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An Open Letter to Drew Barrymore, regarding “Whip It”

30 September 2009 One Million Watts 6,634 views 5 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

Dear Drew,

Long time, no see. We met in passing some 15 years ago in Las Vegas; you were touring with Hole and babysitting Frances Bean. I said “Hello” to you as we were getting into our respective cars, and you said “Hi!” right back. I asked if you’d enjoyed Hole’s show, brief though it was (the band played maybe four songs before our Courtney threw a hissyfit and left the stage), and you said meekly, “I, um, I didn’t really see it.”

In the awkward silence that followed, my friend Dayvid spotted us talking and yelled over, “Hey, Carter! Ask her if she wants to drag-race ya!” And you smiled that sweet and genuine smile of yours, shut the driver’s side door and drove the hell away from me with all deliberate speed.

No hard feelings. For the record, you probably would have taken me in a quarter-mile drag.

Anyway, that’s not why I’m writing you today. I’m writing to congratulate you on directing your first feature film, the Ellen Page-starring “Whip It.” I haven’t seen the film yet — more on that in a moment — but it’s no small thing to direct a film, and you deserve kudos for embracing the risks of stepping to the other side of the camera. Whether or not “Whip It” proves successful with critics and audiences, there’s no going back. You have utterly transformed your professional career, and for the better.

That said, Drew, I’m apprehensive. “Whip It” is set in the world of women’s banked-track roller derby (the film is based on the Shauna Cross book “Derby Girl,” which is itself drawn from the author’s experiences with the Los Angeles Derby Dolls). I’ve got a toe-stop in that world myself; my girlfriend is one of the original members of Seattle’s Rat City Rollergirls and I’ve had the pleasure of photographing flat-track roller derby bouts since 2005. I’ve met hundreds of rollergirls and I think I know what you see in them, Drew: they’re tough, self-motivated and fearless, like you. They never give less than their all, and they never, ever stop having fun. Professional sports is lousy with millionaires who can’t make those simple claims.

And that brings us to the reason that I haven’t yet seen your roller derby movie, Drew: I’m afraid to find out if you screwed it up.

Every time I’ve seen the derby revival portrayed in the popular media (it’s appeared in “CSI,” “King of the Hill” and assorted other venues), I’ve seen skaters playing without helmets, elbowing each other in the face without penalties being called, and gamely recycling the same cliches and half-truths that Jarrold Freedman sewed together to make “Kansas City Bomber.” The new derby — played on both flat and banked tracks, depending on the league — isn’t the game Raquel Welch pretended to play in “Bomber”; it has rules, protective gear and integrity.

Speaking from a fan’s perspective, here are few things I hope not to see in “Whip It”:

Wall-to-wall fights. Hardcore derby fights and cheap shots are more rare than audiences should be led to believe. Fights can get skaters expelled from a bout and ruin a team’s chances, and most rollergirls try to avoid getting into them. There’s plenty of action on the track without them, anyway — skaters shoulder-blocked or hip-checked into the audience, on-track pileups worthy of the demolition derby. It’s not like audiences get bored if the skaters don’t duke it out.

Helmet-free skating. Skaters get concussions with the helmets on. Every skater wears helmets; knee, elbow, wrist and mouth guards; and the occasional bonus piece of protection, depending on how much injury has sustained over the course of her (unpaid!) career. I like to cite the case of the Rat City skater who took a bad fall, had metal pins put into her shoulder, recuperated and returned to the sport only to suffer a crushing blow to the other shoulder. There’s a thousand ways for a skater to get seriously hurt without tempting fate by pulling a Gary Busey.

Grudges. Rarely do on-track differences carry over to the post-game party. Many of the players are friends off the track — one of the prime benefits of a sports organization completely staffed and run by volunteers.

Significant others pressuring skaters to quit derby.
We don’t call ourselves “Derby Widows” for nought, Drew. When our girls make up their minds to skate, we learn the basics of sports massage and step aside. In the height of a season we’re lucky to see our beloved revolutionary sweethearts three or four nights a week, and we’re okay with that.

A flood of XY chromosomes. Sure, there’s dudes lingering around the track — referees, volunteers, non-skating officials, (cough) photographers — but it’s the girls’ show, and they drive the action. We’re just happy to be there.

That’s about all I can think of right now. I know this is asking a lot, Drew; after all, you didn’t make a documentary, but a piece of fiction. But I’ve grown exceedingly fond of roller derby these past few years, and when new fans come to see the Rat City skaters at KeyArena next season, I want them to expect a sport. And I think if anyone could truly prepare someone to see a roller derby bout — part human drama, part underdog story, part anime — it would be you, the actor who followed up “Charlie’s Angels” with “Donnie Darko.” You’re the Firestarter. I hope you didn’t let us down.

By the way, I forgive you for “Batman Forever.” Tell Courtney I said howdy-do.

With much love,

Geoff Carter

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5 Comments »

  1. little known fact: the movie was not based on a book. the book “derby girl”, which can be found in the teen lit section, was actually penned after the script was sold as a promotional tie-in.

  2. Thanks Geoff for clearly stating what the multitude of rollergirls across the country feel. I’m still excited to see it and think by the sheer number of rollergirls Drew will have a good hit on opening week. We’ll see you tomorrow at the premier!

    XOXO ~ Darth Skater

  3. I’m a RD ref, I know from derby girls, and you’ve got it right. I carry the same apprehensions and though I have yet to see the movie the buzz is that Drew may very well have managed it.

  4. it is good.

  5. Thanks Goeff for putting into those thoughts into words. I’m nervous as hell cause it feels like our world is being exposed and I really, really, really hope that its done with justice and honesty. That being said, I’m going on friday night w/ my league to watch it and am putting trust that Drew did it right. I’m banking on the factor that she’d a big LADD fan and wouldn’t screw us over for fear of hundreds of derby girls gunning for her;)

    -malaria

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