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On Feminism, Cheer Girls and Beauty Contests

On Feminism, Cheer Girls and Beauty Contests

By Abhinita Mohanty

Edited by Namrata Caleb, Senior editor, The Indian Economist

In India, the glamour and glitz of Indian Premier League (various cricket teams, similar to football clubs) was somewhat blunted this season under the heat of elections. As news honchos clamored for sensational punch lines, the IPL went on simultaneously without much interest. One evening when I decided to take a break from running ‘election commentaries’ and switched to IPL, I saw cheerleaders dancing and cheering every five minutes during the match. The righteous and the patriarchal may lament at their ‘skimpy’ attire, sexy curves and moves, but my concern as a feminist is increasingly on the commodification of women and their display with the sole aim of pleasing men, to appease their desire for ‘nude flesh’. It is a culture which assumes that men are naturally ‘lusty’ and will be pleased by such display, the very fact that ‘cheerboys’ do not exist connotes that women cannot and should not have an orgasm; but should passively provide pleasure to men and not enjoy sex or desire themselves. Employing cheer girls and defending it in the name of entertainment and glamour with an ulterior motive to display these bodies reinforces my above statement about the way we view the sexuality of men and women. Women have to be physically ‘attractive’ but sexually passive; while for an ‘ideal man’ the vice versa is the norm. These are the same men who receive pleasure by seeing and savoring these girls on their T.V. screens as audiences and then go back to their homes dismissing those girls as girls of ‘loose character’ and as a ‘threat to Indian culture’. This double standard of Indian men has been wonderfully expressed in the movie ‘Dirty Picture’ in a scene where Vidya Balan delivers her speech as Silk Smita in an award ceremony.

A counter argument to this view about employing cheer girls and on beauty contests is that if girls are willing to indulge in such activities, why do feminists not support them. The ‘consent’ and ‘willingness’ of women in a patriarchal society is highly ambiguous. Many do this to gain fame and money as they belong to economically weaker sections, others can be forced by their families and still others can be lured into the flesh trade and trafficking by agents who pose as recruiters for these industries. Many take up jobs as cheerleaders and beauty contest participants to challenge patriarchy, as patriarchy sustains itself through control of women’s body. But these contests and cheer girls also unconsciously reinforce patriarchy and also the socially constructed standards of ‘beauty’. Being ‘beautiful’ in a particular way only became a priority very recently.

Some women/girls who join beauty contests or take up jobs as cheer girls may also do it out of a conscious choice, treating it as a profession and as an opportunity for showing their talent. As a result, feminist theories on bodily exploitation and commodification fail. If it is a conscious choice it should be seen like any other profession and no one has the right to make a hue and cry! But it cannot be denied that within this profession, when consent will end and where coercion will begin is difficult to say. The Feminist theory on ‘control of bodies by patriarchy’ is contradicted when we decry the display of these bodies to please men. When we view cheer girls as a profession which is legal and seen as a choice there is nothing ‘sexist’ in it. But when we see from the point of view of women’s sexuality and capitalization of bodies, it appears ‘sexist’. So, is there a solution to it? Perhaps, to some extent, we can escape this dilemma.

The solution is not to ban cheer girls or beauty contests as both radical feminist and their most unlikely ally, the religious right, demand. Radical feminists want it as they believe it is sexist to please men with ‘bodily’ display of women; whereas the religious right reinforce the primitive patriarchal identity by terming it as ‘immoral, immodest, unchaste and threat to ‘Indian’ culture, those very epithets that radical feminists hate to hear or think about.

Two groups divided by very opposing ideologies, unite when the question of banning these events is raised. Within these two warring groups, some feminists do not support the ban but on the other hand recommend measures to prevent women from being duped into exploitation or being forced to work as cheer girls or participate in beauty contests against their wishes. It is the dissemination of information and the empowerment of these women within these professions which will blur all chances of coercion. When a few years back one of the cheer girls in IPL complained in her blog that some guests or players sexually harassed her; the members of the League dismissed her statement as ‘hearsay’ and ‘conspiracy to mar the spirit of the game. I am not sure what happened to her after that. I do not intend to take any stand on this issue but an impartial investigation and immediate cautionary steps would have made many things clear in this ‘murky game’. Protests were made but they became ‘mysteriously’ silent after a while. I never saw this incident highlighted in media again or anything written about it anywhere. This is the true face of our corporate media and ‘fake feminists’ who only jump into those arenas which will give them maximum publicity. This case should have invoked the same amount of outrage that the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case did; why this did not happen is altogether a different point of analysis which I think will deviate our discussion here. The incident shows the plight of the cheer girls and their absolute lack of access to means of justice.

The solution lies in giving these girls right to complain formally against any type of harassment (sexual or not) and by making laws to prevent harassment altogether. Information, its proper dissemination and awareness will save many from falling into the clutches of fake agents and thugs. Banning these professions can never be the solution as it will only impose more restrictions on the freedom of women.

P.S: I hope I will be forgiven for using the term ‘cheer girl’ and ‘beauty contest’ participants alternatively. I understand both these professions are very different and may be quite unrelated but it appeared convenient to use it in this way; for the purpose of articulating a feminist discourse and also the women involve operate in similar conditions. My intention is not to homogenize these two professions

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