The Heroes of Gotham: Overcoming Stereotypes in Women’s Roller Derby

Courtesy of Gotham Girls Roller Derby (Youtube)
Courtesy of Gotham Girls Roller Derby (Youtube)

“Fostering and promoting the physical and mental strength, and independent spirit of amateur female athletes.” This is the universal message and mission behind Gotham Girls Roller Derby in New York City.

And it’s not taken lightly by anyone who truly knows roller derby — these players mean business.

Gotham Girls was one of the first leagues to break out of the modern resurgence of roller derby in 2001. Now 200 members strong and with 13 successful seasons behind them, Gotham Girls is also one of the largest leagues in the country — not to mention they’re currently #1 in the world, according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

The league saw an opportunity to foster a new generation of skaters and fans, and created a tight-knit community founded on inclusivity and acceptance in 2004. And they’re growing — Gotham Girls has started up recreational leagues and boot camps all around New York City, as well as a travel team who competes around the world.

But for Gotham Girls — or any roller derby league, for that matter — it’s not all about winning. That’s not to say that roller derby isn’t one of the most competitive and strenuous contact sports out there — but every league, fan, skater, and volunteer have one shared goal in common…

“We believe that there is nothing that should keep anyone from learning and playing roller derby.”

“Being such a big league is hard to sustain in some ways,” says Whiskey Lullabye of four-time champion team Queens Of Pain. “But being in NYC has allowed us to reach out to and connect with so many more, similarly minded people.”

Whiskey, who’s in her third season with Gotham Girls, explains that one of the reasons she’s immersed herself so deeply into roller derby culture is that roller derby is just that — a culture. One that focuses on inclusion and promoting the emotional and physical wellness of women.

Gotham Girls Roller Derby

“We skate and train with women from all walks of life,” she continues. “People of color, people of different nationalities, people who identify as LGBTQ…it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. We believe that there is nothing that should keep anyone from learning and playing roller derby.”

And it’s true: roller derby is absolutely a community. Officials, staff, and players are all there purely because they love the sport — they’re all non-paid volunteers. This sentiment of all-inclusivity truly resonates throughout the sport, for fans and players alike.

“There can be a stigma to roller derby,” admits Whiskey. “There are people not directly involved with the sport — small, close-minded people — that think it’s just a bunch of brutal, aggressive lesbians. And it’s sad that they won’t give it chance, and get past the colored hair, derby names, non-binary representation, or tattoos.”

“I was hooked…not because of the ‘badassery,’ but because of the camaraderie.”

Indeed, there is an unfortunate stereotype of women’s roller derby being more frivolous than competitive…that it’s somehow “less than” a real sport. And many onlookers — particularly men — simply have a hard time seeing women compete in a full-on contact sport.

“I also had a wildly different perception of roller derby before I joined,” Whiskey remembers. “I was envisioning a more theatrical, ’70s version of roller skating. But I went to a bout on Long Island and realized how serious of a sport it was, and I was hooked. From minute one, that was absolutely where I belonged. Not because of the ‘badassery,’ but because of the camaraderie I experienced. ”

Roller derby games — or, “bouts” — are an athletic spectacle not to be missed. They almost always sell out, and the fans are among the most loyal and most-immersed of any sport out there.

Skaters and officials take on a persona, using whimsical names such as “Kitty Roadkill” (on the Queens Of Pain team), or “Miss U.S.Slay” (on the Manhattan Mayhem team).

But, as Whiskey clarifies, “while our names might be tongue-in-cheek, it’s a legitimate sport and when you see the sheer athleticism, everyone is immediately taken extremely seriously.”

Whiskey of Gotham Girls Rollery Derby
Whiskey of Gotham Girls Rollery Derby

“Universe keeps the line moving.”

This year, Gotham Girls Roller Derby sold out a double-header event, maxing out the venue’s 1600-person capacity. Rain or shine, the fans are as loyal and perseverant as ever.

And thankfully, rather than rely on fallible and manual methods like wristbands or tally marks at the door, the league began using Universe’s POS system.

“From a financial standpoint, the biggest thing for us is not only to sell tickets easily and quickly, but also reconcile ticket sales in the past,” Whiskey says. “Wristbands aren’t 100% — there’s so much going on outside of the point-of-sale, and someone could forget to tally the correct number.”

Scanning codes, looking up names on the Universe app, and running reports have kept Gotham Girls focused on the things that really matter — the fans, and the sport.

When massive derby bouts are planned, it truly is “by the skaters, for the skaters.” “Universe keeps the line moving,” Whiskey notes, explaining that taking the complications of human error and long lines is paramount to getting fans in the door as fast as possible.

In the beginning, Whiskey Lullabye overcame her initial skepticism of roller derby quickly — something that she and skaters around the world would love to see more of.

“Tattoos, counter-culture aesthetics — it’s unfortunately that it’s so misunderstood more often than not,” she says. “I identify with empowering people. I might be Marcy Langstein, but at the core of who I am, I’m Whiskey Lullabye.”

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