Whip It

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut about a young girl in a small town in Texas who desires to get out from under her mother’s stifling expectations for her so she can do what she has discovered she really wants: Roller derby! Starring Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender, this story, as with all Barrymore’s stories, is a women’s empowerment narrative about women needing to come out from under oppressive social norms for their roles.

Ellen’s mom, played by Marcia Gay Hardin, is molding her two daughters to be beauty pageant queens just like herself. This of course doesn’t fit for Bliss, but she goes along to make mom happy until she finds what she really loves to do, roller derbying, which causes the turmoil. Bliss accuses mom of shoving her small town “50s morality” (an obvious reference to the traditional gender roles and family notions) down her throat. But what makes this more than a simplistic feminist fairytale is when a fellow roller derby queen challenges Bliss that she is being selfish and that her mom may be wrong about roller derby, but she cares for Bliss and is only trying to help her, and that mom’s rules are for her own good, NOT because she wants to hurt her or control her – that there is value to what her mother thinks. The mom and dad are actually happily married and even frisky, thus showing such “traditional” marriage as mostly positive.

There are no strong men characters in this movie, illustrating a female gender bias in the viewpoint. The roller derby coach is a loony obsessed with exercise and acting like a pothead with a few screws loose. Bliss’s very first rock and roll boyfriend turns out to be a womanizer, and the announcer of the roller derby is a loser horny toad always failing to get laid. Bliss’ dad, played by Daniel Stern, is a stereotypical couch potato sports fan who follows mom’s lead instead of being a leader in the family. He is too weak to face mom about her contempt for sports so he watches the football game by lying to her that he is staying late at work. He pretty much cow tows to her until the end, when he is the first one to support Bliss and takes the lead by pulling Bliss out of the big pageant and bringing her to the roller derby. So his leadership is portrayed as good when supportive of Bliss’ desires.

So this film seems to prioritize the individual’s dreams without negating the value of family. The collective family and the individual member can get along and balance each other’s interests.

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