Trolls, sportswomen, and the media

When a troll body-shames a sportswoman, they ignore all her achievements and contributions, and reduce her to her gender and reassert patriarchal dominion. The least the media can do is not to make these trolls famous under clickbait headlines.

October 11, 2017 08:16 pm | Updated October 25, 2017 08:37 pm IST

Sportswomen who have made it to the top of their field couldn't care less about what trolls think of their body or attire. | Commons Image

Sportswomen who have made it to the top of their field couldn't care less about what trolls think of their body or attire. | Commons Image

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Let's get women to play in different and more feminine garb than the men, in tighter shorts for example."  

~ former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, September 2004

Blatter’s statement, proposed as an idea to promote women’s football, had outraged several. After a while, though, the comments went back into their echo-chambers. Thirteen years down the line, sexism against sportswomen , in different manifestations, continues to grow.

In recent times, the most popular and easily available medium to provoke sportswomen has been the social media. Many a woman (athlete) who achieves public visibility is subjected to potentially intimidating online trolling. Social media’s relative anonymity and safety has empowered self-made moralisers to inflict maximum damage at minimal cost to themselves.

These online preachers, who would not have the spunk to take their sermons offline, award themselves the mantle of adjudicating on assumed violations in ready-in-two-minutes virtual khap panchayats. There are offline preachers too who, with little regard for the playing comfort that sports attire offers a sportswoman, deride someone like the national pride Sania Mirza for her short tennis skirt, and receive national fame in return.

More recently, the sexist attack on the Indian women cricket team’s captain, Mithali Raj, highlighted the load of gratuitous scrutiny sportswomen must endure. Mithali had posted a selfie from one of her photoshoot sessions on Twitter, in which she had worn a casual spaghetti top. And pat began the moral policing, which trolled the 35-year-old for “inappropriate dressing”. While some expressed disappointment at the spaghetti top which didn’t correspond to their ethics, others compared Raj to a porn star for “exposing her mammary glands”. The hate mails, which began on Twitter, spread like a forest fire on the Internet.


In India, particularly, the trolling appears to have its roots in an insecurity emanating from the age-old patriarchal desire to subjugate women to the whims and rules of the men. So, why would they stop at sportswomen? Even wives of sportsmen are targeted. Recently, Indian fast bowler Mohammed Shami’s spouse was criticised for not wearing a hijab in a picture he had posted. And then, there was the time when the wife of former Indian pace-bowler Irfan Pathan was subjected to similar beamers over a picture her husband had put up — the keyboard priests this time deemed her nail-polish to be ‘un-Islamic’.

A global menace

Body-shaming of sportswomen is not restricted just to India. American tennis star Venus Williams’ visible pink bra strap drew so much attention that it had to be discussed at a press conference . Similarly, when Venus’ sister Serena won her sixth Wimbledon title, the world discussed her ‘unfeminine’ musculature rather than her feat. British tennis player Heather Watson was subjected to a barrage of trolls after losing a three-set match to Annika Beck during Wimbledon 2016. Scornful comments were made on her weight and appearance.

Similarly, British swimmer Rebecca Adlington has been a victim of vitriol on several occasions. The Olympic medallist, who is part of a campaign to boost body image , has time and again been called a 'whale' and 'ugly'. “Now I understand that it's just people wanting attention — I've learnt not to take it personally and use the block button,” she had said.

The era of clickbait

The dictionary describes clickbait as ‘content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.’

For instance, this is how some of the digital media platforms covered the news on Mithali’s Twitter post:

‘Mithali Raj trolled: ‘Are you porn star?’ Twitter shames her, questions dress sense’

Indian Captain Mithali Raj trolled on Twitter for her indecent dressing

 ‘ Mithali Raj wears explosive dress and gets trolled!

These were few of the many salacious headlines created to tickle the curiosity of the reader and intrigue him into clicking on the article. Words like ‘porn star’, ‘indecent dressing’ and ‘explosive dress’ make the reader want to look at the picture posted by Mithali and help the article generate more views, which in turn generates ad revenue.


In the relatively low-paying journalism industry, there is a desperation to sell content through clickbait, something that has successfully been used for several decades. If you type ‘Mithali Raj trolled’ on Google search, about 1.4 lakh results will appear in less than 0.55 seconds. That is the colossal mass outreach the posts get.

Countless people share these articles on Facebook and Twitter, allowing the troller to feel like a national hero. It only gives the perpetrator an unfair psychological advantage and emboldens them further. To satiate their hunger for fame, they thus continue their trolling through their nameless profiles.

The media needs to stop feeding the haters.

It may be assumed that not all those who troll online mean harm. Clearly, some of them are just passing their time by becoming the Internet morality police. But here’s the thing. The mass outreach they get gives fodder to their actions.

Not everyone uses Twitter. And moreover, not everyone has the time to read each comment on a celebrity’s post with scrutiny. That Shami and Pathan’s wives were trolled was brought to the fore by the media which is constantly on the lookout for traffic. Until we stop paying heed to the haters, their population will only grow.

The target of trolling rarely finds it worth their time to retaliate. Neither did Irfan bother to respond to the ‘un-Islamic’ comments made on his wife, nor did Mithali feel the need to justify that her cricketing achievements were of greater significance than her choice of clothing.


Indian badminton player Jwala Gutta has, for long, been a victim of objectification. Speaking about it in an interview to Open Magazine . “At some point, you have to stop caring about what is said about you.” Jwala doesn’t care. The media and its readers should not either unless they have a pertinent solution to eradicating the hate mails from social media.

There are other larger issues at hand that need to be covered

The embarrassment meted out to Indian sprinter Dutee Chand made headlines , and rightly so. By turning spotlight on the incident, the media did its bit to ensure that no athlete would in future go through the volume of humiliation Chand was subjected to.

As the Indian contingent prepares for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this is the right time for the media to delve deeper into the barriers faced by our stars in their quest to glory — lack of facilities and infrastructure among other things. Now is the time to reach out to the National Sports Federations and find out how they are preparing the athletes for their Tokyo sojourn.

Sure, body-shaming has been hitting a new low each day. But in a world saturated with hashtags, emoticons and mindless critics, the media and its readers have more important issues to concentrate on.


Social media reflects people’s thoughts and feelings, which often have no filter. The media should be that filter, or at least not strive not to amplify the unfiltered vitriol.


The cultured and enlightened society knows that women worldwide have broken their shackles. They are the ones who have reached the moon and stars, not the ones winning elections or the ones bringing laurels to the country in various other fields. They are no longer their breasts and bra-straps. The enlightened consumer of news doesn’t need empty-headed tweets reminding them of the same.

The suppression of sensationalism from the media, therefore, would be the first step to reduce instances of sexism.

The wider landscape behind the existence of trolls

Apart from the freedom they enjoy on the Internet, online trolls derive their raison d’etre from other psychological and social reasons — loneliness, depression, attention-starvation, narcissism among others.

Perhaps the troller is screaming out to be heard and to be noticed. Everyone seeks attention and to express their views to validate their existence. And for the lonely and socially recluse, the easiest way to express oneself is possibly via trolling. They yearn for social acceptance, which they get through generating online abuse. Trolling gives them something (that they perceive as constructive) to do. For the narcissist, one’s own opinion is paramount, which must be ventilated even at the cost of one’s reputation.

Human behaviour is fickle and never quite certain about the right way to approach any particular situation. Social media in many ways is an extrapolation of what transpires in society. It reflects people’s thoughts and feelings, which often have no filter.

The media should be that filter, or at least not strive not to amplify the unfiltered vitriol.

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