The Great Blading Bubble: How Toxic Masculinity Inflated and Burst Aggressive Inline
[disclaimer: this is a speculative interpretation of intangible cultural forces.]
In the early 1990s inline skating broke out as the world’s fastest growing sport. By 1997 there were 29.1 million skaters world wide. Within this movement, teenagers inspired by skateboarding and BMX began pushing the limits of what was possible in terms of jumps, spins, speed, and sliding down handrails. This group, self identifying as “aggressive inline skaters”, would compete on live television at the x-games. Their skater-owned brand, Senate, sold millions of t-shirts. But then, the rise reversed. Nike sold its recently acquired inline skate brand, Bauer, for about half of what it had originally paid. Aggressive inline as an aspect of rollerblading was almost completely forgotten by popular culture. There, rollerblading lingered only as a joke that sparked a casually homophobic nostalgia for the strange mirage of the 1990s.
Many explanations of the rapid rise and precipitous decline of inline skating have been put forward. In Barely Dead the decline is explained in terms of bullying by rollerblading’s Big Brother, corporate skateboarding, which was able to monopolise cool by kicking blading from the x-games. Others have linked blading’s demise to timing. The sport’s rise came when its “pros” were too young to be professional. Whereas Tony Hawk could speak to camera and grow a multi-million dollar brand, the pro bladers of the late 1990s were running amok with the reward systems of teenage brains, fame and drugs. Finally, blading’s decline has been explained in terms of broader cultural shifts. Blading, perceived by popular culture as the epitome of the 1990s, was destroyed when that yuppy carefree era ended on September 11, 2001. From this point on, it is alleged, popular culture was too melancholic for spandex. How can you shoot down the sidewalk in pink tights when we don’t know where Bin Laden is? Do you hate America?
Without attempting to weigh up the specific merits of preceding interpretations, this article argues that there is also a more structural, or foundational, explanation. It conceives the rise and fall of Aggressive Inline Skating as an economic bubble. To be a bubble, the 90s rollerblading industry must have been built upon false expectations. But what were these false expectations? Were people not simply exchanging money for inline skates? This was not, surely, the same as sub-prime loans or bit-coin mania. But in a way, it was the same. The Great Blading Bubble (GBB) was fuelled by a marketing campaign that promised not just inline skates, but a new source of individual freedom. Ads in magazines and on TV convinced millions of mostly teenaged boys that they could skate fast, jump high, spin out, and be radical and extreme. Indeed, this was “aggressive”. Here, as I will show, the anxieties of a homophobic and hyper masculine demographic were exploited through a PR campaign that for the majority of young men could not deliver. Most teenagers, viewing themselves and rollerblading through the ideas of 1990s America, found it extremely difficult to feel cool and aggressive on inline skates. Instead, they just flailed. They couldn’t stop their legs from drifting apart. They felt peculiarly out of place when they tried to jump. It just wasn’t befitting for a man. So, while millions of teenagers tried aggressive inline, most just felt weird doing it and stopped. The bubble was inflated by the hope of becoming a tough, extreme skater. The bubble was burst when aggressive inline iteself agreed that gumby rollerblading was “gay”.
Thus, the story of the Great Blading Bubble is a savage journey to the heart of toxic masculinity, and of how it can be created and manipulated by the forces of capital. Instead of shrugging off the goofiness of unrefined rollerblading, rollerbladers doubled down. “We are not gay”, they said, “we are aggressive”. Bladers sought to overcome allegations of meek feminine homosexuality by jumping off taller and taller buildings, and sliding down ever kinkier poles. Here, rollerblading missed a genuine opportunity to embrace its “feminine” side as powerful, liberating and marketable. As a result, the majority of consumers simply threw out their rollerblades. Most young men who looked at rollerblading magazines felt only further emasculated by the perception that they could never have enough controlled “aggression” to perform such death defying stunts. And so, the Great Blading Bubble burst. The rollerblading industry, controlled by major corporations, could turn a huge but ephemeral profit by promising radical speed and air time, but such “products” are not tangible. To get what they were actually looking for, teenaged boys would have to endure months, maybe even years, of perceiving themselves through a culture that shamed gumby and uncoordinated skating as feminine, and feminine men as homosexual, and homosexuality as inherently and especially shameful.
What Is a Bubble?
The liberal economist Russ Roberts often points out that it is impossible to determine that something is a bubble until it has burst. That is, it is only possible to determine that something was a bubble. No one knew that rollerblading was a bubble before it declined. In 1997, as accounts make clear, pro rollerbladers assumed that they would be earning a decent living at least into the medium term. That a bubble can only be known after it has burst, though, poses problems for it as a concept. Is there really nothing unique about an economic bubble that could be understood before it burst? Marxist political economy takes a different view. Here, an economic bubble is understood as an inflation of prices that does not reflect the fundamentals of production for a socially required use. If many people buy spoons, not because they want to use the spoons but because they think that the price of spoons will go up, then the price rise will not reflect an actual increase in the need for spoons. This is a speculative bubble. The “exchange value” of spoons found on the market would not reflect the “use value” that society actually has for them. Here it is possible, at least theoretically, to determine that something is a bubble before it has burst. It would require being able to distinguish sales made for the use of a good and sales made out of an expectation that prices might rise later. When speculative sales feed into each other, the resulting price rise can lead to further belief in a continued price rise. This can lead to even more gambling, to an even more inflated bubble. That all commodities have both use values and exchange values is therefore one of the contradictions that Marxists see as central to capitalism’s tendency for crisis.
Clearly, this was not the sort of bubble experienced by the inline skating industry in the 1990s. There was never a large secondary market of inline skates, in which skates were collected for an expected resale price that rose so high that kids who actually wanted to skate could no longer afford to. Rollerblading experienced a very different sort of bubble. It was a bubble made possible by mass media advertising. What made it a bubble was the fact that the industry’s rapid and ginormous growth was based on an implicit lie, or at least a sleight of hand. Blading’s rise was an example of a certain kind of fictitious capital. Markets were inflated by the mass promotion of something that was never delivered. To analogise, the Great Blading Bubble was fed by a highly effective snake-oil salesman.
While consumers paid for skates and skates were delivered, it was not only skates that were being sold. Indeed, skate sales are themselves only imperfect indicators of the participation rate of something much larger – a social movement. People were buying into an idea, the idea of being an “aggressive inline skater”. Advertisements sold both the prospect of a radical new form of individual freedom and membership into a new club, or subculture, a new identity. Rollerblading would be a new way for teenagers to “express themselves”. They could go super fast, do crazy spins, and slide down hand rails. This, it was implied, would help make them a man. It would prove their fierceness. To sell this idea, companies hired not only the best rollerbladers, the rollerbladers who did the most death defying stunts. They also hired the most marketable personalities. Senate –– whose t-shirts gained infamy when their tags printed “destroy all girls” –– generated enough of this “cultural capital” to grow into a multi-million dollar company. In 1997 they sold 750, 000 t-shirts. What they sold was an idea, the idea of what it was to be an aggressive inline skater.
But how sustainable was it to sell this idea of masculine cool to teenagers? Certainly, this punk-rock rebellion was viable for skateboarding. Many people bought skateboards. Many felt punk rock, even if they didn’t get that good at skateboarding, and skateboarding remained a viable industry. Nevertheless, even skateboarding has seen declines in sales, and a homophobic punk rock rebellion is no longer its main marketing strategy. Instead, skateboarding succeeded by gaining new sources of growth. It increasingly mainstreamed, even finding acceptance at the olympics, and it sold video games and shoes. Another comparison is scootering. Scooters are also heavily ridiculed by skateboarders, but scootering hasn’t stopped growing. Top scooter riders, like Ryan Williams, have forged a path for scootering at events like the Nitro World Games. The sport is not “aggressive”. Rather, it presents a positive self image and world class professionalism that doesn’t seem to have stopped parents taking their 5-year-olds to the skatepark. So why did scooter kids keep scootering, and why did blader kids stop blading?
Something unique to blading is the extent to which the sport relies on body language. To rollerblade well is to be in control of body movements. It is difficult to make rollerblading look natural and smooth. However, this foundational clumsiness grants much more room for style. Of course, there are endless different styles of skateboarding, BMX, soccer, and scootering. But style is more fundamental to rollerblading, so much so that it has often been compared to dancing. Indeed, like ice-figure skating, rollerblading is both dance and sport. It is this aspect of inline skating that made its initial sales pitch unsustainable. While skateboarding is, clearly, an incredibly difficult sport to master, it is not that hard to feel comfortable standing on a skateboard, rolling along a footpath. Essentially, to skateboard is to stand, which is what you do when you’re not skateboarding anyway. Likewise, when riding a bike or a scooter, one has somewhere for their hands and arms to go. They just hold on to handlebars, nothing to worry about here. In the body language of insecure and homophobic 90s America, there was nothing to be ashamed of in riding along, even with minimal skill, on a skateboard or a bike. A teenager would not feel any more self conscious for having skateboarded on their street.
Rollerblading is a very different experience. To put on a pair of rollerblades is to rapidly increase ones chance of flailing around goofily. Any teenage boy interested in becoming a radical aggressive inline skater knew how quick the school yard was to taunt those who walked or ran “funny”. If you could barely catch a ball you were clumsy “like a girl”. This awkwardness is felt, when rollerblading for the first time, all through the body. The imbalance of skating leads people to hunch over in all sorts of strange ways. No doubt, such wobbles can be ironed out, but it takes time. This was not a part of rollerblading’s advertising. Instead, this reality was hidden by the rollerblading industry, by bladers who no longer felt like this any way, because they had gained control. As such, millions of young teenaged boys bought not rollerblades but the promise of controlled aggression and sheer speed. What they actually got was awkwardness. They sought to escape insecurities that were instead heightened.
This is why the rise and decline of inline skating is best thought of as the Great Blading Bubble. The huge growth of the rollerblading industry was fictitious. Rollerblading did not grow so big simply because so many people loved the action of rollerblading. It grew so big because self-conscious teenaged boys were manipulated by PR departments into believing that they could become cool, extreme, and radical young men. This was a lie, at least in the sense that what they really wanted did not come in the box with their skates. For 100 dollars they could buy rollerblades. But for controlled aggressive coolness they would need to spend months, if not years, of extra work. As such, a huge economic bubble ballooned up from the heartlaned of MTV America. Rollerblading companies promoted aggressive coolness, and sold skates. With the profits they could reinvest in more advertisements, more skate demos. The inline craze ballooned across America. Then the next competition, then a bigger one. Millions and millions of mostly teenaged boys bought skates, or got their parents to buy them skates. But then these millions of teenaged boys who had dreamed of being aggressive, fast and cool, had their bubbles burst. And so for the majority, also for the whole –– the Great Blading Bubble burst.
How do we know that toxic homophobic masculinity was at the heart of the Great Blading Bubble?
It is important to stress, however, that the experience of rollerblading is not an objective, or purely biological, one. Rather, what it felt like in the 1990s and early 2000s to be a clumsy inline skater was a product of historical conditioning. What it was to be a clumsy rollerblader was very different in France than it was in New York to what it was in California and to what it was in Adelaide. Clearly, many people didn’t care that they flailed around. Many people embraced this, eventually becoming extremely smooth sailers, able to perform death defying balancing acts at high speed along thin railings. Nevertheless, the experience of rollerblading was, at least in the then core hub of the sport –– the United States of America –– shaped by a toxic and homophobic masculinity. In the world of 1990s skate culture, femininity was constructed as fragile, weak and uncoordinated. Homosexuality was constructed as feminine. Through this lens, the awkwardness of beginner inline skating was not just seen as, but felt deeply within the bodies of participants to be, effeminate and gay. Clearly, such a framing is absurd. There is nothing weak or uncoordinated about being a woman, or being feminine. This was proven directly to skate culture by the pioneering female rollerbladers and skateboarders, like Fabiola Da Silva, who competed on vert ramps in the X-games directly against men. Likewise, there is clearly nothing inherently effeminate about being a homosexual man. Nevertheless, through the culture of 1990s extreme sports, and the wider punk-rock teen culture more generally, being clumsy was effeminate, and effeminate was gay, and gay was shameful. This framing, although itself not static, was what underlay the eventual bursting of the Great Blading Bubble. This can be put another way: if it were not for a toxic and homophobic masculinity, people wouldn’t have cared that they felt weird when rollerblading for the first time. They might even have embraced it.
To explore the toxic masculinity of turn-of-the-century skate culture, it is useful to mention the infamous joke hurled at inline skating:
Q: What’s the hardest part of rollerblading? A: Telling your dad that you’re gay.
Here, quite clearly, being gay is seen as a massive insult. If it were not so, this joke would not have gained so much traction within a skateboarding industry defensive of its market share. Of course, it need not be perceived as an insult. Arguably, in the late 1990s telling your dad that you were gay would have been harder than almost all rollerblading tricks. It was most likely more difficult than Tony Hawk landing a 900, especially considering the clear immaturity of an entire mass culture that thought it so obviously hilarious to mock something for “being gay”.
It is interesting, however, to ask why this joke was so easily “gotten” by pop culture. For the “radical” extreme sports culture of the 1990s it was not tough to do things that were not dangerous or punk rock. Ballet is gay, ice figure skating is gay. Rollerblading is a lot like dancing and – clearly – ice figure skating. So even the perfected form was seen as effeminate and gay. However, as discussed, the act of rollerblading can expose ones sense of self to deep imbalance. Millions of Americans knew this feeling. They had tried rollerblading. When they were told that blading was gay, this aligned with their own memory of heightened insecurity when they had flailed around their suburb for 20 minutes before nearly breaking their wrists.
The fact that blading was, in the “common sense” of turn of the century USA, dismissed as gay is clear evidence of the toxicity of then mainstream masculinity. This masculinity was toxic because it was fuelled by a self loathing that was then rebranded as homophobia. Young men, ashamed at their own selves for having felt awkward on skates, rebranded this insecurity as hatred towards some unbeknownst other – homosexuals. For further evidence of the prevalence of this toxic homophobic masculinity, mention can be made to the fact that it took so long for pro skateboarders and rollerbladers to feel comfortable coming out. Just like in the era’s rap battles, homophobia had been at the crux of the intra-extreme sports turf wars. This toxic masculinity had been the lens through which a generation of inline skaters perceived themselves, and this was why the Great Blading Bubble had to burst. If it had been otherwise, then people wouldn’t have felt weird getting better at blading in public. More people would have kept blading.
A missed opportunity: why embracing femininity and “gayness” might have saved blading
So far, I have outlined what could be considered a structural explanation for the Great Blading Bubble. It was created by the marketing campaigns of companies, which sought to sell a cool controlled aggression, fast times and radical airs dude. But this bubble would eventually burst, because the mass consumer market felt only a heightened insecurity at their own sense of “gayness” when they flailed around in the suburbs. But this explanation, while important, must not be taken to ignore the decision making of rollerbladers and rollerblading as a social movement. Indeed, rollerblading was not simply a bunch of anxious teens trying to prove how tough they were. Rollerblading was a movement of likeminded people who wanted to put wheels on their feet, a clearly fun extension of what it is to be human. Embracing this activity, blading as a social movement saw possibilities that no corporation ever could. Unfortunately, they had to fight to project what they saw as “genuine” about their own social movement, a battle waged uphill against the companies that actually had the money to fund advertising campaigns.
It is important to recognise, therefore, that the “aggressive” branding was, in part, simply an attempt to distance one aspect of inline skating from corporate branding. Secondly, it is not as though rollerbladers, or skateboarders, or even teenagers, invented casual homophobia and sexist gender norms. Instead, young people who happened to be extremely good at rollerblading were attempting –– and in the short term succeeding at –– an extremely difficult business venture: branding themselves as genuine and as different to the image of inline skating projected by major corporations. Thus, the whole notion of “aggressive inline skating”, and the shaming of lame and uncool recreational skating, was arguably a necessary marketing strategy at the time. It is not necessarily the bladers’ “fault” for pursuing this form of identity politics. Indeed, as the t-shirt sales show, it must have been effective in the short term.
Nevertheless, with hindsight this strategy seems to have been a huge missed opportunity. In an attempt at claiming a unique position for “Aggressive Inline Skating”, rollerbladers were essentially agreeing with corporate skateboarding that all other forms of rollerblading were “gay” and lame. Rollerbladers agreed with their own detractors that to look goofy on skates while skating around suburbs and along beeches was gay. And, rollerbladers agreed that because it was gay it was a bad thing. Unfortunately for Aggressive Inline this search for a pure, tough heterosexual identity was a direct attack on what had sustained the emergence of rollerblading in the first place. To get teenagers to do stunts on inline skates it was necessary for there to already be many teenagers who knew how to roll around with basic coordination. But aggressive inline skaters attacked this source of talent as lame, just like skateboarders attacked all rollerbladers in general.
Toxic homophobic masculinity strangled rollerblading. This is particularly sad considering how cool gay culture is. Perhaps it is because of the difficulties of being openly homosexual at a time when being called gay was an “obvious” insult. Whatever the reason, gay culture was everything that might very well have stopped the Great Blading Bubble from being a bubble. It was accepting of individual difference. It loved love, and it encouraged people to feel fantastic. If rollerblading had responded differently to homophobic corporate bullying, it may well have gained the support of the homosexual community. Rollerbladers have always loved competitions held in streets. Imagine rollerblading competitions at gay pride rallies. Imagine how lame skateboarding would look, in the current climate, if it had been skateboarding alone that had attacked sexual freedom, while rollerblading had embraced it and all its partying.
If this seems a bit of a stretch, take a look at the present day resurgence of roller skating. Roller skating, as in the skates worn at roller discos, has recently surged in popularity, particularly amongst women. This can be traced to an earlier resurgence in roller derby, but now these highly athletic women can also do backflips and grinds. They are just as punk rock as aggressive inliners ever were, but their sub-culture is far more open to difference. Indeed, the movement embraces the uniqueness of human body types, and is encouraging of all styles. This is a sport where you do not have to constantly doubt your own sense of self in order to gauge how cool you are. This is a sport that is not attacking the foundations of its own industry in an attempt to prove how un-gay it is.
Where to from here?
Following the bursting of The Great Blading Bubble, aggressive inline continued and, in fact, only improved in terms of athleticism, skill and risk taking. Even while pay checks for professional skaters have been in constant decline since September 11, 2001, skaters have continued to push the creative and physical limits of what is possible on skates. Rollerblading is now far less insecure about its sense of self. Movements like Mushroom Blading promote the quirkiness of inline skating. Aggressive Inliners as a demographic are an ageing population. This means that its skater-owned brands are far less angsty, far less concerned with being tough and hetero. Experimentalism and creativity are now highly valued. And while rollerblading seems to have declined in the United States, it has been blossoming as a truly global phenomenon. The most exciting young talent is arguably in Japan and South Korea. In Africa, shipments of second hand skates purchased during the Great Blade Bubble are currently underlying an entirely new wave of inline skating. Just as there is a relative decline in US hegemony at the level of world order, and a rise of “the rest”, a similar phenomenon seems to be occurring for “Aggressive Inline”. Could it be that without the strange insecurities of turn-of-the-century teenaged consumerism, a new era of inline skating might flourish?
If this admittedly speculative history is anything to go by, the answer hinges on the development of a healthy introspection within rollerblading. Blading is lucky in one sense. Its near fatal demise means that when its top pros are accused of rape by fellow female bladers, the carnage barely leaves Instagram. This isolation may allow blading the breathing time it needs to become more accepting of difference and quirkiness, to oppose sexism, homophobia and… rape. If such acceptance can be combined with an honest understanding of what it is to rollerblade, and can avoid a self-loathing identity politics fuelled by corporate PR departments, then the future of human evolution through mechanical adaptation may well be bright. More and more people might come to again embrace the at-times strange and, let’s face it, merrily gay feeling of attaching wheels to their feet.