Sunday, 7 August 2016

Sports Movie Marathon: Whip It (Roller Derby)

Whip It is a curious movie to watch with hindsight, as a few more recent developments bring a whole new dimension to the story. One thing that did notably happen five years after its release was Ellen Page coming out as a lesbian, giving the already-talented actress a new reputation as a human rights advocate. However, while it may have only been in 2014 that Page finally admitted to her sexuality, there may have been clues in her earlier films. The lack of any sexual tension with the (otherwise entirely male) cast of Inception and the boyfriend she quickly dumps in Wilby Wonderful (a moment the film treats as a positive action) could be seen as early indications.

However, Whip It may be one of the most obvious films to showcase this, although it's hard to say if this was intended or merely a reflection of Page's acting. Although the film is thinly veiled as a family friendly underdog sports narrative, it is filled with innuendo and homoerotic subtext that, when realized in the context of Page's own sexuality, adds an entirely new level. This is likely unsurprising, given much of the film revolves around bonding between women, with girl-on-girl fights (which are almost treated like sex) being something of a recurring motif.

From the moment we are first introduced to Bliss Cavender (Page), there is a sense of awkwardness that isolates her from her environment. She struggles to meet the demands of her overbearing conservative mother and has a difficult relationship with her father. At school, she often gets bullied, and she clearly doesn't fit into the beauty pageants. The opening scene shows these two sides through her wardrobe, the blue hair clashing with her fancy white dress. This awkwardness continues throughout much of the film, with Bliss showing difficulty relating to many of the people in her life.

In fact, the few instances where this aspect of her performance drops are moments when Bliss is interacting with other women. This is most evident in her relationship to her friend Pash (Alia Shawkwat), with whom the homoerotic undertones appear to be most obvious. There is even a scene which alludes to this idea by way of them sharing a bed. It's also seen in the way Bliss becomes especially close to the other women on her roller derby team, possibly even closer than she is with her own family. There is also a strong emphasis on the mounting tension between her and rival skater Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) which could be seen as sexual in nature, especially during their exchange at the film's conclusion.

The movie does include a heterosexual romance between Bliss and a young man named Oliver (Landon Pigg), though even this arguably supports the homoerotic aspects of the film. The romance often appears forced, and Oliver does show some questionable actions early on (such as openly admitting that he stalked Bliss to her workplace). These two share the film's only sex scene, though it is shot in a very surreal and peculiar way, with the two diving into a swimming pool before removing their clothes.

The entire scene takes place underwater, and uses the aquatic environment to give a strange otherworldly sense. At first, this seems like a strange move for what is otherwise a fairly grounded story, only it may be the strangeness of such a moment that works to its advantage. By making this sequence dream-like in nature, it's drawing attention to the fact that it is staged. More specifically, the obviously fake sex hints at the idea that the romance between them is not genuine and works as foreshadowing toward the later sequence in which Bliss realizes he's been treating her only slightly less awful than the original James Bond, and proceeds to break off all ties with him.

This in turn leads to a whole new reading of the film that may not have been evident to its initial viewers: Bliss is secretly a repressed homosexual. This can be seen in her relationship to her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Hayden), who while not explicitly homophobic displays a very conservative and conformist view of society. She expects Bliss to appear at elegant pageants and on learning of the roller derby championship, admits that she expects Bliss to marry a man (a remark which she appears to find especially insulting). Bliss even goes as far as to run away not unlike the many homosexual or trans teenagers who find themselves in the street because of intolerant parents.

Whip It is far from a mere underdog sports film. It's really a story of exploring oneself. If indeed it is to be assumed that Bliss is gay, than the entire story could be seen as one big allegory for her accepting who she is and coming out (which in this case is shown through her discovering a passion for roller derby).

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I saw this movie back when it hit DVD. I really liked it, but didn't read it the same as you. Your take on it is really interesting. Suddenly, I want to watch it again to see if I pick up on the same things.