‘Roller derby changed my life’: rethinking Marxist theory of emancipatory praxis through a case study of women’s flat-track roller derby

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Bennett, Polly Lisa (2020) ‘Roller derby changed my life’: rethinking Marxist theory of emancipatory praxis through a case study of women’s flat-track roller derby. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


This thesis develops upon theories of alienation, social reproduction, ideology and emancipation through a study of how roller derby changes skaters’ lives. The thesis focuses on research participants’ experiences of their bodies within a women-led sport that rejects mainstream conceptions of femininity. It demonstrates how a reimagining of the body through physical activity in an alternative, liberating and mutually-supportive subculture can lead to a renewed sense of power and a rejection of internalised ideological constraints. The thesis describes a five-year, ethnographic case study of roller derby in and around Melbourne, Australia. The thesis draws upon observation of major events, and in-depth interviews with a selection of local skaters and visiting international coaches and organisers, all of whom identified with the saying ‘roller derby changed my life’. The skaters’ life changes are various: leaving abusive relationships; coming out as same-sex attracted or transgender; changing their appreciation for their bodies; or ‘finally finding myself’. The thesis asks, why? It discovered several, inter-connected responses. First, freedom and fulfilment come from becoming physically strong but also competent in a technically difficult sport. Skaters coming to understand what the body can do, for the first time in their lives, is common even to those starting out. Secondly, skaters perform within a subculture that reshapes gendered subjectivity in life-changing ways. The sport’s culture is not only ‘queer accepting’ but often ‘out and proud’. This leads to participants’ deep reappraisals of intimate relationships and senses of self. Thirdly, the pattern of self-actualisation is connected to the sport’s ethic of being run ‘by the skater, for the skater’. Participants reported finding themselves and their ‘people’ for the first time. This is intimately tied to a rethinking of their bodies in action and to resisting the constraints of mainstream femininity in new ways. Past debates regarding freedom from alienation within Marxism and critical social theory have focussed heavily on the resistance to estrangement of labour within ‘the economy’. In contrast, this thesis explores how participation in cultural activities such as sport, especially when run by the participants, may also provide examples of human flourishing. In doing this, the thesis discusses the intersections between production and social reproduction in both contributing to alienation – especially for women’s and feminised bodies – and in being catalysts for social change. The thesis follows in the footsteps of Marxists such as Harry Cleaver, CLR James and Stuart Hall in emphasising the forms of social change evident in alternative cultural practice. The thesis also stands within re-theorisation of social reproduction, particularly in the work of Tithi Bhattacharya and Lise Vogel. That sport can provide radical practices of human flourishing is a rare finding in Marxist studies of sport. The thesis finds that subcultures such as roller derby provide an indication of conditions that contribute to freedom from alienation as well as of forms of social reproduction that contribute to human flourishing. The thesis concludes that conditions of freedom, mutual support and participant control must exist if alternative physical practices are truly to contribute to emancipatory praxis.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
URI https://vuir.vu.edu.au/id/eprint/41780
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 1608 Sociology
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities
Keywords Marxism; alienation; emancipation; praxis; roller derby; social reproduction
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