Jos at Feministing already has a great review of Whip It posted, and I don’t want to ruin the plot for those readers who have yet to see the movie. Here’s a review in brief: Go see it. Now.
I went to the local premiere with my 11 year old sister’s Girl Scout troop. It was the best Girl Scout field trip ever — I’m so glad that the troop saw such a pro-girl movie. Whip It’s plot is based off the young adult novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross, who also wrote the screenplay. The book’s influence is clear: exposition, character development and the plot arc all play like a YA novel, not a traditional movie. Whip It is unusual in that it pauses the action to take its time talking about feelings, relationships and real life. My fellow audience at the premiere reflected the demographic at which Whip It is squarely aimed: namely, teenagers and young women, with a lot of mothers and daughters in the mix.
And what a movie! It’s probably not going to win any awards for brilliant dialogue or stunning cinematography, but it does win the Young Feminist Award for Not Making Viewers Feel Like Crap. How refreshing for young women to have a movie with realistic relationships and characters, not a faux-feminist movie (Jennifer’s Body, I’m looking at you) that panders to the male gaze. True, the dreaded f-word is never uttered, though it lurks behind every quip, high-five and punch thrown on the derby rink. We look Ellen Page’s mousy-looking, fierce-acting character Bliss Cavendar in the eyes, not her body. Bliss lives in a blue-collar, suburban Austin house that looks shockingly like a real home. Bliss’ friendship with BFF Pash (the adorable, hilarious Alia Shawkat) resonated with me and my friends. The best dynamic was between Bliss and her mother, played by the hysterical Marcia Gay Harden. The tired movie trope of Rebellious Daughter Gets Caught moved beyond cliché in a moving scene that showed fully developed characters with a complicated yet devoted relationship.
Though Whip It at times seems like pure feminist fantasy, the best part of that escapism is the derby action. It’s quite satisfying to see female aggression, competition and sportsmanship manifest on the screen in the crunch sound of bodies colliding with the floor — or each other. The cinematography has plenty of close ups on butts, thighs, chests and clashing bodies, but the action never veers into exploitation. Though Johnny Rocket, the announcer (a slimy Jimmy Fallon) alludes to men’s voyeuristic thrill in watching fishnet-clad “girls” brawl and skate around — “I don’t know whether to break it up or break out the video camera!” — the movie places the power with the women themselves. In a scene with roller girls Eva Destruction and Rosa Sparks in a hot tub (sadly, the movie’s only allusion to roller derby’s significant LGBT presence), Eva informs a leering, intruding man that he can get lost, and he does.
So gather up your best gal pals and go en masse to see a movie about female friendship that’s best enjoyed in the company of others, even if it’s ultimately about individual empowerment.
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