Columns, Sports, Writing

Cheering for the cheerleaders?

Yet another thing to ban. This time, it is the turn of the women with pompoms who have come from far away to help entertain us. They do so by wearing little and dancing a lot. This helps focus our attention on a cricket match and we return home satisfied. It is after all, as someone from the cricket establishment argued, an intrinsic part of the T20 game. Unfortunately, politicians, sensing an opportunity to get into the news have got into the act and again underlined that some people will always resist change and keep us in the inhibition infested closet. The majority opinion in the press has seen through this cheap posturing by politicians and has supported the cheerleaders in their heroic quest for audience enthusiasm. The cheerleaders are, of course, less than enthusiastic being eyeball-fodder for the leering masses and this, too, has been noticed and commented upon.

And why is cheerleading an intrinsic part of T20? Perhaps because the T20 is a carnival as well as a sport and cheerleading lends it a certain vibrancy that is central to the format. And what is the precise function they serve? Crowds in India certainly don’t need encouragement to make noise nor do they follow the cheerleaders’ chants. Clearly, they help add glamour and keep eyeballs riveted to the screen. They do so by featuring pretty young girls in short skirts and cleavage-revealing tops do some dance routines while the camera travels up their skirts and down their busts. What does that have to do with cricket? Very little, but remember T20 is entertainment, not just cricket. After all, such clothes are routine in Bollywood so what is the fuss about?

A good question. Are we overreacting to something new simply because it is unfamiliar in this context? Have we become so intolerant of anything to do with public display of sexuality that we try and shut our eyes to anything new?

In this case, it is clear that the girls in question are not exercising their right to wear what they want to but are part of an institutional mechanism that dresses them up in this way. There is no question that their role is to add glamour and everything about them from how they look to what they are made to wear and how they are shot is designed towards this end. So if men leer at them, it is hardly surprising, for that is the intent in the first place. The camera leers the most, the men simply follow its lead.

What is most interesting is how the discourse around sexism seems to have got inverted. Instead of focusing on the blatantly sexist nature of this institution, we are focusing on the narrow-mindedness of those who are opposing it. If the moral guardians hate it, we must love it, is the implicit argument. So it is broadminded to exploit women’s bodies for a commercial purpose and narrowminded to ask if we do not have any other way of creating vibrancy other than use an alien mechanism like this. After all, on the dance floors of the hippest clubs, it is bhangra that gets crowds moving; surely there is no dearth of devices that are culturally closer to our audiences to get them involved.

As for the fact that Bollywood uses the same codes, it must be remembered that sexuality is a part of the entertainment discourse of cinema; it isn’t a part of sport and certainly not a part of cricket. And lest we use the ‘cricket is changing’ argument, let us ask if we would have the same reaction if an airline made its staff wear such outfits. Would we not instantly see through the fact that this would be an exploitative and sexist action guided by narrow commercial considerations? Every public arena comes within its own implicit codes of behaviour; what is sauce for Bollywood may not be ketchup for T20.

Of course, cheerleading should not be banned. In fact, it should not be there in the first place, and certainly not in this form. Not all acts of common sense require legislative fiat. But equally, to support cheerleading on the grounds that it is an act of freedom or a sign of progressive change, simply because some sports in the US use it, is absurd. It is a cynical move by commercial interests to exploit a universal male tendency. It should be punctured, not banned.