MOST WOMEN who play roller derby use pseudonyms, or “skate names.” They are not the only athletes to assume alternate identities. Yogi Berra, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Dr. J, Sugar Ray Leonard, and even chess champion Garry Kasparov, among others, competed using names they were not born with. And the world’s most famous athlete, footballer Edson Arantes do Nascimento, played under a nonsense name from his childhood: Pelé. But roller derby players go further. Almost all skaters, as well as many coaches and officials, use pseudonyms, and the names they choose are seldom nicknames. Skate names are like noms de guerre — the names warriors once used to feel more ferocious in battle—or alter egos.
Why do rollergirls use skate names?
One reason is tradition. Modern roller derby — a competitive, full contact, all-woman sport, not the scripted entertainment of America’s disco-era — was born in 2001 as part of punk rock counter-culture in Austin, Texas. The first derby teams had names like rock bands — “Cherry Bombs,” “Holy Rollers,” “Hellcats” — and early skaters either took names like rockstars — “Cherry Chainsaw,” for example, is a bit like “Sid Vicious” — or the masked Lucha Libre wrestlers from neighboring Mexico — “La Muerta” and “Lo Loca,” both names of early skaters, have echoes of famous Luchadores like “El Santo” and “Rey Misterio.”
“Skate names are like alter egos”
Many things changed as roller derby expanded from Austin to the rest of the world, but skate names stayed, and became an integral part of derby culture. Today, over 100,000 women (plus many men) play roller derby worldwide, and more than 90,000 names have been registered with online skate name services.
Early skate names on the wall of the Texas Roller Derby Thunderdome in Austin, Texas.
Another reason for skate names is transformation. For many of the women who play it, roller derby is about becoming — escaping from society’s confining generalizations to become who they truly are. Not weak, but strong. Not helpless, but powerful. Not followers, but leaders. Assuming a new name is an important part of this transition. Names have power. The effects of names are not subtle: they can be measured, especially the effects of names given to women. In one study — there are many like it — economists Bentley Coffey and Patrick McLaughlin analyzed the careers of female lawyers and found that women with "gender neutral" names like “Casey” or “Morgan” were far more likely to be promoted than women with "feminine" names like “Susan” or “Jennifer.”
“Roller derby is about becoming”
Coffey and McLaughlin called this phenomenon “the Portia effect,” after the character in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice who disguises herself as a man so she can be a lawyer. The Portia effect is not restricted to women or lawyers: names always affect how we are seen — by ourselves, as well as others — and therefore what we might achieve. A strong, inspiring pseudonym helps create a strong, inspired identity. Put simply, skate names are a source of power.
Skate names on the lockers of Polly Urethane, Rocky Casbah, Tear-a-Wrist (“T-Dubs”), Rasta Fury, Smarty Pants, and Ally Bamazon.
Skate names are also a means of self-expression, and therefore a window on the dynamic and diverse culture of the world’s roller derby community. And so, partly to celebrate the tenth annual “Rollercon” roller derby convention in Las Vegas in July 2015, we looked at over twenty thousand skate names, organized about three thousand of them into a taxonomy, and then put a thousand of those into an infographic. (A limited edition 26” x 39” poster of this graphical taxonomy will be free with every purchase at our Rollercon booth, or you can buy one for $20 here.)
“Put simply, skate names are a source of power”
Some skate names are puns and innuendos, like the names Bart Simpson uses when he prank calls Moe’s Tavern in The Simpsons. Bart’s prank names include “Oliver Klozoff,” “I.P. Freely,” and “Homer Sexual”; similar skate names are “Asonya Face,” “Poly Amorous,” and “Jackie Lation.” Other suggestive names refer to body parts, especially — and not surprisingly — vaginas (39 names on our list), breasts (27 names), and buttocks (19).
But many skate names in our taxonomy are geekier, or deeper, or both.
Nearly 20% are inspired by books. A third of these are Harry Potter-related, including 18 variations of Hermione Granger, 13 of Bellatrix Lestrange, and 6 of Luna Lovegood; others are literary, like “Tess of the Derbywheels,” “Jane Ire,” and “Grace of Wrath,” or geeky, such as the four names inspired by The Call of Cthulhu, a gothic horror story written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1926.
Skate names inspired by Harry Potter (left) and Star Wars (right).
15% are based on movies, and more than a third of those, 108 names, are connected to Star Wars. But, as with books, there are also older, less mainstream inspirations — for example, “Grief Encounter,” “Das Booty,” and “Rebel Without A Corset.”
“Skate names are also a window on roller derby culture”
Some other things we noticed: 10% of the list falls into the “Tech & Geek” category, which includes names inspired by computing (“Paige Not Found,” “Syntax Terror,” “Ctrl Alt Defeat”), fonts (“Crimes New Roman,” “Give ‘Em Hell Vetica”), chemistry (“Carmen Die Oxide,” “ChLauraform”), and philosophy (“Blockem’s Razor”); DC Comics are more popular than Marvel Comics (63 vs 37), and this is driven by just two characters, Harley Quinn (18 names) and Poison Ivy (17 names); women from history provide inspiration (“Emmeline Pancakehurst,” “Rolla Parks,” “Crusin’ B. Anthony”) as do iconic present-day women (there are 13 variants of Dita Von Teese and 8 of Taylor Swift, for example) and female fictional characters from both childhood (such as the 12 Pippy Longstockings, 11 Alice in Wonderlands, 10 Cruella De Villes, and 9 Punky Brewsters) and adulthood (14 Katniss Everdeens, 6 Buffy Summers, 5 Holly Golightlys).
Skate names inspired by Videogames (left) and Rappers (right).
The taxonomy is fun to explore, and, taken as a whole, shows that the roller derby world is diverse, informed, and creative: a global group of women drawing power and inspiration from everywhere — and especially from other powerful, inspiring women, both real and imagined.
To get a limited edition 26”x 39” poster of the skate name taxonomy, click here.