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A brief history of women on the small screen.

Liz Lemon is my modern day Gloria Steinem.

As a comedy nerd and unashamed TV consumer, the 30 Rock character portrayed by Tina Fey is my personal dashboard feminist: she consistently reminds me of the current social climate for women and just how far females as a whole have come. Sure, Liz herself hasn’t sacrificed for women’s rights and will likely be neglected in the next generation’s history books (only because, I must argue, she is not a real human) but I love her, not because she’s a symbol of women “having it all,”  but because she represents the very absurdity of this notion.  

The phrase “having it all” is thrown around in memoirs and mommy blogs as if true accomplishment were the same thing for every woman. It’s often expressed as the ability to balance a successful career with the roles of wife and mother, even though — god forbid — not every woman desires any or all of these roles; career, motherhood or otherwise. 

By way of Liz, Fey has exposed the male-dominated world of television and comedy while maintaining the entertainment factor, not completely unlike Steinem’s infiltration of the Playboy Club. OK, neither Fey nor her fictionalized self is a 21st century suffragette, but she provides a stellar example of strong women in television that aren’t completely unattainable or stereotypical — a trend that seems to be taking off in popular culture.

With the increasing prevalence of shows like 30 RockGirlsThe Mindy Project and countless other popular series with independent female leads, are we on the brink of a new age of women in television? Yes and no. Female badassery has been documented on television since the pre-DVR days of yore.  

Like the waves of feminism, women’s roles on television have changed over the years. When there weren’t diverse, significant career opportunities for real women in the 1940s and 1950s, the same went for the female characters of that era. When the women of America were expected to become wives and mothers and then plateau, so were women of TV. Years passed, climates changed and as women gained more of a valued voice in social and political realms, so did their on-screen counterparts. 

The first television shows with prominent female characters aren’t quite beacons of feminism, but they nevertheless paved the way for the Liz Lemons of today. 

Through the ‘50s and ‘60s, the television set was no place for women to speak out (poor Lucille Ball couldn’t even use the word “pregnant” to describe having a baby-filled womb on her show), but simply having a woman as the lead was a big step in entertainment.

Though it wasn’t the first television show to break social or feminist ground, I Love Lucy (1951-1957)is still adored by audiences today and thus the perfect starting point for a timeline of women on TV. 

Lucille Ball was not cast merely to fill a wife’s role or to cater to a female audience. She became a star purely because she was talented. While much of the Lucy shtick played off of her relationship with her on-set and real-life husband Desi Arnaz, Ball paved the way for humorous women on-screen. She was goofy and over-the-top while maintaining the nurturing, feminine and likable persona women were expected to have. Sure, we didn’t see Lucy and Ethel discuss political platforms around election time, but it was a big deal to see Lucy pursue a career out of the house when viewers expected to see a June Cleaver-type, always in a perpetual state of serving meals. 

Similarly, Bewitched (1964-1972) goes down as one of the earlier femme-centric shows. Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha did fall into the stereotypical “beautiful wife, doting mother” role, but the show was unique because it focused on a woman and her supernatural powers, which no mortal man possessed. Bewitched was so focused on the leading lady, producers were convinced no one would notice when they replaced the actor playing her husband, Dick York, with another actor, Dick Sargent, mid-season. Again, nothing earth-shattering here but, like first-wave feminists had to fight for women to even be considered viable adult humans with free will, these beloved, lighthearted programs helped open the proverbial door for the female television characters of the 1970s and beyond. 

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) introduced a single woman in her thirties with a real career — not just some token women’s position: She was the associate producer of the “Six O’Clock” news. The plot was somewhat revolutionary for the time because it didn’t revolve around Mary’s romantic relationships or her quest to find a man. Ms. Moore being single was not a negative conflict in the series; instead, she and other characters faced real issues. Women’s rights, sexuality, divorce and addiction were all topics covered on the iconic program. 

From 1976-1983, Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney schlemieled and schlimazeled their way into the hearts of Americans. The stars of this Happy Days spin-off also maintained real jobs that men could — and did — perform. They worked in a beer factory for crying out loud! Several episodes focused on the ladies’ relationships with men, but more on the bond between these two female friends, coworkers and roommates. Laverne’s open sexuality (while mild by today’s terms) was considered taboo at the time, especially since the show was set around the early 1960s. 

Channel surfing through the ‘80s and ‘90s, women were seeing more recognizable and relatable characters on television who didn’t fall into stereotypical feminine roles. Murphy Brown (1988-1998) was a single, serious journalist who went on to raise a child sans-husband. Roseanne (1988-1997) could have likely been called Dan had it been created earlier, but Roseanne Barr flipped the script, focusing on a blue-collar woman and her less-than-glamorous role as a wife and mother. 

Even Golden Girls (1985-1992) was an important contribution to the canon of women’s television — rarely before had there been much focus on later-in-life ladies. The fiery femmes of Miami showed the world that women don’t just get married, pop out a few kids and then quietly disappear when some wrinkles and a few greys come in. There’s sex, laughter and cheesecake, even if you’re older than 60. 

Progressively over the last few decades of the 20th century, the importance of having prominent women in television evolved into a focus on strong, independent women filling roles that could equally be filled by a man — an ideology that fits in line with the goals of the second wave of feminism. 

“Women have options these days” is a phrase that’s almost obsolete. I mean, obviously. A show following an ER doctor could as easily star a man as it could a woman. Women can have, talk about and enjoy sex as Carrie and Co. made abundantly clear during their six-year reign on HBO’s Sex and the City. But, like the third wave of feminism, a woman shouldn’t feel pressure to fall into any role she doesn’t want to fill — traditional or otherwise. 

There was a point in time when female characters would never discuss “serious” topics on TV because real women weren’t expected to involve themselves in affairs outside of the home. But as we saw beginning in the ‘70s, it became important to show women on TV doing so — engaging in the political process, voicing independent beliefs, questioning social “givens.” So, today, it should be a given that women are just as likely to be successful in their careers and personal lives as men — meaning some women and men do not attain all of those ideals. It’s OK for a female character to express a certain ignorance or display physical weakness because we’re at a point in time when a fictional woman’s flaws are not applied to all females.  

Or at least they shouldn’t be. 

In an episode of 30 Rock seemingly specially packaged for this very conversation, Liz goes on one of her fairness tirades, stating that everyone should be treated equally, particularly regarding men versus women. She argues that the show’s biggest star, Tracy Jordan, gets away with erratic, unpredictable and unprofessional demeanor that would not fly if he were a woman. The rest of the crew sets out to prove her hypocrisy by searching for any evidence of Liz receiving unfair benefit (turns out she received a partial competitive jazz dance scholarship — which favored women — in addition to a few other hand-ups).  

In a scene that had everyone “lizzing” — laughing plus whizzing — the staff’s water cooler needed to be changed. When Liz asks one of the muscly crewmen to grab a new water jug, she is quickly reminded of her self-forged war on equality. The petite woman struggles with the gigantic receptacle for a few minutes as a majority of the water soaks her, all while Tracy yells, “Do not help her!” Time and time again, 30 Rock expertly mocks popular stances on social issues, often revealing exceptions to the rules. 

All Liz love aside, no amount of chunky glasses and Sabor de Soledad (the character’s health-hazardous snack food of choice) can take away from the fact that Fey is actually a very smart, beautiful, fit, overall appealing lady. She’s treated as this asexual grotesque thing at points in the show, but in reality no rational person would ever be repelled by her. And let’s not forget that fellow Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch was supposed to play the role of Jenna Maroney, but got replaced by the arguably more attractive blonde Jane Krakowski. Sure, cast changes are common in television and highlighting attractive people in media is nothing new nor is it relegated to actresses. Audiences by and large love something nice to look at: hot women, chiseled men and adorable children. But for every “normal,” approachable-looking Lena Dunham (Girls) or Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly), there are 50 programs that star average looking dudes with model-grade wives — another challenge yet to be overcome, as is the lack of non-token diversity of race, socio-economic class and sexuality. Sure, we’ve come a long way, but we still have more progress to make. 

One exceptional outcome from recent third-wave shows is that a positive female character does not have to correlate to a perfect woman.

I’d argue that it’s much more intriguing to see a woman on TV struggling, stumbling along and making it work her way than to watch a wealthy, skinny, over-sexed, adored female character floating through life, inexplicably able to pay for prime Manhattan real estate. (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Ms. Bradshaw. I know how much journalists make.)

Sure, some people watch TV to escape — no one watches Keeping Up With The Kardashians because that krazy family is just so easy to relate to — but when it comes to decent programming and not the TV equivalent of junk food, women like to see a bit of themselves in a character. 

We’re at a point in which there are so many vastly different-yet-accurate portrayals of women in the media, it would be pointless to try and find “The Face of Women” on television. This is the point in time when Dunham can create a show very close to her personal experiences as a white, upper-middle-class female leaving the nest in NYC and, though we all can’t relate to every single scene, the overarching story is fresh and accessible. Shows like Girls represent the need for us women to laugh at ourselves, recognize our flaws and accept the fact that maybe we aren’t all Carries and Samanthas: Sex is sometimes really weird and most of the time life is pretty anticlimactic. 

Not every show is meant to be a study guide on the female population. This is 2013 America: We can go to school, learn about anything we choose and grow up to be whatever feels right. We don’t watch Gossip Girl to learn how to interact with each other; we watch it because it’s goofy and gratuitous. And that’s OK. We don’t have to ask for permission. 

This is just one girl’s take on a sliver of the history and trends women have made in media and pop culture. The women I welcome into my home via flatscreen range from Botoxed housewives and CIA agents to comedy writers and dragon princesses. And while watching Game of Thrones makes me really want to be a khaleesi, I take my TV with a nice grain of salt, quietly celebrating each badass female character along the way. But the sooner we stop trying to select one figure to represent all 3.4 billion of us, the sooner we can get back to whatever it is each of us truly enjoys, Sabor de Soledad and all.

Compassionate Beginnings helps would-be parents realize the dream of having children.

Carey B. always wanted to carry a baby. She longed for the nine-month journey of growing a child inside her and wanted to experience the feeling of giving birth. So when she was told that a blocked fallopian tube would require more than her husband to get pregnant, she was devastated.

“We were going to go through an adoption that actually fell through,” Carey says. “For me, it just never felt right. I believe that there are families out there that are destined to adopt children and help. But for me, I personally wanted to carry a baby.”  

After an emotional two-and-a-half-year process of failed surgeries, inseminations and in-vitro fertilizations, Carey’s doctor recommended looking into egg donation. In June 2010, she contacted Compassionate Beginnings, an egg donation and surrogacy agency based in Cincinnati. 

“We kind of act as the liaison to the fertility center providing the actual egg donor,” says Celia McNeil, founder of Compassionate Beginnings. “[Our mission is] to provide a donor that is highly qualified to intended parents to be able to further their dreams of having a baby and having a family.” 

Holly Ringer, co-owner of Compassionate Beginnings, says couples in need of egg donors are often on a waiting list for six to nine months because fertility centers have to recruit their own egg donors and frequently don’t have the staff to do so. Around 120 recipients seek egg donors each year in Ohio while more than 1,000 seek them across the country, according to McNeil.  

“We’re very service-oriented and dedicated to making their journey smooth and stress-free,” Ringer says. “We explain the whole process from start to finish, listen to any concerns or questions they may have and guide them through the process.” 

After deciding to move forward with the egg donation process, Carey was given a password into Compassionate Beginnings’ compilation of available egg donors, which displays information about each donor’s heritage, age, hair color, eye color, education history, family history and personal interests.  

“It’s kind of a weird experience at first — you just have to kind of get past that,” Carey says of the database. “I looked for someone who had a similar background as me.” 

It took about a month before she did, but Carey says she chose her donor because she was Irish and Italian, like Carey, and had the same body type. 

“I liked her answer on why she wanted to donate. She said she had a son and knew how much happiness it brought her and just wanted to help a family fulfill their dreams,” Carey says. “I just had a strong connection with her without really knowing her. It was really weird.” 

Founded in 2005, Compassionate Beginnings matches 50 intended parents and egg donors and three to four gestational carriers — women who carry and deliver children for others — each year throughout the Tristate. Once a match is made, the egg donor must go to doctor’s appointments every other day for two weeks, give blood at each doctor’s appointment and inject herself with a follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) for 20 days. The hormone is produced naturally already, but the shot gives every egg in the follicles a chance to mature. The mature eggs are then removed from the ovaries, fertilized and the embryos are transferred into the uterus of the recipient.  

“It is amazing that these young women would be willing to do this to help someone else they don’t know,” McNeil says. “These egg donors are not doing this just for the money. It’s way more than that. It’s amazing how much time they have to give up out of their day.” 

In order to be considered as an egg donor, the women must pass an initial screening, which verifies they meet the egg-donor criteria — a healthy body mass index (19 to 28), age range of 21 to 34, no felony record, no STDs and they must be a non-smoker. If the potential donor passes the criteria, Compassionate Beginnings sends a longer application to fill out. The entire process is completely confidential — the agency doesn’t reveal any names and the egg donors and intended parents never meet — but that hasn’t stopped Carey from forming a lifelong bond with her donor. 

“I just have so much love for her,” Carey says. “The fact that she’s donated not once, but twice for us, is just the most selfless gift. It’s just really touching for me.” 

And for the donors, it’s just as touching. 

Kentucky-native A.J. D. has donated for five different families.  

“To help somebody have a baby — who wants it more than anything — it’s a selfless thing,” she says. “It’s kind of like the least that I can do.”

Each egg donor is slightly sedated during the egg retrieval process. The physician uses an ultrasound probe that goes through the vaginal wall straight into the ovary. The probe suctions out all of the fluid from the follicles and obtains the microscopic egg. Most egg donors have eight to 10 follicles on each ovary, and the entire process takes about 20 minutes. Since the egg-retrieval process requires some poking into the ovaries, the Food and Drug Administration sets a recommended limit of going through no more than six procedures, especially if the donor hasn’t started a family of her own yet, but donors only do five through Compassionate Beginnings. A.J. says she usually collects $4,500 by the end of the process, but isn’t driven by the money.  

“I think it’s a gift that I can give. I’m not at the point in my life that I’m ready to have children,” she says. “It’s not an easy thing, but it’s definitely a compliment for someone to think enough of you to want that from you. Why wouldn’t you want to help someone have a baby if it’s something that’s relatively easy to do for you?” 

And it’s because of these women who are willing to donate that Carey was blessed with her son and is now pregnant with her second child. Even though her husband was initially uncomfortable with the concept, Carey says he was incredibly supportive during the entire process.  

“He’s like ‘I can’t meet her, for me to get this done. I don’t want to know her or anything.’ It was just really weird for him,” she says.  

The children produced from the combination of the male’s sperm and the donated egg are genetically related to the donor, not the birth mother, a fact that couples have to overcome. But the birth mother, who carries the child to term, is its legal mother.  

“[Ben] is my baby,” says Carey. “He’s brought just so much happiness to our family. He’s just one of the happiest babies I’ve ever seen in my life. You just look at that and it was worth everything. It was worth everything I had to go through.” 

And egg donors aren’t the only women helping individuals and couples in need of assistance to have children: Gestational carriers, or surrogates, volunteer to carry and deliver babies for others.  

Gestational surrogates carry the couple’s fertilized eggs, genetically unrelated to themselves, to term. But if the couple is male or the woman has ovarian problems in addition to uterine problems, a “traditional” surrogate can be used. Traditional surrogates carry their biological egg to term, fertilized with the donated sperm, and deliver their own genetic child for another person. But traditional surrogacy is not really supported in Ohio because of a lack of clear surrogacy laws.  

While gestational carriers often cost the intended parents $80,000 to $100,000, complications can rack that price up to $150,000 or $200,000, McNeil says, which is why the agency is more egg-donor heavy.

“Unfortunately, it’s not 100 percent. You could put up all that money and still not walk home with a baby, and that’s heartbreaking,” she says. “There’s just very few people who can really afford that.” 

In order to be a gestational carrier, McNeil notes that even though there are usually just a couple of choices when choosing a potential carrier, they are all incredibly selfless.  

“You have to be very ‘go with the flow’ and laid back,” she says.  

Heidi A. of Hamilton, Ohio, was planning to be a surrogate mother for her friend but contacted Compassionate Beginnings in 2009 when that friend got pregnant on her own and no longer needed Heidi’s help to have a baby. When she was accepted as a potential gestational carrier, a couple requested to meet with her to make sure she was a good match for them. She ended up carrying twins for the couple, who used their own eggs, and they went to every doctor’s appointment and were in the delivery room the day she had them. Heidi frequently visits the children today.  

“It’s absolutely an amazing experience,” she says. “I can’t imagine wanting children so badly and not being able to have them.” 

Heidi says she felt a strong connection with the twins during her pregnancy, but was able to put herself in the right mindset and remember that they were not her babies. She often misses them when she hasn’t seen them for a couple of weeks, but being able to visit them makes the transition easier.  

“In the end, I can’t even put into words the experience of seeing those babies and seeing those parents just overjoyed and overwhelmed,” she says. 

“Aside from having my own children, it was probably the most wonderful experience that I’ve ever had.” The Compassionate Beginnings women believe the agency is so unique because of the strong commitment and interaction they have with every participant. 

“We are truly compassionate. I think a lot of people do this as a business,” McNeil says. “We really put the intended parents first and we put our egg donors first. Our egg donors are high quality. They want to do this. They really want to make a couple have their dream.” 

Those who have stared death in the face remind us that every day is precious.

The bleak truth is that everyone dies. We know this. In fact, one of the defining components of all living things is that our existence, as living creatures, is finite. It begins and it ends with the meat of the matter happening in between.   

Another bleak truth is that 41 percent of Americans born today will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Five year survival rates currently hover around 65 percent, so a bit less than half us will get cancer, while much more than half of us will survive it. So between yourself or a loved one, cancer will most likely touch your life.   

And, should cancer strike you directly, one way or another, it will change your life.  

I didn’t have cancer, but I thought I did. A whole year went by after having self-discovered a strange mass in my abdomen before I had the nerve to get it checked out by professionals. The day I finally decided to get checked out was a scary day. 

Those 12 hours of doctor visits and a rushed CT scan had me planning my funeral, among other post-mortem concerns. I devised dating rules for my husband for after my demise: He had to wait a year before he was allowed to so much as glance at another lady under threat of haunting. I was devastated that my daughter would grow up with no memories of me. I would miss out on her first day of school, guiding her through the insanity of puberty. There would be grandchildren I would never know. I felt desolate, sick, lost, terrified and something much stronger than sad.  

Turns out, it was just a mutant organ that happened to be residing in an unusual location — two kidneys fused into one, to be exact. Like a rank fog burned off by good test results, my terror was gone; I was fine. The world around me was aching with life and beauty, second chances and a new perspective. This time I lucked out, but what about next time?  

My grandfather died of lung cancer. My grandmother was cured of breast cancer. Other relatives of mine have been diagnosed as well. What was it like for them, those who got different test results?  

I found myself wondering what my friends and family members felt after their cancer treatments were finished. What is it like when you finally come out the other side of that ordeal? Or is that the wrong way of thinking about it all together? Maybe it’s not like a pipe that you go through and come out on the other side. Maybe it’s more like a metamorphosis that changes you forever. 

My friend Tamina was diagnosed with breast cancer on her husband’s birthday. The two of them had gone in for her biopsy results expecting good news, then planned on a celebratory Indian buffet lunch date. But by the look on the doctor’s face upon entering the office, it became clear that was not to be the case.   

Having your doctor describe the cancer in your breast as “a mess” will make the bottom of even the most iron stomachs drop. She was told that a lumpectomy was not even an option.   

Her very first thought was how unfair it was to her husband that he got this news on his birthday. 

Then came the waiting. There was surgery to schedule, doctors to interview, time off from work to be arranged, family to be told and her life to save. What a heavy burden.  

Tamina compared the weight of her cancer to that of Frodo carrying the ring in Lord of the Rings. Imagine it. There, strung around your neck, is something that only you can carry as it tries to destroy you. And while a terrific support system may surround you, it’s still around your neck — not theirs.   

In light of her diagnosis, Tamina’s story ends well. After a friend of hers pointed out the fact that she could forgo reconstructive surgery, she was able to schedule a double mastectomy within a week rather than waiting three months for the plastic surgeon’s schedule to align with those of her other doctors. After having both breasts removed, she underwent radiation and has had nothing but reassuring test results since. But surviving a life-threatening illness is so much more than test results and scar tissue.   

Tamina felt depressed when she returned to work. The buzz of friends checking in on her had ebbed. She was no longer buoyed by the adrenaline and daily trips to Christ Hospital where she was peppered with friendly professionals and little gifts that get donated to cancer patients undergoing treatment. After all that she had gone through, she was just back to the grind. 

While support groups work for some, when Tamina tried one, it just gave her new ideas to worry about. Then dragon boat racing came into her life.  

She had been adamant about doing her post-surgical exercises, but this took it to a whole new level. She was now a part of a team of other breast cancer survivors who raced these long boats with coordinated paddling. In addition to acting as a support group, it provided a superior upper body workout which aided in the healing process. Also, as Tamina said, it made her feel “badass.” 

Then came the bucket list filled with things like skydiving, exciting places to visit, kayak adventures and other amazing things. Tamina also retired early, a decision she credits to her cancer. And now her life is one big adventure spread out before her.

As Tamina says, “I’ve already looked death in the face. All this is a bonus.” 

Another good friend of mine, Barbara, was diagnosed with melanoma as she was packing her youngest child off to college. Within 24 hours of a routine visit to her general practitioner, she was diagnosed with a deadly cancer and had an appointment with a surgeon. Bam. No warning, no feelings of foreboding, just a nagging urge to get a few skin spots checked out that day.   

After a series of tests, Barbara found out that she would have two slabs of flesh (her words) excised from her body to remove the cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She was scared. She knew she had melanoma but still couldn’t believe she had the C-word.  

To know, intellectually, that you are going to die someday is one thing, but to face death and feel it standing on your shoulder is completely different. It wasn’t until after the surgery, where they’d actually been successful removing the affected tissue, that she felt certain she was looking point blank at the end of her life.  

As Barbara says, she thought, “Oh, my God. I’m going to die from this. And even though I’d gone back to work and everything, and everything seemed normal, that’s always in the back of your head — I have cancer, I have cancer, I have cancer — even though they got it all.”   

It wasn’t just fear that the big C brought into Barbara’s life, though. She was able to let go of hurtful slings from the past. Difficult relationships were no longer worthy of stress whereas gathering those she loved close gained a new importance. Gone were the days of paper plates at Christmas, replaced instead by the good China at every opportunity and a lovely glass for every drink. No more beer or soda cans at the table, and Barb doesn’t have a dishwasher. Now, that is love.   

She and her husband took their dream vacation, driving across the U.S. on Route 66 because the time for adventure is now. That is part of the wisdom that comes from flirting with death. While it seems wrapped up in heavy cliches, our lives are but a series of days, and we need to make them count. One of them will be the last.   

So what is the meat of the matter? I think Tamina put it beautifully when she said to me, “Nobody cares if your house is a mess; I’ve learned that from this. Nobody cares if the baseboards have been wiped down. It’s the communion of people and the sharing of love and just knowing that someone cares.” 

The Cincinnati Rollergirls breed confidence and camaraderie.

For many, roller skating brings back memories of nostalgic Friday afternoons gliding around the rink and couples skating to disco-era tunes — but that’s just a little too nice.

There’s a breed of women out there who yawn at innocent skating — women who have exchanged the frou-frou ice-cream-social attitude for a helmet and knee pads, readying themselves for strategic combat on wheels.

Women who listen to Black Sabbath anthems instead of Bee Gees singles to inspire them to smash other women to the ground. Ladies who hit hard and love it. These are rollergirls, this is roller derby and they can’t see themselves being passionate about any other sport.

The Cincinnati Gardens is home to the Cincinnati Rollergirls: Fish-netted machines on wheels ready to dominate the derby flat track and tear down their opponents like huntresses after their prey. And while the Cincinnati Rollergirls teams may be named the Violent Lambs and the Black Sheep, they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Imagine being placed in a confined area with a pack of raging women ready to knock you down … on skates. For Erica Nyberg, this became reality when she decided to try out for the Cincinnati team in 2009.

“I was completely unprepared, but I just tried my best,” says Nyberg. Dressed in borrowed skates and a bike helmet, she didn’t know what to expect. Her nickname became “Wheezy” because of her exercise-induced asthma, but her try-out partner’s name was a little more intimidating: “Nasty.

“Nasty! Go out and just hit her!” screamed the coach.

“Yes! Hit me really hard, I want to know if I can do this or not,” replied Nyberg.

After being hit by Nasty and flying off the track into the sidelines, Nyberg fell in love with roller derby.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, roller derby was synonymous with theatrical, burly women throwing elbows and skating over the top of their fallen opponents. Originally, the sport was seen as entertainment instead of an observation of athleticism. Spectators loved watching the flamboyant and scantily clad ladies speed skate into their opponents. They relished in the skater’s crazy pseudonyms such as the famous “Blonde Bomber” of the 1960s San Francisco Bay Bombers and her rival, “Banana Nose.”

Most of all, the audience adored seeing skaters crash and drop to the floor.

Today, roller derby has evolved into a strategic sport where women use agility, teamwork and communication to score against their rivals. During the sport’s original reign, women skated on a banked track — an inclined track, which sloped toward the center of the arena. In 2001, a group of women in Austin, Texas gave roller derby its rebirth, but changed the game to a flat track.

The Austin revival jump-started the creation of more than 100 teams within the first five years, solely with the help of amateur, all-female players dedicated to the grassroots movement. The Cincinnati Rollergirls joined the movement in 2005, and by 2007 became members of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

In only a few years, the varsity team, the Black Sheep, were in the top 10 in the WFTDA North Central Region. And the Black Sheep, along with the junior varsity team, the Violent Lambs, travel across North America from March to September battling teams to try to make the cut to compete in the WFTDA Championships.

The game may look like two 30-minute rounds of skating and bumping, but luckily for new derby fans, the programs come with a rule guide. Lauren Bishop, retired skater and public relations manager for the Cincinnati Rollergirls, is a pro at simplifying the rules.

“You have these girls called ‘jammers’ who score points by passing the skaters on the opposing team,” says Bishop. “The skaters on the opposing team [‘blockers’] are trying to knock her down while her own team is trying to help her through.” 

The rules now have more structure than the sport’s barbaric heyday.

“When [roller derby] first started, the athleticism was not nearly what it is today,” says Bishop.

Throwing elbows, tripping and back blocking are illegal, but the jammers must still face full contact and the devilish booty and shoulder bumps of the blockers.

Two teams with five skaters each skate in the same direction around the track. Each team is composed of a pivot, three blockers and a jammer. Helmets have symbols depicted on the sides to indicate the player’s position. A pivot, who controls the pace and direction of the blockers, wears a stripe on her helmet. The jammer, who scores points by breaking through the opposing team’s blockers, wears a star on her helmet. Blockers try to stop the opposing team’s jammer from getting through the pack, while simultaneously trying to get their jammer to skate through their opponents’ pack of blockers.  

Chrystal Roggenkamp, whose derby name is “Truxtal,” is enthusiastic about her position as a blocker. “Blockers need to be very strategic,” says Roggenkamp. “We essentially choreograph the formations of the pack in order to make holes for our jammer. That often requires us to hit people to get them out of the way, which is a ton of fun.”

Despite updates to the sport, a couple of vintage traditions remain true: Derby names are still clever. For some ladies, nicknames have become an alter ego. Liz Taylor Borntrager, a veteran skater from the original Cincinnati team, received her derby name within seconds of meeting the other potential rollergirls.

“I walked in and sat down next to the girl everyone would assume is the quintessential rollergirl in 2006,” says Borntrager. “She had Bettie Page hair, jet black with the bangs, full chest tattoos, full sleeve on one arm and tattoos on the other arm.”

Meanwhile, Borntrager walked in wearing a sweater set, pearl-colored glasses and her long hair coifed into a bun. “Literally, she looked at me, took out her two front teeth and said, ‘What are you doing playing roller derby? You look like a little librarian,’” says Borntrager.

“The Librarian” moniker has stuck with Borntrager ever since. The name sounds docile compared to others on the team such as Eerie Sistable, Garden of Beatin’ and Flannery O’Slaughter. Even so, The Librarian remains a legendary skater who has made many rivals “pay their dues.”

A derby name often evokes a side of these women they never would have discovered if it weren’t for dedicating themselves to this female-dominated sport.

“When I first started, my roller derby persona was just a persona; it wasn’t really who I saw myself as,” says Borntrager. “Through the years it’s grown to be a part of who I am as a person. It’s what I do.”

While other sports usually require a certain body type that is desired for the “perfect player,” roller derby covers the gamut of shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Anyone can find their niche through intense dedication, but as with any contact sport, injuries are bound to happen — no matter how fierce the player.

Experiencing a torn ligament in her knee, as well as a couple of other detriments, Nyberg is familiar with the intensity of the sport. “It’s not a matter of if you’re going to be injured, it’s when you’re going to be injured,” says Nyberg.

Borntrager’s derby career was also briefly stunted by advice from her doctor, who told her to avoid playing contact sports after she suffered an injury.

“I was so crushed,” says Borntrager. “I had this picture of myself that I was this 6-foot Amazon woman who was pioneering this sport. I was so gritty and such a rock star. It was in one statement from a doctor, my whole persona and idea of myself was totally crushed.”

In the end, perseverance can conquer almost any injury. Borntrager, along with many rollergirls, defeat their injuries and hop back in their skates. “There’s the logical side of, ‘Why on earth would you do this?’ And then there’s the side that’s like, ‘I want to do this until I absolutely can’t anymore,’” says Nyberg.

With the amount of dedicated fans growing every season for the Cincinnati Rollergirls, it’s easy to fathom Nyberg’s sentiment. The largest attendance for a Cincinnati home game was 4,100 fans, and the culture is spreading thanks to pop culture recognition. Actress and director Drew Barrymore brought the women’s collision sport to the big screen in Whip It — a movie where a quiet Ellen Page finds her niche and self-esteem through roller derby. After discovering she’s as fast as a rocket on wheels, she’s dubbed “Babe Ruthless,” and her skating mentors encourage her by saying: “Put some skates on. Be your own hero.”

Junior roller derby leagues are forming in many cities alongside adult men and women’s teams. As of last year, a Cincinnati Junior Rollergirls team has been added with retired rollergirls passing on their skills to children as young as eight years old. As younger girls get involved, talent has more time to grow through the many boot camps and cross-training facilities that are now available. As for the future of roller derby, the sport is in discussion for the 2020 Olympics.

In the meantime, roller derby continues to mold confident women.

“I think it has the potential to inspire women to respect themselves and their bodies,” says Borntrager. “They’re amazed by what they can accomplish — just the self confidence that I’ve seen it give so many women.”

The confidence spreads with the camaraderie initiated between rollergirls and their skating confidants called “derby wives.” Some women may skate for only a few seasons, but they leave the rink with an everlasting bond.

“It wasn’t until I found roller derby that I realized that there was a place for me — a place where I could not only be athletic, but where my quirks could be embraced,” says Roggenkamp.

The lifestyle experts at HighStreet give advice on how to set the table, set the mood and fully enjoy an evening with family and friends.

What do you do when Martha Stewart is coming to dinner? 

It’s not a question one has to ask oneself very often — and the immediate response is probably, ‘Oh #*$%’ — but recently Leah Spurrier and Matt Knotts, co-founders of downtown design studio and store HighStreet, had to ponder just that. 

Martha Stewart — the lifestyle and business magnate who revolutionized almost every aspect of how we run our households, from how we fold our bath towels to how freely we throw around the term “sanding sugar” — was recently in Cincinnati on business, and while she was here, she needed to eat. So Spurrier and Knotts offered to host an intimate dinner party for Stewart inside HighStreet. 

“What you do when Martha is coming to dinner is what you do when you have an important guest coming to dinner,” says Knotts. “It’s no different. If you’re having your family over for Thanksgiving, you should treat it as seriously as Martha coming to dinner. It’s the same thing.”

So you start by cleaning and preparing your home or, in this case, your store. You figure out how many people are coming to dinner (12), plan the menu (a gin fizz cocktail followed by a rustic cheese board and a bone-in chicken on fall vegetables entree with an arugula and pine nut salad), set up catering, get floral help, find the perfect mix of servingware, mark lighting levels on your dimmer switches and have an incredibly talented drag queen sew you a giant tablecloth.  

Well, maybe not the last part. But with Thanksgiving fast approaching, Spurrier and Knotts, who have passed the art of entertaining test with flying colors, have some expert tips on how to plan a perfect evening.

Prepare To Prepare

Entertaining is not just cooking — it’s creating a comprehensive experience for your guests, from the menu to the flow of the evening to the lighting.  “I think that one of the big things about entertaining, especially in a sit-down fashion, is really you’re romancing people. It is a sort of an enticement, a courtship,” says Spurrier. “All of that stimulation, making sure everyone has an experience with the flowers and making sure everybody has a textural experience; the thoughtfulness that goes into it. It does romance people.”  

And romance takes effort. Give yourself adequate time to craft your menu, find beautiful flowers, buy the right wine, curate the table setting and so on. You don’t have to spend a ton of money, just invest some time into planning.

You want your guests — and yourself — to walk away remembering the evening, “if for no particular reason other than it was just a great evening because everything was though about,” says Knotts.

Decide On A Mood  

Spurrier suggests you ask yourself what you, as the host, are trying to achieve with your evening and how you personally want to feel at the end of the night.  “When you’re thinking about entertaining, I’d think very carefully about, ‘How many do I want to sit down?’ and ‘What’s the shape of the evening?’ And if you want to do a sit-down at all,” says Spurrier. The tone of the evening is greatly influenced by the amount of guests you invite and where you decide to seat them. Do you want a Downton Abbey affair or something more bohemian? 

Keep in mind that smaller groups invite more intimate conversation, larger groups require more space and feel more traditional, and buffet-style dining is more casual.  “There’s a big difference between eight or 10 people and 12,” says Knotts. Today, not everyone has the luxury of space or dishware to accommodate a large number of guests in a formal setting, so decide on a feel for the evening and then how many guests you can invite to accomplish that.   

Work Through The Logistics

“There’s that part of entertaining that’s traditional, particularly for holidays or for events, and figuring out how to master that in your own house is something that a lot of people don’t figure out,” says Knotts. “The real trick is that you’ve got to be organized, planned and prepared.”

The first thing you have to decide is the flow of the evening. How are your guests arriving? In a group? Individually? What time? Do you want an hour of cocktails and socializing before moving on to dinner? Conceptualize the sequence of events. Write down time details so you have a guide to reference.

You’re not an idiot, but having little reminders about what to do when, especially as you start involving yourself in conversation (or wine), can help you feel more confident orchestrating the evening. 

“If you sort of start with: This time this happens, then at this time this happens and at this time this happens … so you’ve thought through every detail, then it’s much less stressful,” says Knotts.  

This is also incredibly helpful for food preparation. If you’ve ever had a couple pots on the stove at the same time, you can relate. You don’t want your entree to finish cooking before you get your appetizers out. 

“So for Thanksgiving, it’s at 6:15 this goes in the oven, then this, so there’s sort of a system,” says Knotts. “It’s still chaotic when people arrive, but it’s not a total frenzy because you can remember, ‘Ok. The corn is supposed to go in now.’ Particularly as you start having cocktails, you need to look back at that time sheet.”

Create Space

“From an interior design perspective, most people don’t have that room anymore that they just have completely devoted to dining,” says Spurrier.  This is both a good and bad thing. Without an empty dining room just sitting there, your house or apartment becomes more interactive as a whole, but when you want to entertain you end up strapped for space. 

“I think there’s a lot of ways you can work to make your house a sort of convertible dining room,” says Spurrier. “You can have a huge table that really serves as a desk most of the time … but when you decide to entertain it can become something else.”  

Don’t be afraid to move things around to make room for guests. They’re just there for the evening, so disrupting how you normally use your space isn’t disruptive for them; they don’t need to use your kitchen table as a workstation or your recliner as a laundry holder.  

“When you entertain, you’ve got to give yourself permission to move the furniture out completely if you need to and rent if you need to,” says Knotts. “In order to make the setting right, you can’t look at your space and say, ‘Well, I can’t put people in here.’”  

Set A Beautiful Table 

“Our eyes are much more interested in complicated things than simple,” says Knotts. Keep this idea in mind when setting your table, especially if you have more guests than matching dishes.   

“We really believe in order to achieve a look that is sophisticated you should irreverently mix things,” says Spurrier.  

When setting the table for 12, as he did for the Martha Stewart dinner, Knotts strived for a complex mixed and matched look. Because he didn’t have dozens of matching sets of dishes to mix and match, he sent out a call to friends and family for dinnerware. The response was overwhelming and he ran around town picking up different platters and chargers. Then he did a table setting test run.  

“For about three weeks at home, the dining table was this mockup of this charger with this plate with this salad plate … I drew a table diagram and said, ‘OK, I have this many of this so I need to spread it around this way so that as you look across the table it makes sense,’” he says. “That’s the secret to mix and match,” Knotts adds. “Each place setting needs at least one thing in common. Whether it’s the charger or the dinner plate.” 

In this particular situation, Knotts had three patterns of dinner plates, three patterns of salad plates and three patterns of glassware mixed in, but all the chargers were the same. “As you looked across the table, everything felt evenly distributed,” says Knotts. 

“Another thing about entertaining is using textiles can be very helpful. It puts this really nice canvas under everything,” says Spurrier. “If you’re going to use very flowerly plates, then you’re going to want to maybe use a white cloth. If you have a flowery tablecloth, maybe you want to go with white plates or a powdery blue.” 

Things to keep in mind when buying dishes: 

  • “When it comes to dishes, you need to be a hoarder. At the end of the day, more is always better,” says Knotts. The more choices you have, the better your table can look. 
  • Always keep a set of basic, white dishes. “Food always looks good on white,” says Spurrier. 
  • Don’t buy in quantities less than eight, so it’s OK if   you break one or two. 
  • If you don’t have a basement to store your dishes, put them on display. Spurrier has a growing collection of ‘70s dishes stacked on an antique mirrored cart in her dining room, which doubles as decoration.  
  • You can buy dishes at any price point. If you start to collect something, start making regular trips to the Goodwill. If you latch on to white or flowers, just start buying it. 

Accessorize

Fresh flowers and candles are imperative when entertaining — just make sure your guests can see each other. Try lining the center of the table with small vases with a single hydrangea in each. This adds color and you can still talk to the person across from you. Same goes with lighting. The lighting, both candle and bulb, should be glowy.

“The ambient light needs to be a little bit higher than the candlelight, obviously,” says Knotts, “but I err on the side of more candles. By the time you add all that, you want the light to just fill the rest of the room, but not feel like you’re squinting.” 

Don’t Be Afraid To Hire Help

It doesn’t mean you think you’re too good to cook your own food. Help can be found at all price points for all scenarios and can actually help you enjoy your evening. 

“I cannot say enough, honestly, about catering,” says Spurrier. “I think a lot of people think they can’t afford it, but you’d be surprised what you spend and then cook by yourself and then clean by yourself.”  

Sit down and honestly evaluate what you’re spending, adding in the hassle factor, and give that a dollar amount. Then consider whether you want/should have some kind of help. Hiring help doesn’t mean you need to employ a butler for the night and start speaking in a British accent. 

“There’s lots of different ways to skin a cat,” says Spurrier. “You could cook some things yourself. You could do some takeout from a restaurant that has a dish that you really like. You could just buy the entree. You could hire a bartender. … Sometimes people hire some children of a friend just to do some service passing. I’ve done that.” 

It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect 

You burn the food? Break a glass? It’s OK. All the preparation you put in was so you and your guests could enjoy the evening, not for you to have a meltdown if something goes wrong. Prep work is a helpful guideline, but not set in stone. No one will punish you for straying from your schedule. Remind yourself of this, and, like Spurrier says, know what it will take for you to be happy at your party, too. 

“Matt’s got more grace than I do on this point,” says Spurrier. “He sort of cuts himself off from the binds of perfection. He’s a very easy host and very natural at it. He’s like, ‘Hey, this didn’t turn out perfect. Let’s just sit down and eat.’ And he makes a joke and he’s vary gracious that way.”

Besides, you can always order a pizza or head to a restaurant if things go that badly.