Are cheerleaders obscene? The papers in Bangalore are all about reader responses to cheerleaders and their attire. It reminds me of the furore created over the beauty pageants of yore. As expected, most young people dismiss the censorship of cheerleaders as being political showmanship and hypocrisy. What interested me was the response of the older people though. They said that the cheerleaders and their skimpy attire was “unseemly” and didn’t reflect Indian culture. They mentioned that cheerleaders were “distracting” from the game. Do they have a point?
Easy target: Cheerleaders stormed off the field in Jaipur on 4 May when bottles were flung at them.
Censorship is tricky, but I believe it serves a purpose in any culture. Even the US — arguably the freest society in the world — has ratings for films and bans swear words from TV shows. The cheerleading saga is the latest example of our society attempting to define what its values are. For the record, I happen to think our politicians have a point.
I am no fan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But I also realize that in India, it is fashionable to dismiss our netas as being prudish and hypocritical. When the BJP banned cheerleaders from their home turf, Mumbai’s young and sprightly were up in arms. The Delhi Daredevils followed suit by hiring drummers instead of cheerleaders. Shah Rukh Khan claimed that the cheerleaders didn’t bother him and he was a “family man”.
Contradictions exist in every culture. One of the most liberated nations in the world is still attempting to elect a female president, while conservative cultures such as Israel, the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have all elected women as commanders-in-chief. The land that codified eroticism is among the most sexually repressed in the world.
Singapore’s leaders have done a great job in bringing efficiency and ease to their society, but all this easy-living has not made the average Singaporean happier, have more sex and increase the birth rate (as surveys show). Cloistered Catholicism coexists with over-the-top exuberance in many a Latin American country. When Americans were in a frenzy over Monica Lewinsky, the French, whose presidents have had mistresses for years, couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. More recently, when the French were up in arms over Sarkozy’s displays with Bruni, Americans couldn’t understand why such a cute and glamorous pair was being reviled.
The point is that most societies are more than a sum of their parts. Contradictions and layers complicate societal values. The job of a good politician is to sift through the cacophony of opinions and come up with a system that works for the bulk of its citizens. With the cheerleaders issue, I believe that our netas have done a good job: They have a pulse on the populace and are doing what they think is fair and right by their constituencies.
Urban Indians may have no problem with the skimpy clothes that the cheerleaders wear: what is essentially a bra and underwear. Our youth may love the display of cleavage and the curve of a well-toned bottom. These are jaded, well-travelled Indians who have seen this and more at nightclubs in Berlin or on beaches in the Cote d’Azur. But does this déjà vu apply to the young lad in Aurangabad or Orissa who has never seen a half-clad woman in his life? How will he react to bouncing boobs? My sense is that he will tape the show (if he can afford to) and hit rewind in sneaky solitude while masturbating. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Then what’s wrong with porn, I ask you.
Every society has a vulgarity coefficient beyond which people start bristling. I might think that the cheerleaders are fine human instruments and admire their high kicks. You might think they are sexy sirens who are beyond vulgar. Brazilians might think there is nothing wrong with nudity on the beach. West Asian cultures would arrest you if you show much skin — on the beach or elsewhere.
In a global world with an overdose of information through CNN and other media, many of us are exposed to value systems that cause us to question our own. But social norms and mores are not a figment of a politician’s imagination. There are Indians who live in Coimbatore and Kollam who believe that excessive display of skin is vulgar and might “distract” their young son’s mind from his class X exams. Regardless of what you think, they are entitled to their opinion.
I am the mother of two young daughters and I want to raise them to be free and thoughtful young women. As a woman, I think the cheerleaders and their exuberance are fantastic. I view their bodies as a functional instrument, similar to the muscles and bulge of a superb athlete. But as a mother, I frown when my kid watches TV shows and starts wearing T-shirts with plunging necklines, not because I am a prude but because I know that other people in India are prudes. Like it or not, we are living in a country which views women in bar-belled extremes. On the one hand, we have the whole bharatiya nari approach that puts the woman on a pedestal as a life-giving mother. On the other, we have female infanticide. My daughter has to learn to navigate between these mixed messages. The cheerleaders, however charitably you view them, don’t fit into the current Indian paradigm. Our politicians may have a point when they say that cheerleaders will “confuse” our youth.
Shoba Narayan cannot do a high kick to save her life. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org