“In a postfeminist context, a woman is urged to be an entrepreneurial subject. However, given the complex social structure in India, this can be challenging for some,” says Dr Runa Chakraborty Paunksnis, one of the co-editors of Gender, Cinema, Streaming Platforms: Shifting Frames in Neoliberal India, an edited volume that has been published by Palgrave Macmillan this spring.
In the edited volume, scholars from India, the United States, and Lithuania discuss complex issues related to the impact of neoliberalism, postfeminism and digital revolution on gender representations in cinema and streaming platforms in India.
“Neoliberalism is an economic doctrine, advocating for an extremely free market; sometimes it’s even called market fundamentalism. At the same time, the neoliberal philosophy aims to create a new kind of human being – a homo economicus – who is extremely self-oriented and self-sufficient. In this ideology, society takes a back seat, metaphorically speaking,” says Dr Šarūnas Paunksnis, a co-editor of this edited volume, and a researcher at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities in Lithuania.
He highlights the global nature of neoliberalism and says that there are very few countries whose societies and cultures have not been restructured by neoliberal processes. According to Dr Paunksnis, although the certain ways how these shifts occur depend on the cultural context of a given society, neoliberal transformation is a common phenomenon affecting most countries of the world.
Gender, Cinema, Streaming Platforms: Shifting Frames in Neoliberal India is based on the papers from the conference that was held at KTU in 2019. In this volume, edited by KTU researchers Dr Runa Chakraborty Paunksnis and Dr Šarūnas Paunksnis, the authors focus on the topics related to neoliberalism and gender, and how the societal shifts are reflected in popular culture. The editors of the publication emphasize its interdisciplinary nature, maintaining that researchers and students from different disciplines such as media, cultural studies, economics, sociology and gender, would find it interesting.
More than 40 streaming platforms operating in India
One of the thematic pillars of the book is the emergence of streaming platforms and their influence on India’s shifting socio-cultural practices.
According to Dr Paunksnis, India’s transition into a neoliberal economy in the early 1990s paved the path for the excessive commodification of culture. In 1991, when private capital was allowed to enter the media domain, this country saw a massive rise in private television channels. In less than a decade, there were over 300 private cable channels in India, showcasing entertainment.
“When you have a state-owned channel, it is expected that it aims at fostering civic values and culture, and follows the interests of the state and society. However, when television medium is opened for free competition, the focus shifts to pure entertainment,” explains Dr Paunksnis.
The emergence of online streaming platforms is a major change that restructured film and television industries worldwide. In India, there are more than 40 streaming platforms operating today; what is more, a smart phone is the device of choice for watching digital content.
“It is important to remember”, says Dr Chakraborty Paunksnis, “how this popular habit of consuming entertainment on a mobile device is supported by multi-national mobile phone companies as well as by streaming platforms. For example, international streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video launched mobile phone-only apps that made streaming content affordable and accessible to consumers. Our book has tried to connect these dots in order to understand their impact on representations of gender in contemporary India’s media environment.”
The trouble with the image of an empowered woman
According to the editors, the key theme analysed in this edited volume is the entanglement of issues related to gender, neoliberal policies and social structure.
A feminist scholar, Dr Chakraborty Paunksnis, argues that “mediated representation of an empowered Indian woman often reiterates postfeminist rhetoric of choice, freedom and empowerment”. Postfeminism, which she terms “feminism of convenience”, shares a common ground with neoliberalism.
“The problem is that postfeminism’s exhortation to create an entrepreneurial self does not address the need for building a collective resistance to structural inequities,” says Dr Chakraborty Paunksnis.
The edited volume highlights this issue, and as Dr Chakraborty Paunksnis explains, it also “problematizes the notion of empowerment”. Owing to the complicated caste and class system that is prevalent in Indian society, certain liberties that have been made available because of the “proliferation of a neoliberal market in India, are more accessible to the educated, (mostly) urban, upper/ upper-middle class, upper -caste women than to women who are marginalized because of their low-caste/class status”.
“In this edited volume, we endeavoured to critique the ambiguous entanglement of feminist and postfeminist assertions that are widely visible in most of the contemporary cinematic and streaming content in India. Often these contents deliver a misconstrued understanding of feminism as they uphold a market-oriented definition of women’s empowerment. Moreover, not only do they refrain from commenting on the changes that we require at the structural level, they also, in many cases, reinforce the hetero-patriarchal ideology,” says Dr Chakraborty Paunksnis, a KTU researcher.
Issues with Society “taking the back seat”
By looking at the issues caused by the ripple effect of neoliberal practices in Indian society, the two KTU researchers involved in this book project aimed to shed light on how neoliberal ideology is changing the social fabric globally. If, according to this ideology, society is to take a back seat, how should the problems that require systemic change be solved? If an individual is valued over society, will there be enough will to look at the societal issues?
According to Dr Paunksnis, one of the central tenets of neoliberalism is that the market regulates itself, while the state remains a mere administrator – the state’s involvement in all affairs, from economic to social and cultural is rendered unimportant. Thus, any state’s intervention via social programmes and other measures conflicts with the neoliberal ideology.
“Through the articles of this edited volume, we attempted to discuss the multitude of ways how neoliberalism together with technological advancement impacts the whole entertainment industry and restructures it drastically,” says Dr Paunksnis.
Both researchers emphasize the necessity for understanding “shifting gender roles in the context of a neoliberal postfeminist media ecosystem”, which as they claim, has taken “a phenomenal turn in post-millennial India”.
The book, Gender, Cinema, Streaming Platforms: Shifting Frames in Neoliberal India, according to its editors, makes a “critical intervention” as it “interrogates how representations of gender in post-millennial Hindi films, streaming platforms and documentary films negotiate with a burgeoning digital media market in India that largely promotes neoliberal postfeminist values.”
Gender, Cinema, Streaming Platforms: Shifting Frames in Neoliberal India, edited by Runa Chakraborty Paunksnis and Šarūnas Paunksnis, has been published by Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2023 and can be accessed here.