Cheerleaders shame Indian cricket

Royal Bangalore Challenger cheerleaders in the IPL, 2009.The IPL’s reliance on foreign cheerleaders reinforces unsavoury Indian stereotypes about sex and women (Published in the Guardian)

I certainly do not count myself in the ranks of cricket’s innumerable “purists” for whom the plodding rhythms and rituals of the sport carry a kind of holy truth. But there is at least one aspect of the glitzy and compelling Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament that will not win even my grudging acceptance: cheerleaders.

Now in its third year, the IPL has made cheerleaders an integral part of its “brand”, its heady cocktail of world-class sporting talent, rippling corporate muscle, and unabashed Bollywood glamour. Whenever a wicket falls or a batsman clobbers a boundary, dancers leap upon stages at the edges of the field to gyrate for the cameras and the crowds. This sort of impromptu, threadbare jigging was new to both cricket and the landscape of Indian sport, and its introduction has generated no small amount of interest and enthusiasm (as any casual Google, Twitter or Flickr search will reveal). IPL grandees are well aware of the popularity of its mostly foreign, mostly white cheerleaders, organising reality TV shows and fan contests to further cash in on their appeal.

From the inception of the IPL, much of the opposition to cheerleading has come from conservative religious groups, who staged heated demonstrations in 2008 when the dancers first took to the IPL stage. Even this year, a rightwing group in the coastal state of Orissademanded that matches staged there should eschew cheerleaders altogether. While this species of angry conservative austerity may be getting noisier in India, its prudishness is familiar to us all. Social conservatism the world over shares a strange mix of sanctimony and prurience, the mingled terror of and obsession with the flesh.

I’m not offended by cheerleading, more bored by it. In any grown-up context, it offers a dispiriting definition of both leadership and cheer. Many cricket fans, including myself, would be happy to see the (metaphorical) back of these cheerleaders. Their twists and pumps add nothing to what is, in truth, a wonderful sporting spectacle. They are a reminder of the ocean of inanities that commercial modernity promises our lives, drowning all occasions in froth. First the fall from grace, then the flood.

But I can’t just grit my teeth or laugh it off. Regular viewers of the IPL are now familiar with the sight of leering spectators separated from the cheerleaders in some stadiums by cage-like fences, an image that brings the cricket arena uncomfortably close to a zoo. It is the larger dichotomy suggested by this unfortunate image that I find troubling, that of Indian men ogling mostly white, non-Indian women. All too common in India is the belief in the licentiousness of foreign women. In recent years, stories of sexual violence against tourists in India have proliferated, a tragic byproduct in some cases of the impression that foreign women are naturally promiscuous. While I wouldn’t draw a direct line between IPL cheerleaders and such incidences, the very nature of IPL cheerleading as a spectacle feeds deeper, insidious notions about race and sexuality in India.

The paucity of Indian cheerleaders tells its own story. In a country where an entire film industry is sustained by beautiful women dancing, it is hard to believe that the appropriate “talent” is missing. The choice made by IPL organisers in this regard suggests, first, the unsettling marketing conclusion that Indians really just want to see white skin. Second, and perhaps more troubling still, it suggests a quiet acquiescence to the view of the conservative elements of society that Indian women are somehow more sacred and less carnal than their western counterparts. Not for them the tight tops and bared thighs of IPL cheerleading. Just like the licentious foreign woman, the idea of the modest Indian woman is closer to fiction than truth. It is the kind of fantasy that animates attacks on girls who had the “audacity” to have a drink at a pub (as happened in Mangalore last year). It is an ideal that masks the sexual violence perpetrated against Indian women on a daily basis (an issue about which I have written in these web pages before).

This is not a problem that can simply be “solved” through levelling the balance of Indian and non-Indian cheerleaders, through equal opportunity objectification. By enshrining cheerleaders in its commercial product, the IPL has opened a can of worms and made stilted perceptions of sex part of its image. This image is a global one now; IPL matches are screened live on YouTube and on ITV in the UK. If the IPL is indeed one way through which aspirational India projects itself on the global stage, Indians should consider the messages it sends. We should recognise the unsavoury manner in which we can represent others, and ourselves, to the world.

5 thoughts on “Cheerleaders shame Indian cricket

  1. Sir,
    I would like to disagree with your point slightly. When you are accepting the good virtues of a particular project or an event, certain shortcoming are unavoidable. Some of them might be disturbing to other. I’ll suggest you a better idea. Switch off the television set.
    For the main reason that BCCI wants to make money in the backdrop of cricket going more and more global. These circuses are part and parcel of the game. After all this is what we mean by ‘sportsman spirit’.

  2. Stumbled on your article on guardian. You hit the nail on the head on a sensitive issue. It’s very easy to be labeled a prude while taking this stance on IPL cheer leaders.

    As inane as the whole cheer leading package in IPL is, it is indeed the blatant hypocrisy that is disturbing. IPL cheer-leading just fuels and thrives on the gross misrepresentation of white women in India. All this irritates me to no end so much so that as an Indian in London, I hate to want to have anything to do with IPL – not even follow it – for I will then be part of that heady carnival that silently encourages this double standard.

  3. Objectifying ‘Exotic’ women is by no means a novelty… in the east or the west! All this noise shows how badly we need a change from the male perspective world view!

    So true that the white-skinned-cheerleader cliche darkens the comparison against near-holy Indian women. What Indian women need now is an articulate and visible sexual freedom.

  4. Nice article. I agree with you. I dont understand why India has to go mad at everything foreign.
    Cheerleaders are good in other countries but not in India. I am not against them but it is just that we dont know how to handle them. No professionalism in the whole IPL world. Dont know why they need partying with half naked bolly stars every time they win a game. It is not like they won the championship.
    Also why should there even be bollywood starts in sports. I dont see that anywhere in the world. Hollywood stars just come to watch some games thats all.
    Also I am seeing the lady reporters flirting with foreign commentators and players. No professionalism at all. Ugly to watch.

  5. Hi Kanishk,
    I think if we want to dig deep into the topic, somewhere down the line the Indian women has to be blamed as well. As you pass the streets in cities and towns in India you’ll find girls wearing tight jeans, short skirts, spagetti tops etc. Indian women have forgot that sometimes what suits a western girl mayn’t be right for her. Physically majority of the indian women are a little plumpy and not have those real gym curves as compared to their western counterparts but indian women always had the subtlety and the grace (in hindi we call it ‘ADA’). Sometimes things which are a little unseen can create a lot of interest than things which can be seen. Too much body exposure wearing western clothes has created a direct comparison to the western girls and truly, majority of the indian women will find hard to compete. But, some of the indian dresses you have like saree, Salwar-Kameez, jewellery do make an Indian women truly beautiful and I think they should stick to it.

    I stay in Swansea, Wales,UK and I remember during the Durga Puja I asked my wife to wear a Saree and we were travelling by a train going to Cardiff, trust me, most of the passengers irrelevant of being Men or Women were looking at her and even some of them complemented and asked her that, where she has got this beautiful saree and jewelleries.

    Nonetheless, we indian men are responsible to bring these kind of reactions from them, all of which is very complicated. But one thing is for sure, if we don’t stick to our basics, values and culture, we soon will become slave to the western culture again!!


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