The 2009 directorial debut of Drew Barrymore – Whip It – is arguably the ultimate feminist movie. While that may seem to be a fairly bold statement, it is absolutely the case that this film embodies everything that representation of women in media should be striving for.
Whip It is written by Shauna Cross, based on her own novel ‘Derby Girl’. Cross is a former Roller Derby athlete herself, having skated with the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls league, and later, the Los Angeles Derby Dolls. The script benefits greatly from her personal experience – providing a level of detail around the world of Roller Derby that is at once immersive, and inclusive, setting the tone for the film as a whole.
Essentially a coming-of-age tale, this is the story of Texan teenager Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page), who secretly joins a Roller Derby team and discovers herself, despite staunch opposition from those around her. In her daily life, she is constantly at odds with her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), who tries to re-capture her own youth and manufacture some social relevance by shoe-horning Bliss into the role of pageant-winning girly-girl. Bliss is resistant, reluctant and, ultimately, rebellious as she casts about – desperately seeking her own path.
A chance encounter with a trio of roller girls, leads Bliss to her first experience watching a live Derby, and solidifies her status as a fan. An encounter with Hurl Scouts team player Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) leads her to lie about her age and try-out for the team. Her natural talent and hard-work lead to her selection.
What follows is a portrayal of a teenager growing into an adult that is so beautiful and pitch-perfect, that it can be applied to any stage in life. As Bliss (known in Derby as Babe Ruthless) progresses and improves her Roller Derby skills – helping the Hurl Scouts move up the league – the dynamics of the existing relationships in her life change as she adds new ones into the mix.
At the beginning of the film, the closeness between Bliss and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) is essentially her comfort zone. But, as these two teens clash over mistakes and discover they are growing apart, their friendship becomes distant and, ultimately falls by the wayside, as the trappings of adulthood crowd in. Bliss develops a strong bond with team-mate Maggie Mayhem who, as an older, more experienced voice, holds great influence over the young and impressionable Rollergirl. At the same time, a grudging respect eventually evolves between Bliss and Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) – the Captain of rival team, the Holy Rollers, after a protracted period of intense conflict.
The duration of the film also charts the course of the first real romantic relationship for Bliss. Meeting musician Oliver soon after her first introduction to the world of Roller Derby, we watch the young woman discover a sense of connection with him, fall for him, feel betrayed by him, and walk away from him. The minutiae of the break-up is almost irrelevant – it is borne of her realisation that her own ambition should not be expected to automatically play second fiddle to his, just because he is male. This is a realisation that cuts right to the heart of her relationship with her mother, who also wishes to de-prioritise her daughter’s dreams for the benefit of her own. But, for Bliss, her mother also stands as a cautionary tale, playing out the constant, low-level dissatisfaction of a life not fully lived.
The beauty of Whip It can be found in these relationships – all of which are rich, complex and well-formed. Throughout this network of distinct personalities, all but two characters have an agenda. Pash disapproves of her involvement in Roller Derby because it is a solo interest outside of their friendship. Oliver is only interested in his own needs. Iron Maven sets out to destroy Bliss, feeling intense jealousy of her youth and potential, while Bliss’ mother – feeling the same – seeks to manipulate her to her own ends. It is only her seemingly ineffectual father, Earl, and Maggie Mayhem that truly offer Bliss unconditional acceptance. The result is the timeless story of an emerging voice gradually working to be heard above noise that would otherwise drown it out.
This is a trope that has been rehashed in many forms over many years, but Whip It provides a fresh experience. Beyond the excellent script, the fantastic performances, the brilliant soundtrack and the incredible direction, this film demonstrates how to make the ultimate feminist movie for one simple reason – it could just as easily be about men. If feminism is a movement in support of equal rights for women, then Whip It is the example all filmmakers should follow. This is a film about people, who happen to be women. As opposed to most depictions of women in film – where the women sit around fretting about their relationships, change their lives to accommodate others, and obsess over their weight/clothes/hair/nails/shoes – this is a film where the women are human beings, with all the depth and complexity that goes along with it. If you took this film and made it about male Roller Derby teams (for, yes, they do exist), you would need only change the costumes and names. This film is not a ‘chick flick’ – it is almost genderless.
It is sad to think that the very thing that makes Whip It so extraordinary is also the thing that made it a commercial damp-squib at the box office – making only $17 million on a $15 million budget. The fact that the film includes women in roles outside of the expected narrative for female characters should have been cause for celebration, but was instead a clear message that cinema audiences are not ready to accept gender equality in their movies.
The women in this film are not defined by their relationship to a man, with the exception of Bliss’ mother, who is deeply unhappy. That is the message of the film. When Bliss first approaches Maggie Mayhem at a merchandise stand after watching her compete in a Derby, her eyes are wide and filled with awe. She breathlessly explains that the Hurl Scouts are her new heroes. Maggie Mayhem smiles, and shrugs as if it’s nothing.
“Put some skates on. Be your own hero.”
So she did.
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11 Replies to “Whip It (2009) – Drew Barrymore (Sarah Myles)”
I didn’t expect to love this movie as much as I did. I thought it was great.
Reblogged this on Sarah Myles and commented:
My thoughts on the 2009 film ‘Whip It’ for the excellent site, A World Of Film.
Good review Sarah. I have to say, I was a bit impressed with what Barrymore did here. Granted, it wasn’t anything spectacular, but still gave me a story where I could actually care for the sport of roller-derby and why these gals love it so much.
Very good review Sarah, of a film that I did enjoy, despite roller derby being a sport unknown in the UK , outside of the futuristic film Rollerball (1975 version). I thought that all the performances were excellent, particularly Juliette Lewis, and I agree that it was a genderless tale, and was certainly not perceived as a feminist statement, at least by me.
Regards from Norfolk, Pete.
Great review and point of view on the plot of the movie. Made me feel like watching it again.
I didn’t hear many positive things about this film when it came out, but reading your review makes me think that I need to watch it. Cheers!
Excellent review of an excellent film. Need to watch this one again soon!
Such a good review! I remember Whip It was a highlight of 2009.
I’m so glad I found someone who loves “Whip It” as much as I do. As so-so as it was received, it was a great post-“Juno” effort from Ellen Page and her supporting cast was a blast.
Although there’s clearly no love lost between feminism/feminists and myself, I really, really enjoyed this film. That said, I completely disagree with your assertion that “it could just as easily be about men”. The inherent femininity of the protagonist is what makes it so compelling. If Drew Barrymore had cast Shia LaBeouf as Bliss, the film would have lost not only all of its nuance, but also most of its impact. Bliss comes across as a very real teenage girl who reacts to things in the same manner that any observer of objective reality would expect a real (but slightly exceptional) teenage girl to react. Teenage boys simply do not have the same sort of complicated and bizarrely competitive relationships with their mothers that Bliss had with hers. How would it have been possible to convey the dramatic tension over whether she attends the “Yellow Rose of Texas Pageant” that meant everything to her mother, or the roller derby playoffs that meant so much to herself and her team, if Zack Efron had landed the starring role? That was a huge decision and a major plot point.
Additionally, while teenage boys may struggle against their father’s authority, they also have a lot more to talk about in terms of common interests. It’s different with teenage girls and their fathers, where the struggle for independence is compounded by divergent interests. Earl wasn’t so much an ineffectual father, as he was merely suffering through that awkward phase that all fathers, especially those that live in the same home with their daughters, go through during the latter segment of the transition from girlhood to womanhood. His earlier disaffected alienation is what made that scene where he proudly and joyously hammered the big wooden roller derby sign into the front yard next to the neighbor’s “MY SON IS A [name of baseball team]” sign so touching and hilarious. The sign wasn’t a symbol of “I LIEK SPORTS!!111”, it was a symbol of “I AM FINALLY RECONNECTING WITH MY DAUGHTER!” That was a moment that made the film utterly human, and it would have fallen flat in the context of a male lead.
The more I think about it, even though there were no strong nor admirable male characters, Whip It (2009) was extremely gendered. It was just much smarter about it than “most depictions of women in film – where the women sit around fretting about their relationships and obsess over their weight/clothes/hair/nails/shoes”, and that’s what made it so believable and wonderful. Look at Juliette Lewis’s character. In the little screen time she has, she manages to very convincingly portray a late bloomer who has finally found her little niche in life, and will fight tooth and nail to hold on to it. At the same time, there’s a slight vulnerability lurking just beneath the surface, and the viewer can easily synthesize several believable scenarios for her childhood, painful adolescence and directionless post-adolescence. It seems so real, because it is real. We’ve all known people just like her. Hugh Jackman or Chris Hemsworth delivering those same lines would just come across as menacing.
In conclusion, Bliss is neither an asexual/androgynous drone, nor is she a badass/manly/streetfightin’ man trapped in a woman’s body a la Scarlett Johansen’s ridiculous character from the Marvel Studios franchise. Bliss is simply…. a girl, with all the inherent desires, flaws and idiosyncrasies therein. That’s what makes Whip It more than just a great sports flick on par with the cinematic genius that is Slap Shot (1977), but also an excellent coming-of-age movie on par with the cinematic genius that is Sixteen Candles (1984). Obviously, we have very different ideologies. While I agree with you whole heartedly that the Hollywood-Industrial-Complex is generally awful at writing compelling female roles, I don’t think that writing every character into a sexless butch eunuch is the cure.