Baulk at the bimbo? When it's Americana, India will learn, this too shall be.
(Outlook India, May 12, 2008)
Not long ago, a columnist for the New York Times celebrated the arrival of the Washington Redskins cheerleaders in the Indian Premier League by remarking that this hallowed event must surely signal that India now more than ever looks to America, rather than Britain or Europe, as its model for cultural development. Apparently, while you are still playing cricket—a kind of baseball with a flat bat—you are now doing it in a satisfyingly snazzed-up American way.
As a red-blooded Yankee with a more than passing love for the steroid-pumped spectacle of the US National Football League (the one with armour and the funny-looking ball), as well as the more historic American standbys of Mom, baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, I felt my eyes well with sentimental tears. Not since the foul-mouthed hulks from Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment toured India has American culture had so representative an emissary as the humble and hardworking cheerleader.
Keep your Ramanujan and your 6,00,000 engineers a year. So you invented zero. Discovered it. Whatever. It's a number for losers anyway. For statistical and mathematical gimcrackery, we'll take our guys any day. Consider P.T. Barnum, the circus promoter who calculated, "There's a sucker born every minute." Or, of course, Earl Whipple, who invented the giant foam finger, aid to sports fans everywhere, that eloquently proclaims "We're Number One!" Anyway, what's math compared with Reality TV? Most of your software geeks are even now cracking open cans of Budweiser, and watching large-bosomed women wolf down plates of worms on Fear Factor. Yes, readers, I will say it. American culture has converted "pop" into a celebration of the dumb. Today's Elvis is Britney Spears. Genius!
Naturally, I was stunned to discover that not all Indians have greeted our scantily-clad emissaries with my own enthusiasm. Some members of Parliament have rashly sought to ban them, others to curb their freedom of expression by imprisoning them in pants. Clearly, this is both prudish and undemocratic. Worse, even, than rejecting our nukes.
It is obvious from America's present ascendancy in economic and political affairs that the dumb-beats-smart phenomenon is not limited to sports and entertainment—stupidity and vulgarity triumph over reason and good taste in all arenas. To prove this to the world, we elected George W. Bush, a former cheerleader. Twice! It is now time for you to fall in line. You're starting to get the hang of stupidity. So far you are doing very well with Indian Idol and Nach Baliye, and Bollywood has mastered the art of stealing Hollywood plotlines and denuding them of their last vestiges of intelligence. You even refer to Vijay Mallya as "doctor". Why baulk at the bimbos?
Most Americans—who, to be quite honest, remain perplexed about why Christopher Columbus was looking for India in the first place—are blissfully ignorant of this blatant slap in the face. But were they to read of it, perhaps at the end of an amusing story about a eunuch who has run for mayor or a village woman who has married an elephant, it would only confirm their convictions that we are embroiled in a battle more perilous than the one we fought against communism. The truth is, we can't help but feel we are beset on all sides, because we are! No matter which backward country to which we bring the joys of freedom and democracy—processed food, bleach blondes, and some other stuff to do with civil rights and powerful detergents and whatnot—the people greet our sharp-dressed marketing executives and our fresh-faced soldiers the same way: with suspicion and distrust. When even our cheerleaders—who did for the ballerina what Velveeta cheese spread did for brie—receive such a reception, it is no surprise we're always wondering, "Why do they hate us so?" Ours is an utterly thankless task.
Perhaps a bit of background is needed, if the cheerleader is to make a comeback in an India worthy of KFC. Once upon a time, American sports were primitive and wholesome, like cricket, and there were no cheerleaders for the professional teams. (Now only Major League Baseball remains sadly bimboless). Cheerleading began at the University of Minnesota in 1898. Through what now seems an obvious oversight, the squads were all-male until 1923. But as it evolved, a dearth of athletic activities for women made cheerleading into a sort of substitute sport for the fairer sex. The original purpose, that is the leading of the crowd in cheers ("Rah, rah, ree! Kick 'em in the knee! Rah, rah, rass! Kick 'em in the other knee!") has long since been forgotten. The crowd is better at organising its own cheers anyway, and the players have money and performance-enhancing drugs to keep them motivated. But high school cheerleaders—like Olivia Newton John's character Sandy in Grease, or more recently the characters played by Mena Suvari in American Beauty and Hayden Panettiere in Heroes—have become iconic representations of America's youthful exuberance: contortionist Lolitas in tiny skirts, fresh and innocent...or maybe not.
Still more progress was made in the Farrah Fawcett 1970s by the cheerleaders for the NFL's Dallas Cowboys ("America's Team") who scrapped the virginal facade and made cheerleading unapologetically sexy. In tiny white hot pants, white cowboy boots and cowboy hats, they merged the worldly glamour of the Coffee, Tea or Me era airhostess with Playboy's liberated (but still pliant) bombshell. Now, professional cheerleaders look and perform less like wholesome girls filled with school spirit than like the entertainers known in America as "exotic dancers". You may not understand, but this transformation has reached its peak in India, where they play a wonderful double role—first as women with remarkable (if surgically enhanced) bodies, and second as the white, blonde temptresses of the West—in encouraging India's much ballyhooed rise.
I dare say this important reinforcement of femininity—cheering for men, rather than playing on a team yourself—has been no less important than the Barbie Doll. But it is faltering in America, due to a foolish new emphasis on women's athletics. Not long ago, for instance, when a mother in Texas committed first-degree murder to make sure her daughter made the cheerleading squad, the court was not sympathetic. The judges failed to see she was defending a vital American tradition that is now under serious threat.
Today, it is mostly in nostalgic films and TV shows that the cheerleaders are the most beautiful and popular girls, ruling the school together with the male athletes in their varsity letterman jackets, tormenting the smart kids by pushing their heads down the toilet and similar time-honoured pastimes. In real life, sad changes are afoot. At the school I attended, for instance, the pretty girls turned up their noses at cheerleading, letting those who were plain and slightly overweight fill in the ranks. The guys who played guitar and could dance—even some "straight A students", what we call the kids who ace all the exams—had more girlfriends than the football players. Something has to be done to stop this perversion of the natural order of things.
Thankfully, as it did with the Miss Universe pageant, India has stepped forward to shoulder the burden, casting off benighted traditions like purdah and socialism. It is high time somebody said it. Like the editorial staff of the Indian Express, who last week decried the joyless opposition to the "shiny, happy girls who inject a bit of pep into the IPL".So brave it was, it reminded me of a red-white-and-blue declaration along similar lines: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.