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Whip It

(Editor's Note: Writer Robin Rosenzweig is an actual Derby Doll, graciously making her Fanboy Planet debut to talk about Whip It, based on ... the Derby Dolls.)

Who would play you in the movie about your life?

We’ve all played this game. For me, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It is about as close as it’s going to get to that game becoming a reality.

A little back story: in late 2003, I was perusing Craigslist when I found a recruitment ad for a new roller derby league in Los Angeles. As someone who always fantasized about the idea of playing roller derby but never thought it would actually happen, I responded immediately and was at my first practice with the L.A. Derby Dolls just days later.

At the time, the Dolls were one of a handful of leagues that were part of a burgeoning resurgence of women’s roller derby with a modern twist, featuring witty skater names, kitschy team themes, and a DIY spirit. But more importantly, the sport – which in the 70’s and 80’s took more of a staged, pro-wrestling style – is now fully legit.

It wasn’t long after I started skating with the L.A. Derby Dolls that I realized I had found my calling. Six years later, I’m still skating with the Dolls under the name Suzy Snakeyes, and now the modern derby community is over 400 leagues strong and has a worldwide presence.

Shortly before I rolled in, a woman by the name of Shauna Cross found a recruitment ad on Craigslist and went to her practice with the L.A. Derby Dolls. She took on the moniker of Maggie Mayhem and became a formidable competitor on the track. When not skating, the aspiring author would go on to pen a young adult novel called Derby Girl, which would then go on to be optioned by Flower Films and eventually adapted in to the film we know today as Whip It. Though the story is essentially fiction, she included so many personal elements from our league history that it serves as a bit of a retrospective of the last six years of my life.

Whip It stars Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a misfit teen living in the tiny town of Bodeen, Texas. When not working at the Oink Joint with best friend Pash (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), Bliss is competing in the local pageant circuit at her mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden at her southern sassiest) insistence.

It’s during a shopping trip to Austin that Bliss happens upon a flier for an upcoming roller derby bout. After a little parental subterfuge, Bliss attends the game with Pash and instantly becomes enamored with the sport. She soon tries out (having to first lie about her age since the minimum age is 21) and realizes she has found her calling as a rough and tumble roller girl.

Those of us in the roller derby community have known about this movie for quite some time, and have felt that a lot was riding on it. Although our sport has been growing at a rapid rate since it was founded in 2001 by a handful of girls that would go on to form T*X*R*D (which was used as the name of the derby league in the film), we consider this the sport’s grand introduction to the world at large. So we definitely wanted to see it done right.

The film demonstrates ideals that the derby community takes seriously, such as the hard work it takes to become a top skater, the idea that safety is sexy, and that if you fight and exhibit bad sportsmanship, you are ultimately not an asset to your team. And the actors look like real skaters, possibly because they did a great deal of their own skating and stunts.

Credit for that can be given to the derby trainers – my league-mates Alex “Axles of Evil” Cohen (who also served as derby consultant), Jennifer “Kasey Bomber” Barbee and Erin “Myna Threat” Smith. Several of the teams in the movie were also populated with real derby skaters from Michigan, where the film was shot.

This movie is especially personal to the members of the L.A. Derby Dolls who have been around since the early days. The main roller derby team is the Girl Scouts gone bad themed Hurl Scouts, which is based on my own real-life team the Tough Cookies (a team I helped found and have been on since 2004). The Scouts’ coach Razor (brilliantly played by Owen and Luke’s brother Andrew Wilson) is a dead-on tribute to the Dolls’ first coach, down to the dolphin necklace and dune buggy.

A scene where the fire marshal shuts down a game is taken right out of the L.A. Derby Dolls history book. Jimmy Fallon’s announcer Hot Tub Johnny is named after a real person who would host many a hot tub party for the Dolls back in our early days. Additionally, a handful of the characters names are real Derby Doll names, including Kristen Wiig’s Hurl Scout team captain Maggie Mayhem (a nod to the screenwriter).

And here’s a real mindbender: Bliss’ rival is named Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). Her real life namesake (Rachel Piplica – aka the real Iron Maiven) plays one of the silent but deadly Manson Sisters (along with Kristen “Krissy Krash” Adolfi – both teammates of mine on the Tough Cookies). So when Hot Tub Johnny announces the “one and only Iron Maven” as Lewis steps onto the track as Manson Sister #1 skates alongside her, I can’t quite figure out who he’s talking about. But that’s probably just my problem.

Outside of the roller derby elements of Whip It, director Barrymore (who also has a supporting role as feisty skater Smashley Simpson) manages to weave together a sweet, multi-faceted coming of age story that is ultimately about relationships – mother/daughter, best friends, first love (Bliss’ musician love interest is played by actual musician Landon Pigg), and the discovery of a community where she truly belongs. Although these concepts aren’t new to movie-going audiences, they are handled in a mature and non-predictable manner. Ultimately, it’s a well-done effort from a first time director that handled the story with a great deal of care and really does well by the derby community.

And if Whip It 2 ever gets made, I’d like to state for the record that Tina Fey would be a fine choice to play me. Just sayin’.

(Editor's Note: Yeah, Robin's right. Tina Fey would be a fine choice.)

Robin Rosenzweig

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