In a stunning feat last week, Indian cricketer Harleen Deol, 23, took a pivotal catch in the opening match of the three-part women’s Twenty20 series against England. While India lost the match, a video of the athletic Deol — jumping across the boundary ropes, throwing the ball inside, and again diving forward to complete a catch hailed by experts as one of the all-time best in women’s cricket — went viral. The ‘trending’ did not stop here. If a Hindi digital news daily called her “beauty with brains”, an English digital news publication put out her profile as that of the “beauty queen of women’s cricket” who for some reason the platform thought needed the disclaimer “who is often mistaken for (a) Bollywood actress”.
Amid demands from stakeholders for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to address the gender gap in pay, sponsorships and coverage ailing women’s cricket, it seems the deeply pervasive sexism is so normalized that even herculean efforts by the likes of Deol are not enough to beat them out.
An all-rounder, Deol, who hails from Himachal Pradesh, made her T20 debut in February 2019 against England. She has played a total of 10 matches and has scored 127 runs and taken six wickets so far. However, that doesn't deter representations of the talented cricketer in terms of her beauty. — or how it is Bollywood-approved. The Bollywood aesthetic is a huge influence in Indian popular culture so much so that the biggest domestic cricket-meets-commerce gala — the Indian Premier League (IPL) — has had an inglorious history of co-opting Bollywood-style girl-glamor catering to its boys’ club.
Also watch: Harleen Deol: Finest All-Rounder
Beauty and the beast of sexism
Since sports in India, much like elsewhere in the world, is still male-dominated, women’s sports remain underrepresented in media coverage. Mainstream and allied publications dedicated to producing and promoting sports journalism/ content are often compelled to cater to the primarily male consumer-reader market.
Every time publications spotlight the “traditional looks” of Mithali Raj and hail her “beautiful” avatar courtesy her traditionally-clothed Instagram appearances, the same ‘dumbing-down’ narrative of glamor and sportswomen is revisited. Every website blog, social media post or Pinterest pin heralding “the most beautiful women cricketers”, “hottest women cricketers”, “hottest female athletes”, or casually proclaiming how “glamor goes hand in hand with ‘lady’ cricketers” is an affront on women battling rampant misogyny on the field, inside the broadcasting studio or at the commentary box.
Sexist representations of Indian women cricketers in a country where cricket is, in fact, by default talked about in terms of ‘Men in Blue’, further fuel stereotypes about sportswomen being represented through the lens of fashion, style and beauty rather than their skills, talent and successes. Raj, the Test and ODI (One Day International) captain of the women’s national cricket team, is also the only female cricketer to surpass the 7,000-run mark in women’s ODIs. Yet, there have been attempts to write Raj’s career in terms of a “makeover”, or a ‘gorgeous/glamorous’ run letting the world know how she is not ‘just’ the smasher on the field but a slayer on the style front as well.
It is Raj’s personal choice to walk on the fashion runway, endorse a beauty brand or put up her personal pictures on her social media accounts. She is a star cricketer and it’s not surprising that her posts or brand activities will garner media attention. However, to present Raj, Smriti Mandhana or Harmanpreet Kaur in a league of ‘glamor girl’ is to pander to the reductionist view that women are not complete if they are not a ‘package’ of beauty, femininity and fashion.
Cheerleading the Indian Patriarchal League
A post ‘Shining India’ product, the IPL cheered on a shining clique of sexism. The IPL was hailed as a disruptor in the way sports was consumed in India as it pegged on “women and children” as the audience. While that was a progressive move in its bid to democratize the cricketing culture in the country, it resorted to cricket’s age-old boys’ club view that women don’t understand the game. A massive publicity show was put up with after-parties involving the rich and mighty Bollywood franchise owners. Part of the marketing strategy was to resort to the ‘dumbing down’ discourse. So, this warped model of women’s representation meant getting a posse of cheerleaders, objectified and infantilized in a gallery of glitz, pom poms and bubbles. According to a study released by Close Reports in 2015, the cheerleaders received a paltry remuneration of USD $100 (INR 7,000) per match, whereas the players were paid in millions.
Several news reports have highlighted how the IPL that was presented and televised by Sony Network for the first 10 years applied the same sexist rationale to ‘Extra Innings’, the channel’s flagship pre- and post-match show. English commentator and former English cricketer Isa Guha, who played in the 2005 World Cup and the 2009 World Cup, had to bear the offensive gaze of commentator and former Pakistani cricketer Rameez Raja who assessed her "fashion game" and in effect, stalked and sexualized her on live television. Why was Guha expected to play along? Several other women anchors including models and actors reportedly have similar accounts of being reduced to the fashion-beauty-style box because of their gender and patriarchy’s demand for ‘femininity’.
Game changer for women in cricket
Back in the early 2000s, when Mandira Bedi disrupted the space of Indian cricket presentation, several mainstream publications had accounts of how “girls and gimmickry” diluted the gentleman’s game. There were several accounts deconstructing her noodle strap blouses, while others rued how her skin show had become a national obsession. Bedi was surely a trailblazer in her own right for breaking into the male squad. It is true that Bedi’s sartorial statement propelled the image of the ‘diva’, who is after all an extra to the game. But wasn’t Bedi only playing to the gallery of advertisers, the game’s think tank and the channel’s own marketing ‘gimmicks’?
Back in 2012, a news piece headlined Bowler babe Isa Guha's killer looks spice up IPL frontlined women’s objectification in the game. Terms like WAGs or wives and girlfriends of cricketers are a further disservice to a woman whose sole identity is reduced to her husband/ boyfriend and a male cricketer. It is true that allowing partners on cricket tours is a progressive step but the same has not been free of misogyny as women have been called a distraction. The camera highlighting their rapturous joy or teary-eyed pain depending on the turns of the game further problematize representations of women held in a captive relation to the game.
The IPL's shift from being thus regressive to more gender-nuanced is widely credited to Star Sports earning the broadcasting rights in 2018. Today, there are the likes of Mayanti Langer and Guha who bring cricketing brains and wisdom to the table.
When asked by a reporter who her favorite male player is: “Would you ask a man that?”, was Raj’s befitting response. It is time to question the culture of rating women cricketers on the beauty or glamor scale that caters to the male gaze routinely objectifying and fantasizing women. At a time when women continue to face barriers in accessing sports training and when even the lowest paid male cricketer earned twice what the top women earned in 2018 according to the official BCCI numbers, such sexist representations should be slammed.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)