Why a recent cover story of HT Brunch is problematic

This story was published in DailyO in February 2017, right after this issue came out. Re-published here in its unedited form.

 

I am an ardent reader of HT Brunch. Every weekend, I look forward to their latest edition to devour from cover to cover. As an engineer myself, I absolutely adore Mr Rajiv Makhni’s tech column. Ms Seema Goswami’s thoughts of the week always make for a fun and interesting read. Mr Vir Sanghvi’s rude food is always enlightening (I only wish it was sometimes accompanied by an English translation alongside the original Greek and Latin!).

Point is, it is a great magazine and makes for a wonderful showcase of everything that is new and young and worth knowing about in modern culture. Which is precisely why, I was highly disturbed to see their cover this Sunday.

This week’s cover story of HT Brunch is about the women’s football team. Normally, this should be a story that would fill one’s heart with pride for our girls, and pride at being a woman oneself. Normally, this should be a story I should want to recommend to all my friends who are parents of little girls and are looking for a bedtime story to read out to them – a story that would make them believe that anything is possible and any dream they dream that night can become a reality if work hard for it. Normally, this should be a story of grit, determination, blood, sweat and sheer girl gumption.

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But the moment I picked up the issue, I saw from the cover image itself that this would be no normal story. The cover image showed two photographs of the sportswomen – one, with them in their jerseys, posing with footballs, and the other, with them posing in fashionable clothing, wearing a ton of makeup, and high heels. The first photo was tagged “3k views” and the second “301k views”. Below the images was written in bold lettering, “It must be the make-up!”

My heart sank as I took in the monstrosity that was this cover image.

Even without opening the magazine, I felt let down by this publication that is supposed to be a herald-er of “what’s cool” and “what’s in” for the youth. Here it was, portraying women – sportswomen at that – in a light that reduces them to objects to be dolled up, and reduces their worth to “views” based on their looks and their make-up. I felt shocked that this horror passed the editorial process of the HT group. I felt shocked that, in this day and age, where feminism is finally becoming a point of discussion at family dinners, such a major magazine could still present a picture of women that sets their legitimacy as professionals back by decades, and reduces them to being pretty little things, valuable only because of their aesthetically pleasing bodies. While some in popular culture are making an effort to celebrate stories of parents encouraging their daughters in female infanticide-ridden Haryana to pursue sports, here is our national team being objectified on the front page of a leading pop-culture magazine.

The inside of the story offered no redeeming features either. It is frankly depressing that the magazine did not deem our national football team worthy of being covered by a sports journalist, and sent a beauty journalist(!) to cover their stories instead. The beauty journalist did what beauty journalists do – gave the ladies a makeover and spent time discussing their lip glosses, while their struggles and journeys as sportswomen went glossed over.

And then there was the utterly laughable section of the article where they brought in Mr Baichung Bhutia to comment on the girls’ makeover, because why would a woman dress up, if not for the approval of the nearest alpha male. It is a deeply awkward piece, where Mr Bhutia is clearly uncomfortable with what he is expected to comment on. Here is a picture of him in the magazine, where they have him shrug his shoulders in that “Who are these women and what did they do to my players?” kind of way. Not sure whether to laugh or cry at the self-goal there, pun unintended.

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I am sure Mr Bhutia must’ve felt far more comfortable talking about the game these women happen to play, and spoken about it at length as well. But here is the pearl of a quote the journalist picked and included in the article: “as a former FIFA chief once said, Indian women dance and move their bodies so well that they can definitely excel at football.” Downright educational to read Indian women’s sporting talent being traced back to gyration at wedding baraats. If this isn’t demeaning and belittling their respective struggles, and the hard work it must have taken to rise to where they have, I don’t know what is.

Someone I discussed this article with pointed out the responsibility of the women featured in the article and the role played by them in the angle the magazine chose to cover them with. To that, I can only respond by placing myself in their shoes. 20-21 year old girls, many of them from rural backgrounds, being covered by media professionals, cannot be blamed for trusting these ‘professionals’ to know their job. When I was their age, I was far behind them in terms of accomplishment (heck, I am a decade older and still far behind them in terms of accomplishment). And I cannot say with confidence, that if someone had asked me a decade back to put on some make-up and pose for a cover story in a leading magazine, I would notice anything terribly wrong with that.

Which is why I feel that the responsibility for the irresponsibility shown by the Brunch team here lies squarely on their shoulders. Perhaps shared, in part, only by history and the way women – even exceptional achievers like these girls – have always been portrayed. Unfortunately, that is where one looks at the media of today to move forward and bring about change. I sincerely wish the Brunch editors had chosen to play that role, instead of repeating and reinforcing the mistakes of the past for a shinier cover picture.

I am eagerly awaiting the next issue of Brunch with bated breath. I wonder if it will feature the men’s football team. I wonder if they will send a beauty journalist to cover the boys too. I wonder if we will read all about their favorite hairgels and exfoliating skin care routine in the story. I wonder if a senior female football player will be brought into the room after the sportsmen undergo a makeover to comment on how pretty they looked, and how Indian men are naturally good at footer, given the practice they get dancing at weddings.

I wonder if we will ever try to legitimize the achievements of our sportsmen by giving them a makeover and a thousand times more views! It must be the make-up!

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