminine “whimsical colors,” which can be complemented with cute accessories such as skating themed t-shirts that feature cheeky illustrations of girls in pigtails posing pin-up style. Skaters attempt difficult spins and tricks in fishnets and feather boas, posting the results, with an accompanying upbeat soundtrack, to their Instagram accounts. And roller skating classes are advertised both as “fun” and as a way to “build confidence.” However, the celebration of girlhood made visible in this roller skating revival is not simply a repetition of the now decades-old mantra of “girl power.” Rather, this re-minted and re-branded activity contains both the most problematic and positive elements of feminist empowerment at work in contemporary culture.
More so than ever before, notions of empowerment are aligned with consumerism: the message is that we are at our most empowered when we can buy empowerment-themed products. Expressed through the language of lifestyle, self-love, wellness, and/or body positivity, empowerment purchasing is seen to correlate to a strong sense of self. This supposed connection between the self and consumerism creates, as Rosalind Gill explains, an “entanglement of both feminist and anti-feminist themes.” A casualty of this entanglement is the body. Gill writes that “The body is presented simultaneously as women's source of power and as always already unruly and requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodeling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever narrower judgments of female attractiveness.” In this framework, being attractive is constructed as a choice and an empowering one, which opens doors, breaks glass ceilings, and leads to a better life. Of course, white, affluent, heteronormative, thin, and able-bodied femininity remains the benchmark, while a variety of products aim to get consumers to strive for this ideal. Moreover, it is up to individuals to obtain this “success” on their own, leaving institutional inequality entirely out of the equation. Within the revival of individualized roller skating, the commodification of empowerment might look, at its most innocuous, like retailers encouraging consumers to “go on, treat yourself” to a pair of new skates, or it might materialize through endless updates on gear sold to enhance (but never quite complete) a “skate lifestyle.” At its most extreme, roller skating is being touted as a efficient and effective body maintenance activity. Videos abound on YouTube, promising the utmost in fitness regimens: subscribers are guaranteed to burn hundreds of calories and achieve the ultimate in smaller waists, toned and sexy legs, and skin that glows from the inside out.
Despite its ubiquity, the commodification of “girl power” is not the only reflection of feminist empowerment—and its entanglements—in twenty-first century roller skating culture. Of course, it can be easy to get caught up in color schemes of skating accessories such as heart-shaped toe stops, branded t-shirts, hats, shorts, and sunglasses—and the classes, camps, and retreats to go with them. However, as the practice of individualized skating builds momentum, it must be noted that it is not as individualist as it might first appear. Rather, meaningful communities exist both online and off which are centered on themes of support, solidarity, and positivity. In a harkening back to the DIY spirit of Riot Grrrl culture, members make videos and share tips on techniques and gear maintenance, all of which are posted free of charge. Additionally, and crucially, while still broadly white and cisgender, the community is focussed on inclusivity in terms of race, gender, sexuality, disability, and size diversity. In an open letter, which begins by taking account of the privilege and exclusionary practices present in the mainstream skating community, it asserts:
We want to see skaters of all kinds, of all skill levels, ages, genders, ethnicities, sizes, and identities in skateparks. We want skaters to look at our page and community and feel included, inspired, welcomed and represented. To feel like they are part of the community that is working together to spread the stoke of a life on wheels.
This statement is bolstered further by a commitment from the CIB organization to include and promote diverse skaters on social media and in real-life skate settings, and a re-design of branding and media communications to reflect this vision. (CIB previously served as an abbreviation for Chicks in Bowls—a name that sought to encourage women’s involvement in park and ramp skating. However, to promote more gender diversity and inclusivity, CIB no longer uses the “Chicks” moniker.)
From the co-optation of feminist empowerment to a digital-age DIY sensibility dedicated to community inclusivity, U.S. roller skating culture in the twenty-first century runs the gamut in reflecting the negative and positive aspects of “girl power.” With the help of historical research and theoretical analysis, it is my conclusion that its current state—that is, roller skating’s “revival”—reveals a collision of conflicting and overlapping ideas about girlhoods, femininities, and feminisms that have evolved over the decades (and centuries) to arrive where they are today. I hope that my approach has provided a useful depiction not only of the rich history and contemporary moment of roller skating culture, but also an illustration into how to apply critical analyses when tracing the visual and material cultures of girlhood.
Jennifer Dawn Whitney is a teacher and researcher at the Cardiff School of Art and Design in Wales, UK. Her work focuses on popular culture, feminist theories, girlhood and femininities, and she is the co-editor of Dolls Studies: The Many Meanings of Girls’ Toys and Play. She loves to roller skate with her 8-year-old niece, Jocelyn. Thanks—as always—goes to Miriam Forman-Brunell for her endless support and mentorship.
 The idea that identities are formed through experiences in culture is connected to theories of social constructionism, as well as post-structuralist thought.
 The critical term for this idea is “intersectionality.” See Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), article 8.
Catherine Driscoll, Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory (2002), 3.
For a discussion of roller skating and segregation in the United States, see Victoria Wolcott, Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America (2012).
The roles of race, class, and sexuality in roller skating deserve detailed attention—especially regarding their impact on roller skating culture of the 1970s and 1980s. However, doing so here is beyond the scope of this essay. For more on race and roller skating from the 1970s to the present day, see the documentary United Skates, dirs. Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler (HBO, 2019).
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, ed. Adam Phillips (1990), 102.
Valerie Walkerdine, Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture (1998), 169.
Stacy Gillis and Rebecca Munford, “Genealogies and generations: the politics and praxis of third wave feminism,” Women's History Review, 13 (no. 2, 2004), 165-182, p. 169.
Nancy J. Finley, “Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvring in Women’s Roller Derby,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 39 (no. 4, 2010), 359-387, p. 368.
Finley, “Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvring in Women’s Roller Derby,” 368.
Finley, “Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvring in Women’s Roller Derby,” 365, 360.
While Gillis and Munford rightly tie “girl power” to a mainstream and more commercialized brand of feminism(-lite), its earliest usage is linked to the zines of Riot Grrrl. As such, I am taking a broader approach to its definition, which includes general expressions of empowerment vis-à-vis girl culture.
Samantha Masunaga, “How Moxi used nostalgia for L.A.’s skate culture to roll into the mainstream,” Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2018.
Rosalind Gill, “Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility,” European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (no. 2, 2007), 147-156, p. 148.
Gill, “Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility,” 148.