Monday, 6 April 2009

The culture and politics of roller skating.

Roller discos are back! Most of the main UK cities now offer monthly roller disco nights as an alternative to clubbing. Despite tapping into a day-glo nostalgia for the 1980s (mainly for those to young to remember that decade) the roller disco is really a product of the 1970s. Here Gary Needham explores the culture and politics of the original roller disco culture and its relationship to liberation politics.

One of my current research interests is concerned with the cultural politics of speed and how the experience of speed in the 1970s enabled the production a kind of utopian movement for two oppressed groups; women and gays. In particular, I’m thinking about the relationship between roller skating culture and 1970s liberation politics – how the act of skating and the pleasures of skating can be conceived of as an expression or consequence of a political shift that is embodied through the pleasure of speed, here produced in roller skating activities – the freedom of four wheels is also about freedom in political terms; sexual revolution becomes the revolution of the skater’s wheel; freedom to be yourself (as in gay liberation); freedom from oppressive structures (as in women’s liberation) – thus I want to consider the sense in which these two political revolutions, the women’s movement and the gay movements of the 1970s, literally involve physical, pleasurable and sensational experiences of moving and mobility. Therefore, I want to propose the idea that the emergence of a roller skating phenomenon or craze in the mid to late 1970s, especially among women and gay men, can potentially be read as symptomatic of other process of movement in politics; liberation politics are conceived of in terms of the freedom to move and be seen enjoying the pleasures of movement - the speed of the movement, velocity and energy, the outcome of which is pleasure in varying degrees of intensity can be read politically.
This suggestion is also rooted in need to map out the pleasures of speed in relation to feminist and gay politics; speed as something that is also relevant and essential to thinking about (old fashioned) identity politics and representational strategies; speed as something that can be embodied or at least allows one of its affects to be an embodied pleasure that relates to how one feels gendered and sexually orientated (orientation the word itself suggests a movement to get into the right position or place). I am not arguing that roller-skating is a political activity (although it has been used for breast cancer and AIDS fund raising), or that being on skates one somehow feels feminist rather, I’m suggesting that skating is related to a kind of latent political feeling that things were getting better and moving in a forward direction, that is, the politics of liberation has momentum for gender and sexuality and this can be experienced directly in the body’s actual freedom through movement.

In the experience of roller skating speed is harnessed for speed’s sake. Speed is the consequence of going fast. It is not about getting somewhere or someplace quicker and although it can be used as a method of transport it is more often not. A destination is not the outcome of speed in this instance; speed is not goal orientated, the goal is movement in itself. Speed which is often associated with labour and productivity is here allied to pleasure not product. Emphasis would seem to be on ‘being in the process of speed’, pleasure in movement for the sake of itself. Roller skating produces a form of pleasure in speed that is rapturous, transcendent and liberating because that’s all it needs to be.

Part of this research is also response to the way in which speed is often aligned with masculinity, modernity and certain ways of theorising speed that are implicitly masculine in their undertaking, discursively speaking. Even as a generalisation, in popular culture the car-chase is often constructed as a specifically male pleasure of the cinema and speed is often experienced in ways that have a tendency to favour masculinity; in general things that go fast are often thought to fascinate boys. This implicit gendered division can often be seen in the way female students often guffaw at their male peers extolling of the pleasures of Top Gear. Technologies of speed are often coded as masculine or made readily available to men and the harnessing of speed (in the film of the same name) becomes another macho narrative of mastery and control. In addition to this there is a long history of anxieties around women’s mobility that dates back to the suffragettes on their bicycles and women’s unprecedented visibility in moving through public space (the underlying subject on an early silent film called Traffic in Souls uses the theme of white slavery to keep girls indoors). In The Wizard of Oz we should know Miss Gulch is the wicked witch because during the tornado her bicycle transforms in to a broom as she transforms from spinster to witch; a symbolic precursor for the dykes on bikes movement. Despite being an oversimplification one of the consequences of patriarchy is to restrict and control the movement and mobility of women in order to maintain distinctly gendered division between the private and the public, home and work, masculine and feminine, productivity and leisure. In short, speed and movement have political implications that are intimately tied to gendered and sexual identities. The emergence of roller skating as a phenomenon in the 1970s seems to be a particular liberatory response to a long history of anxieties and pleasures around movement, speed, the body and identity.

In Part 2 Gary Needham examines the roller disco movie.

(Photo credit Hilly Blue: permissions)

No comments:

Post a Comment