The IPL, the male gaze and sexism


The strategy is to choose women who know absolutely nothing about cricket, dress them up in skimpy clothes and get them to ask foolish questions on television. © BCCI

The strategy is to choose women who know absolutely nothing about cricket, dress them up in skimpy clothes and get them to ask foolish questions on television. © BCCI

In the past week, IPL 6 has followed a rather predictable script: four games with last-ball finishes, Chris Gayle going for it as usual, Lalit Modi on twitter overdrive from the confines of his London hideout, Kieron Pollard inexplicably batting at No.6 again, and female reporters being unanimously slammed across social media for their incredibly stupid questions. It is this last bit I’m particularly concerned with.

Dwayne Smith has been asked if he’s “done a lot of shopping”. Karun Chandhok, race car driver, fielded a question about the noise levels at the MA Chidambaram Stadium – @karunchandhok Interviewer at #IPL match to me yesterday “Have you ever heard sound like this at a sporting event ?”….Clearly never been to a car race !! – while Andrew McDonald was asked who was taller: Gayle or him. And Daniel Vettori about how tough it is to be a pacer.

This tweet sums it up perfectly:

The women in question are Karishma Kotak, Bigg Boss 6 contestant and model, and Rochelle Maria Rao, former Miss India International – the latest additions to the string of women, employed by Max, who know precious little about the game but are happy to hop on to the bandwagon of glam babe-reporters doing flash interviews and spot coverage for the most-watched domestic cricket event of the year.

Most of these reports and interviews are, of course, inadvertently hilarious because they are so meaningless and tell us little about the game or the cricketers. And, like their predecessors, Kotak and Rao are particularly at a loss when a wicket falls during their stint on live television, as they fumble desperately for words and hand back hastily to the commentators.

Apparently, the women were given a crash course on cricketing terminology and the cricketers before the event but cricketing nous – or lack thereof – is hardly the reason for their latest showbiz appearance. “The focus is on fun and entertainment and not on serious cricket,” says Neeraj Vyas, business head, Max. “The girls are not chosen for their knowledge of cricket. Give them some time, they will get better.”

Their male counterparts – Sameer Kochhar and Gaurav Kapur – on Extraaa Innings T20, however, have maintained their annual date with the IPL for the past five years; the women keep changing because they must be “younger and fresher” – Vyas’ words, not mine – each year.

While the women have amply displayed their ignorance and been the brunt of much ire and many jibes on social media – slapped with a plethora of questions about who they are, sexist digs about their assets being put to good use to procure plum assignments, and similarly damning assessments of their very existence – I find it almost necessary to play devil’s advocate.

According to Neeraj Vyas, the business head of Max, the women keep changing because they must be “younger and fresher” each year. © Getty Images

According to Neeraj Vyas, the business head of Max, the women keep changing because they must be “younger and fresher” each year. © Getty Images

These women are soft – and extremely unfair – targets. Why complain when we know, all too well, that they weren’t recruited for their cricketing knowledge. The people who must really be blamed are the channel bosses at Max and producers of Extraaa Innings T20, who have for six consecutive years made a very conscious strategy out of choosing women who know absolutely nothing about cricket, dressing them up in skimpy clothes and getting them to ask foolish questions on television – a trend they kick started during the 2003 World Cup. Reams have been published about Mandira Bedi and her spaghetti straps, so I won’t dwell on that.

I will say this though. Outlook did a story during the 2003 World Cup featuring Bedi on the cover – and other Indian female television and print reporters in the eight-page special – to document the trend of women entering the male-dominated world of cricket viewing and cricket punditry.

I was among the reporters photographed for the story. At the time, I had no objection to being featured. If I had the choice now, I would have gladly excused myself. My objective is not to pick on Bedi or other glamorous cricket presenters – I have interacted with Mandira, and think she’s very warm and spunky. But I see her as a symptom of a deeply sexist society.

I often find myself retreating to a corner to cringe when I talk about presenting cricket on television. “Ah, so you’re like Mandira Bedi” is the standard response. Most people – especially men – are oblivious as to how that might actually be a subtle insult of sorts. After a while, I stopped attempting to explain the difference.

Comparing female cricket journalists to models and actors posing as reporters and experts – and you are welcome to accuse me of taking myself too seriously here – is to do a great disservice to the former. The presence of the model-type implies, by their very existence and lack of knowledge about the game, that anyone who is halfway attractive in the testosterone-dominated world of cricket has been appointed only for their looks.

Most female reporters – especially on television – are dented and painted with the same brush as the glamorous ones – as most people, including some of our male colleagues, think we know as much or as little about the game as the women who are signing up to be eye candy.

This attitude is omnipresent, even among so-called liberated men who think they are quite open-minded. The sexism is so insidious and the biases run so deep that most men reveal themselves in the most subtle yet telling ways.

After the Indian men were out of the reckoning in the World Twenty20 a few years ago, all the journalists on tour took to tracking the women’s team – by default, of course. Most of my male colleagues thought it was a joke to have to report on the women, and one of whom said as much on television while recording his piece to camera: “Since I don’t know much about the women’s team, I will now hand it over to my female colleague to tell you more about the women’s chances.” Clearly, advertising your ignorance about the women’s team is a sign of how much you must obviously know about the real thing – the men’s game.

This sexism is hardly a phenomenon restricted to India. Last week, US President Barack Obama, while introducing the new Attorney General of the United States, proceeded to wax eloquent about Kamala Harris’ competence and virtues, and ended it with this throwaway line extolling her good looks. “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country,” he said. After the slightly uncomfortable laughter that greeted his statement Obama continued, “It’s true! Come on.” That appraisal, needless to say, boomeranged on the President who apologised for his carelessly sexist remarks.

The Obama incident reminded me of another classic case of chauvinism. As we waited in the lobby of the Taj in 2003 for Sourav Ganguly and John Wright to arrive for the pre-World Cup press conference, a group of cricket journalists were swapping stories and sharing anecdotes. One member of the contingent unwittingly exhibited the high esteem in which he holds women when he declared, “Whenever I have a controversial question to ask a cricketer, I make sure I stand behind a pretty female reporter. The cricketer gets distracted by her looks and I get my answer without too much attention being drawn to myself.”

The more skin on show, the better. For the male audience and the ratings. © BCCI

The more skin on show, the better. For the male audience and the ratings. © BCCI

I don’t know who should be more incensed by the reprehensible implications of his statement – female reporters being used as bait or cricketers portrayed as unprofessional dumb jocks that can’t look beyond a pretty face.

The numbers of female cricket viewers may be on the rise but there is no doubt that it is very much the male gaze – in the stadium and at home – trained on the women: the cheerleaders at the ground and in the studio, the women in the crowd, the female reporters, and the female owners. The more skin on show, the better. For the male audience and the ratings.

The IPL and Extraaa Innings, then, provide great insight into Indian culture – the love for entertainment above all else, parochialism, the need for mass entertainment peppered generously with masala, and the chauvinistic depiction of women. At a little over three hours, it is no different than a Bollywood movie with its banal songs, Farah Khan-choreographed dance, guest appearances from Bollywood superstars, an ensemble cast of presenters and experts, cheerleaders in the studio and stadium as item girls, and female IPL reporters playing the role of glamorous second leads to the men – cricketers and presenters – who do the real work.

Towards the latter half of the IPL, Isa Guha, who represented England for a decade, will join a host of male cricket experts in the studio. One wishes that Guha and cricketers like Melanie Jones and Lisa Sthalekar made more appearances during cricket broadcasts.

For whose benefit are women like Kotak and Rao appointed reporters and presenters if the consensus is so strong on how terrible they are as interviewers? Is it the classic case of guilty television pleasures like Bigg Boss (Kotak’s claim to fame) – it’s so bad, it’s actually really good? Does it satisfy a deeply voyeuristic and sadistic streak that exists within all of us, to varying degrees?

Now that the women have been declared dumb and dumber and shown their place, we can all go back to life as we know it.


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