ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Cheerleaders in the Indian Premier League

When women cheerleaders are featured as helpmates in a team sport's success on the field, it underscores the male territorialisation of such sports. The introduction of cheerleaders in India in the Indian Premier League of cricket was framed positively by some as part of a climate of sexual liberalism. Surely, there are alternative visions of sexual freedom not necessarily linked to participation in consumer markets?

Cheerleaders have now become a standard feature of private league cricket. Their presence underscores the everyday consumption of sexual i ncitement and a narrative of sex as freedom in post-liberalisation India. While these women were targets of intense criticism from some quarters when they first appeared on television screens, others argued that they were a harmless embellishment and that any criticism was outdated. Representatives of the organised women’s movement offered largely vague responses. Unlike issues involving violence – that mainstay of feminist activism – responding to cheerleaders required navigating the more contingent field of representational politics. Girija Vyas, the head of the National Commission for Women (NCW) was quoted as saying that there was nothing wrong with cheerleaders if it “just (added) entertainment to the game...”1 The NCW offered no analysis of the phenomenon, merely adding its assent to the celebration of entertainment. This value-neutral understanding of entertainment valorises the market as the arbiter of all that is natural and leaves several questions unposed. What are the representational implications when women are cast as helpmates in a sports game, when their sexual appeal is consumed as an ancillary to a male-dominated sport, and in service of ego-stroking the players and the crowd? The form taken by such entertainment, its spectatorship, and the sources of its a ppeal are well worth analysing. We seek a more effective feminist response to this new development in the culture of cricket spectatorship in the light of a relative inarticulateness on the part of the organised women’s movement.

The reticence of women’s organisations is perhaps not surprising given what are p erceived as missteps in earlier situations, such as the protests against the Miss World contest where the positions taken by the women’s movement were muddied by association with right wing groups (Oza 2006). Women’s groups also perhaps seek to dissociate themselves from previous, and generationally-dated, actions against obscenity: in the 1970s, feminist tore down posters of films termed obscene, and through the 1990s, the NCW aligned itself with the Central Board of Film Certification to critique obscene representations of women. It is indeed a relief that feminists are not foregrounding obscenity as their principal concern, given that this category rarely distinguishes between representations that emphasise women’s sexual autonomy and those that do not. The invocation of obscenity lends itself easily to middle class nationalist celebrations of the purity of womanhood, as seen in the fact that in recent history, the charge has most often been made by some prominent members of the Hindu right wing. Women’s groups have more often voiced a concern about obscenity as an incitement to violence, arguing that licentious representations of women increase sexual harassment.2 Yet, concern about violence should not be the only reason for feminist intervention. As Menon (2007) and others have observed, feminist activism increasingly inhabits spaces beyond causes related to violence and health, including the promotion of sexual plurality. There is ample need to more comprehensively and discriminatingly critique modes of sexual representation, with a focus on expanding how attire and conduct are read.

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