Against the odds: a problematic storyline in the “media making” of Indian sportswomen


Critiques of media coverage of women in sport have noted the preponderance of heroic and exceptionalist narratives that focus more on human and social aspects rather than technical excellence. While such media narratives exist across sports and across geographies, they acquire further complexity in societies with deep socio-economic disparities and cultural divisions, serving to construct images that can be read through narrow identity-framed lenses. There are athletes who make good stories and others, equally accomplished, who don’t fall within the storylines that media favours. In an era where sports media and the business of sports are closely connected, given the political economy of professional sports, such narratives can have an impact not only on public perception of a game and its representatives, but also on the inner dynamics of the sport. The potential for visibility in media is often tied, in invisible and invidious ways, to the potential for inclusion in the sport, particularly at advanced levels. While scholarship in media representation and sport has explored how gender and race play a role in the dynamics of participation and success, less attention has been given, particularly in emergent economies and culturally diverse societies such as India, to how issues of class, caste, religion additionally impact image making in sports journalism. Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood, has engaged in storytelling that fleshes out the nuances of the life of a female athlete in individual sports (boxer Mary Kom, wrestler Geetha Poghat) and to a limited extent the politics of women’s team sports (hockey, in Chhakde India) with the dominant storyline being success achieved against all odds. Is this in fact the only narrative in sports image making? Does this narrative preclude other routes to sporting success? This paper seeks to understand how media framings of women athletes inscribes certain inclusions and exclusions as routine, thus limiting the range of profiles that count as a good story—and by extension, the range of individuals who can “become” good stories. Through in-depth interviews with sports journalists and textual analysis of profiles of women cricketers in a selection of English and regional language (Telugu) newspapers, the paper attempts to understand how intersections of class, caste, gender, and religion are balanced with accounts of sporting skill in the process of journalistic image making, and how these stories foreground—or dismiss these various aspects of an athlete’s persona. The video presentation will include clips from interviews, images and videos from a selection of the analysed news stories, along with slides that present our argument.