For all its influential reach, the IPL has done little to combat the existing stereotypes about women and done everything to reinforce them
IPL 2013 is heading towards its high-intensity, high-octane, high-pitched finale. After the season’s numbers have been crunched, the League will dissipate into general back-slapping, errors and omissions excepted.
Except that 2013 has been a revelation in itself. While the IPL occupies “soap opera” prime time on TV for two months, its avowed intention to expand its audience by engaging with women is a myth truly busted.
The dwindling number of women in the IPL’s TV audience has been explained as the League’s novelty factor wearing thin. IPL-TV though has played its own part in this phenomenon, unflinching as it has been in its display of how it situates women in its ecosystem.
At a time when India is in a roil about its treatment of women, the IPL, a powerful pan-Indian pop culture platform, has demonstrated where it stands in the debate — somewhere between ‘can’t say’ and ‘don’t care.’ On Planet IPL this season, there are two broad categories of women on our screens.
The first are the Respectables — the teamowners, the players’ wives/girlfriends, family members. Then there’s the other lot — the PlayThings. They are served up to the community of commentators in the SonyMax studio and on the field as occasional eye-candy and the source of much adolescent giggling and sniggering. The Playthings include the on-field cheerleaders, studio-dancers and the ‘colour’ girls — the two female reporters — chosen very deliberately not for their cricket nous but their youthful appearance. The young women change every few hours, the male ‘colour’ presenter/reporters endure.
The SonyMax production team for the IPL, even when featuring a female disc jockey in the studio, is said to be a testosterone-soaked cluster. (This is perhaps a reflection of cricket TV in India. In a job interview for a sports channel, a girl was asked whether she was willing to have a “boob job” and to name the cricketer she wanted to sleep with.)
In IPL 2013, cricket is watched and communicated by the expert eyes of men who are served with an ‘entertainment’ device on the sidelines, in the form of the dancing cheerleaders.
Hardly surprising then that IPL 2013 chatter on TV has produced an endless daily dose of drivel. A few samples: Kapil Dev offered this when talking about doing commentary for T20: “Kothay ke taur tarique seekhne padenge [we will have to learn the ways of a brothel]”. Navjot Singh Sidhu said at one point that while the naachnewaali (dancers/ nautch girls) had money they had no izzat (honour/respect.) There may have been a cricketing metaphor in the ether but there were dancers on screen. Sidhu and Sunil Gavaskar were heard ribbing each other about being in the company of one of the 20-something colour reporters or, as Gavaskar said, “in the presence of one of the 25 most desirable women in India”. The ‘slo-mo’ shots of the cheerleaders almost reflexively lead the commentators to make allusions about the seaminess of what they were seeing. Commentary about cricket is often interrupted with a chuckling aside: “And I thought that’s where you were headed… and I thought, oh, this respectable XYZ...” (Cheerleaders? Not respectable at all.)
Whether the cricket is exciting or predictable, the drivel has been relentless. Egged on by the studio, IPL’s on-field shouter-in-chief Danny Morrison lifted a colour-reporter off her feet on one arm; Sidhu and Sameer Kochchar turned on their smarm when former England women’s team fast bowler Isa Guha was in the studio, asking her which IPL player she found the hottest and to name her favourite dancer amongst the cricketers; Ravi Shastri praised the colour of the reporters’ lipstick, with many jokes made about ‘heat’ and ‘current’ in the studio.
On a TV show, “advertising guru” Prahlad Kakkar argued vociferously that the IPL “is entertainment, not classical cricket” and “why can’t grown-up men have fun?” All cigar-chomping conviction, he asked: “Have you been to a men’s club?” An unintentional insight? IPL2013 on TV has certainly presented itself like a “gentlemen’s club.” As the business of cricket has gone on, its male messengers have offered sustained doses of titillation — double entendres, bump-n-grind routines from the studio dancers, salacious shots of the cheer leaders — all masked as “entertainment”.
What is particularly reprehensible is that the IPL does so without any consideration for the fact that it operates and feeds off a country currently introspecting about why it treats its women badly.
At a time when the law pertaining to crimes against women has been amended due to public pressure.
With Sidhu, a sitting Member of Parliament, spitting out 500-words-a-minute on IPL TV without a thought for what’s happening in his other job, it is as if the IPL is an institutional manifestation of the Sidhu persona. Trapped by its growing narcissism and driven by nothing but the promise of profit, the IPL chooses to remain uninterested in the reach and significance of its own influence.
In the advertising industry these days, there is a push to ensure that any big brand, corporate or individual taps into a wider cause or issue that affects consumers. This is why razor manufacturer Gillette came up with its “Soldier for Women” advertisement. Or actor-director Farhan Akhtar launched his MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination) campaign which has become Bollywood’s most visible public stand on women’s safety. Akhtar turned up for an IPL evening, but once he was gone, the event went back to its men’s club-type ‘entertainment’.
It is not as if India’s cricketers do not know what is happening outside their bubble. They know first-hand what life is like for the women in their families and for their women friends when they step out of home. Suresh Raina tweeted his anger about the 5-year-old raped and left to die. Yuvraj Singh dedicated a Man of the Match award to the December 16 gang-rape victim, praying for her recovery.
Yet, neither any franchise — four of whom have very visible female owners — nor the IPL itself has put together a message from the players to the millions of fans about women, against harassing and stalking, about standing up for women, treating them with dignity. (Because it don’t form part of a revenue stream, silly.) Instead, IPL 2013 has found its own new level for women — the lowest common denominator.
(The writer is a sports journalist and senior editor at ESPNcricinfo.)