“Whip It”: A look at the 2009 film that perfectly captures and explains a sport unbeknownst to many: roller derby

By: Daniel Finegan

In most sports movies, you don’t need to be told when something good happens. Most viewers are familiar with the visual language of a football player running down a field or a baseball player swinging his bat. “Touchdown” and “home run” are phrases that we not only know, but have incorporated into our everyday vocabulary. You could tell a friend that you “knocked an essay out of the park” and you’d get an encouraging smile. 

But the language of roller derby is so obscure, even finding an example of it for this article proved challenging. Roller derby as a sport is not familiar to mainstream audiences. This is the challenge that “Whip It” (2009) faces. This movie, starring familiar faces such as Elliot Page, Drew Barrymore and Kristen Wig, must communicate to the audience what elements are important without getting bogged down in explanation. 

The first flash of exposition is delivered from the perspective of an audience member,  through the sports announcer character Johnny Rocket, played by Jimmy Fallon, as visual details are flashed across the screen. In roller derby, the points are scored by a player called the jammer, who wears a helmet with a star on it. This is the only key piece of information the audience is given during the first match. 

The second layer of exposition follows as the main character, Bliss, learns the rules at tryouts for the local league. This is delivered through the coach, played by Andrew Wilson. The heavy contact nature of the sport is emphasized. The audience is shown fall after fall, as well as contact between players.

If the layman knows anything about roller derby, it’s that it can get aggressive. The culture of roller derby is also introduced, as the audience is shown characters greeting each other by their “derby names,” a tough-sounding, usually pun-ridden alias each player goes by. Bliss eventually adopts “Babe Ruthless” as her derby name. 

As tryouts begin, a montage of skating, falling and getting back up again is shown. This is where we are given a piece of information the audience is sure to understand: a stopwatch. As the main character makes a lap around the track, the coach calls out a time that is six seconds shorter than the previous skater’s time. Even those unfamiliar with roller derby understand that a faster time is better. 

When Bliss makes the team, she begins practicing. These drills are true to life. In both roller derby and life, you spend a lot of time weaving in and out of cones.

The second match of the movie makes use of the most classic visual image in sports media: the scoreboard. Once again, any audience knows what numbers mean, so the balance of the game is presented quickly and succinctly as montage-style rounds of play give life and action to the score. 

As with any Hollywood dramatization, “Whip It” leaves out many important details and exaggerates others. The most deemphasized aspect of roller derby in this movie was also the one that has the most potential to kill a dramatic impact: concern for safety.

When I joined a junior roller derby league in high school, I spent the first two weeks learning how to fall safely. I also learned about the extensive gear required: mouthguard, wrist guards, knee pads, elbow pads and, of course, a helmet. All this gear is shown in the film, and a moment occurs when Bliss’s teammate gifts her a mouthguard with the comment, “safety is sexy,”  but on the whole, the danger of roller derby is emphasized and the concern for safety, is de-emphasized. 

In all, the movie’s composition did justice to the sport. It’s electric and chock-full of action, passion and sisterhood. “Whip It” was the reason I started playing, and revisiting it made me want to throw on a pair of skates again. No matter how a sports movie chooses to depict its sport, the best thing a sports movie can do is to inspire a love of the game.

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