A group of women, all-ages, all-sizes, many ethnicities, are laying the ground for a revolution. Like, literally an elongated circle to travel around. It is yellow, the same bright yellow as the brick road that ended in dashed hopes and broken dreams. Except it didn’t: it ended with a small and mild-mannered man who reminded his visitors that change – and its attendant characteristics of courage, heart, intelligence, the fulfilment of desire – wasn’t something to be bestowed by the powerful but nurtured within and bolstered by community. The women wear pads on their elbows and knees; the youngest, still a tweenie, has skates on her feet and the brightness in her eyes of not yet having seen the worst of humanity. And as she propels herself into the future, it’s possible to think:
Well, Roller Derby is a kind of revolution, isn’t it?
In the midst of this sunbeam stadium, two women, both white, looming like 50Ft Queenies, breasts plated in moulded plastic, black skirts stiff as drainpipes, are laying the ground for a revolution. A righteous, retributive revolution seeking compensation – OK, revenge – for 50,000 years of silent survival. They are beyond angry. They are the rectifiers. The lucky ones will be locked in a forest, or a concrete bunker, with a reading list: stories with not even one character who looks like you in them. The unlucky will lose their eyelids. We are ready for you to say we are the problem as we name the problem, they chant in unison. We are the problem and we are ready to rain down on you.
The gore that drips from this repeated – revolving, evolving – text is a distinctive feature of Rachel Mars’ work, from the grisly fairy tale woven through Our Carnal Hearts to the grislier deaths of her collaboration with Greg Wohead, Story #1. But it is also the logical endpoint of a violent approach to social change: march with pitchforks and surely, somewhere, blood is going to spill. nat tarrab says the words at first with a relish matching Mars’, but quickly introduces a note of question: is this really, is this violence really, is now really the time for violence? tarrab wants to talk. Mars wants to be exhausted from punching people in the face.
That violence could be revolution. Or it could be a restatement of the problem.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Audre Lorde wrote in 1979. “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” To which dancer, choreographer, film-maker Yvonne Rainer retorted they could – “if you expose the tools”.
The tools Lorde was talking about, however, weren’t physical violence but mental: racism and homophobia, in particular. Her subject in that essay, also called The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, was the insufficiency of love, as a bland conception of possibility, without reference to intersectionality and the recognition of “difference as a crucial strength … that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged”. And what tarrab is talking about isn’t just, is now the time for violence?, but: are white women the right people to be leading this revolution? Particularly white women unconscious of their own racism, unconscious because racism is so institutionalised, woven so deftly into our social fabric, that sometimes as a white woman you practise it just by living.
We are the problem. Say two white women. Looming over a gang of women shaping unity through difference. But also, as they begin to argue, beginning to embody difference.
Here’s something else Lorde says in that essay: “Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.” Well let’s just be fanciful for a minute and suggest she’s describing Roller Derby. An all-female world in the most inclusive sense – you can take part if you’re “female, intersex, and/or gender expansive” – that is self-defined, self-organised, self-sustaining, generating new ways of being and playing, acting without charters. “We are offence and defence,” says one of the women standing on the yellow plastic loop, before they all dance to an instrumental version of REM’s ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)’. Something about them – even the older ones – reminds me of Harry Styles’ defence of teenage girls: “You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”
But does Roller Derby keep the world going? Or just keep it going round?
Evolving or revolving is the axis of Roller, and also its unanswerable question. Because who knows if the long slow change of thinking and talking will ever come about without the short-term action of punching people – them, men, Nazis, Tories, take your pick – in the face. But embedded within this is a recognition that feminism has been doing that long slow work for centuries already, and patriarchy is thriving still. Framing the show is another question: “Is this the progress you were looking for?” At the end it’s lit up in pink neon like a light piece by Tracey Emin, and that for sure is a statement of the problem: a seeming feminist icon who grew more conservative with age, now a mouthpiece for the economically selfish and politically individualistic.
Roller seems slight on the surface but – as you’d expect from people as smart as Mars and tarrab – its thinking reverberates in unexpected directions, connections not immediately obvious snap into place with reflection. Made with humour, heart and a sly self-deprecation, it neither knows where feminism is going, nor how women are going to get there – but then, as the truism goes, maybe it’s not answers we need, but to ask better questions.
Roller is on until 2 December 2017 at the Barbican. Click here for more details.