Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



UND Honors senior straps on skates, attitude to research the femininity of roller derby

Madisson Whitman is a 21-year-old UND senior in anthropology from Bismarck, an Honors Program student bound for graduate school at Purdue University.

Madisson Whitman
Madisson Whitman, a.k.a. Mad the Impaler, researched women's roller derby for her thesis in the UND Honors Program. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

Madisson Whitman is a 21-year-old UND senior in anthropology from Bismarck, an Honors Program student bound for graduate school at Purdue University.

She is also Mad the Impaler, a women's roller derby newbie fascinated by the sport's melding of femininity and blood-and-guts competitiveness.

Topics at the 14th annual Honors Program undergraduate research conference Thursday ranged from the intriguing -- Whitman's report on roller derby and feminism -- to the alarming -- "Bloodstain Pattern Analysis: An Experiment in Forward Splatter."

More than a dozen students gave oral or poster presentations on their thesis research, including Erin Barta, who offered an analysis of Americans' assumptions concerning Islamic women wearing veils, and Renee Branshaw, who examined the comparative success of public-sector labor unions despite the withering of union membership in the private sector. Autumn Arch recruited volunteers to help in her study, "Self Objectification and Drive for Mascularityin College Men."

Rachel Smerer received the year's award for best thesis with her study on challenges facing small grassroots non-government organizations working in the developing world, based on research she did during a summer internship with an NGO in India.


The UND Honors Program, ending its 50th anniversary year, requires students to participate in seminars and colloquia and do original research resulting in a thesis, advanced work normally associated with graduate school.

"You want students to be engaged in this sort of thing as early as possible," said Brian Schill, the program's coordinator of undergraduate research, as studies have shown that undergraduates who do are more likely to stay in college and graduate.

Robin David, associate director of Honors, added that "civic engagement is a big part of the work we're doing," with students taking their research out of the lab and into the community -- or, in Smerer's case, to an impoverished area of India.

'Derby girls'

Whitman's thesis is titled, " 'We Are Derby Girls, Not Pansies': An Ethnographic Exploration of Femininity and Empowerment in Women's Roller Derby."

She did participatory research, first acting in various capacities off the rink and finally as a "fresh-meat skater" in Forx Roller Derby, a local league.

Roller derby is the fastest-growing sport in the United States, Whitman said, with "leagues popping up and expanding all over the country."

Women participating locally range in age from 21 to 66, she said, and they include students, careerists and homemakers. They are married or single and range the spectrum of education, religious affiliation and political views.


In her presentation to fellow Honors students and faculty Thursday, Whitman described the players' specialized skates and other equipment, match strategy and scoring, and roles played by position skaters: jammers, blockers and pivots.

And there are those rink names.

"Skaters create their identity with the names they choose, and they grow into them," Mad the Impaler said. "It's a very aggressive sport, so the identities they adopt are very aggressive."

She cited as examples "A Fist Called Wanda" and "Helen Killer," and she described "the transformative effects of taking on an alternative identity, an alter ego." Across the board, she said, the women who compete in roller derby "become more confident, more assertive, more sure of themselves."

Whitman displayed a popular roller derby poster that came out of a Chicago league, showing a fiercely smirking "derby girl" with blood running from her nose and soaking into her jersey. The caption: "Blood is the new pink."

Many of the women who compete in roller derbies also wear fishnet or tights and cute stickers on their helmets, Whitman said.

People have ideas on what "femininity" is, she said, but "roller derby actively redefines femininity. They'll wear things that may be stereotypically feminine, but they'll also show blood and bruises. Toughness is an important part of the sport, and skaters wear their bruises like badges of honor."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com .

What To Read Next
Get Local