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Mary, mother, pray tell why?
Mary Kom, tough as nails boxing champ, is an image most can't accept. So we make her conform to more conventional notions of the feminine, says Payoshni Mitra.
While MC Mary Kom's achievements are unparalleled in the history of Indian boxing, and perhaps in Indian sport in general, it is a fact that no other boxer has ever received the amount of attention that she is currently enjoying after winning a bronze medal in London 2012. And while she certainly deserves every bit of that praise for being a true champion - and inspiring a whole nation to finally pay attention to the sport - it is, however, interesting to note that there are two other things about her that have been highlighted again and again in all the buzz. One is Mary's identity as a national icon from Manipur, a deprived Northeastern state with a growing list of grievances against the central government and the Indian army. The other, interestingly, is her identity as a mother of two five-year-old twin sons.
And it's not as if boxing has quite made it to the mainstream yet. To have their daughter take part in boxing, a combat sport, is still seen as being too risk-filled and socially unacceptable to many parents. Indeed, India's female boxers long endured opposition and ridicule from people around them and yet still refused to quit the ring. They ploughed on and did this even when women's boxing did not feature in the Olympics and therefore received little financial and infrastructural support.
We know social attitudes towards women decisively influence the production of images of female bodies in advertising, films and other media. Which is why unconventional images of strong women (a female boxer in this case) are markedly underrepresented in order to suppress the potential threat to patriarchal power. Forget boxers for a moment, think of P T Usha, whose 'unfeminine' built caused some ruction in the Indian media in her early days as a top athlete. That was tackled by emphasising Usha's image as an obedient and submissive student of her coach, a dominant father-like figure, Nambiar.
Evidently, when it comes to female athletes and media representation, it is all about what sells. Controversies sell (ask Sania Mirza), beauty sells (ask Mirza again), sweethearts sell (ask Britain's Rebecca Adlington), supermoms sell (ask Mary Kom or Kim Clijsters), skirts sell (ask Saina Nehwal), and crying certainly sells (ask Jordyn Weiber of USA). Peddling stereotypes is not just ideal marketing practice, it's good business. Afemale athlete, therefore, has to perform as well as conform - to conventional ideas of womanhood. And the media loves showing afemale athlete embodying aspects of conventional roles: of a daughter, wife or mother.
Intelligent Life, a magazine published by The Economist, also featured the Mary Kom story recently. The cover read: 'Give her a medal: Five times World Champion. Mother of two. Carrying the hopes of a billion people. One shot at gold. The remarkable Mary Kom'.
In almost all reports about her - regional, national and international - the emphasis has been on how she is a fighter in the ring and a perfect mother-figure outside. A report on the BBC's website said, 'It is amazing to see the transformation when Kom steps into the ring. She stops being the gentle, mother-like figure and becomes a tiger'. Indian publications too have used the same emphasis: 'Mary Kom: the tough and the tender rolled into one', 'Twins but only one bronze: Mother Mary's in a dilemma' and so on. And if not in the title, almost all articles would invariably begin by describing her as a champion boxer and a mother of twins. Facebook and twitter messages were full of similar examples: 'Supermom Mary kom', 'Magnificent mom Mary Kom', 'Beauty and biceps together'. In MC Mary Kom: Boxer, Mother, Icon, published earlier this year, it is written, 'Her greatest achievement though, has been the fact that much of her success has come after the caesarean birth of her twins'.
It is indeed a great achievement to have overcome poverty, nutritional deficiency, ethnic discrimination, post-pregnancy physical exhaustion and become achampion boxer. Mary is indeed magnificent. But why this repeated emphasis on Mary, the mother? Media reports on her London 2012 bouts, tweets about her, and messages supporting her on Facebook and other social media recurrently eulogised her for being a mother of two.
For the media and for her supporters, it is probably important to create that image of a mother. This is because the female boxer is in many ways a threatening notion, an unacceptable image that blurs the line between masculinity and femininity and fuels our anxiety about a possible lesbian presence in sports. To make a female boxer acceptable in a largely homophobic society, one needs a mother of two in whom one sees raw aggression coupled with the virtues of motherhood and nurturing. That's the image of the new Indian woman - at least that's the image of Mary Kom that the media and the sponsors will want her to understand in exchange for their financial support. As the writer of the Intelligent Life article on Mary, put it, 'a boxer who enjoys doing her nails and visiting the beauty parlour, loves raising her children, and yes, she will fight with a skirt on'. The line has been drawn. With Mary Kom, we feel safe.
This article is not about Mary Kom but about how we want to perceive her. Her emphasis on being an Indian first is what we want to listen to again and again. Her ability to juggle raw aggression and mothering is important to us because we cannot accept a female boxer solely based on her fighting ability and her sporting achievements. It is we who feel the need to connect the image of a female boxer with the notion of a family, with childbirth and nurturing. It is we who want to see a female boxer in a conventional role. Because somehow, the female boxer, most of us inherently believe, is intimidating. Besides, we are, after all, the market.
The writer is an independent researchercum-activist in gender and sports.
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