JANUARY 14, 2020
Anna Aksenovich is in her final year at the University of Toronto, majoring in Diaspora and Transnational Studies and minoring in Anthropology and Religion
Abstract: In this paper, I will be analyzing ‘Four more shots Please!’, an Indian web TV series on Amazon Prime, with particular attention to the character Umang – self-identified as a bisexual. I will argue that the interchangeability of the terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual’ and conscious critique of the categories disrupts the imagined fixity of sexuality as a category and suggests its fluidity in India, and yet the discourse of feminism within which the show is framed erases the important markers of difference between women, namely cultural background and class. The show emphasizes gender oppression as the main source of oppression among all women, thus equating the experiences of Umang with the other three women as a fight against ‘compulsory marriage’ and rural values.
Twenty years ago, the film ‘Fire’, brought a new understanding of the Indian lesbian into being – as the politically outspoken and seen, thereby problematizing its previous existence of confinement. At that time, the terms Indian and lesbian were seen as incommensurable. As the professor in Anthropology, Naisargi Dave (2011, 658), shows, activist lesbian organizations in India worked towards its commensurability but, in various ways. Some did so like CALERI which emphasized its ancient roots in Hinduism and therefore political claims of the nation, while others, like Sangini, discouraged the use of the word ‘lesbian’ in their advocacy for cultural authenticity. In the TV series “Four More Shots Please!”, homosexuality is not the central theme – as it isn’t in Fire – yet the bisexual/lesbian identity of one of its main characters is significant to understanding the representation of homosexuality on screen in the contemporary era. In articulating the ‘Indian lesbian’, the show deploys the same strategies that lesbian activists such as Sangini and CALERI did in the 90s and early 2000s. The attempt to reconcile ‘lesbianism’ with Indian culture while at the same time showing the cultural unawareness of what the word ‘lesbian’ means, produces a very different divide to the one discussed by Dave (2011, 658). The discussion in the series is not centered around Western versus Indian identity as two opposite forces, but rather articulated within the discourse of ‘modernity’. In a sense, the shift from such binaries sheds light on the transnational context in which sexual subjectivities are being produced, where the discourse on homosexuality is not merely an import of Western culture but is indeed incommensurable – in that it’s a product of many intersecting forces. However, this is not something that we see articulated in the show, but rather an infusion of another set of binaries – traditional versus modern and rural versus urban.
The description of the show on Amazon Prime tells us that it is “the one thing you need to watch to get into the mind of the urban Indian woman” (“Prime Video: Four More Shots Please! – Season 1” 2019). The four characters, although different and have different wants and desires, they all share a similar feminist outlook. Within the political movements, feminism in India in the contemporary era is geared towards women’s empowerment (Pande 2018, 10), and yet the feminism that we see on the screen, although seeking to empower women, doesn’t represent a fight for political rights. Feminism in “Four More Shots Please!” is a form of feminism that reproduces a neoliberal ideology and relies on consumerism in making one’s identity as an independent woman (Hemangini 2016). The feminist movement that calls for individual desires to dress and act freely, corresponds to “a small but growing movement among the educated middle classes, whose sense of personal identity is separate from their family, kin group and community” (Khan 2001, 109), and who therefore are able to articulate new sexual identities outside of the dominant discourse of compulsory heterosexual marriage in India. This mode of empowerment, therefore, addresses the issue of gender inequality only for a small fraction of population, and given that the movement is primarily consumerist in nature, it is accessible only to those who already possess enough material resources to engage in the activities that the movement calls to. The neoliberal model of ‘self-making’ that such feminist movement in India calls upon women, puts the individual, and their desires at the center. Yet, in moving away from the collective category of ‘women’ to an individual, who is also a neoliberal subject, there is an imposed degree of homogeneity of what such subjects should desire, and consequentially what the empowerment of women entails. Similarly, in the discussion of zhongxing fashion trend in Taiwan, where the making of certain female masculinity into a fashion trend produced partial visibility of lesbian identity and its new modern articulation, here too, consumer feminism enables the public visibility of a modern Indian woman (Hu 2017). The public and private divide is a central theme to western modern philosophy but also to Indian discourse that formed in the colonial period when the emergent Indian middle-class implemented concepts of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ to reform social practices (Chaundhuri 2012 287). As in Britain, the status of women in India was thought to represent the status of a nation (284). While, at the time, the women’s question was deeply political and had little to do with the actual treatment of women and their desires, as there were male leaders at the center of the social reform movement, in the neoliberal moment, the question of women’s empowerment, as its consumerist outlook indicates, might have little to do with the actual desires of women. The invocation of an imagined community of the “Indian” women involves “projection of the dominant cultural community and marginalization of the other communities,” (285) which is exactly what we see happening in the “Four More Shots Please!”.
Although all the four main characters of the show, come from different regions in India, Umang’s cultural background is emphasized the most. Her ‘rural’ Punjabi identity is made explicit in her dressing style when she gets turned out for the job because she cannot speak proper English and looks like “a background dancer from a 90s Bollywood film” (Season 1 Episode 3). Throughout the show, however, we see her dressing style change, and although still bold and loud, it becomes refined to fit in with her new urban and cosmopolitan identity. In another instance, we see a flashback from the arranged marriage dinner that her parents set up for her before she decided to ran away to Mumbai. After which, her friend says with a surprise, “You wore an Indian outfit?”, and another friend adds, “And that too for a guy!” (Episode 3). This indicates how dressing style functions as a signifier of ‘tradition’ in opposition to the modern cosmopolitan identity that Umang has attained since she moved to Mumbai. Indeed, dressing style plays an influential role when it comes to understanding the notion of Indian modernity, which is deeply gendered as Chaunhuri points out (2012, 283). It is only when it comes to women, that the clothes determine whether she is ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ in her outlook and values.
In portraying regional differences as negative and ‘backward’, the show calls on its audience to adopt a homogenous identity of the ‘modern Indian’ and to exchange the familial ties in favor of friendship with like-minded individuals. While there is nothing wrong with the desire to mix and mingle with the cosmopolitan crowd, and in fact adopt such a lifestyle, the black and white picture that the show provides, which condemns ‘traditional’ and praises urban modernity, essentially eradicates the diverse experiences that might exist within each of these localities. Moreover, it downplays the role of class, education and other opportunities that are available to these women on the screen to afford the lifestyles they lead. The financial and personal autonomy that these girls enjoy plays a highly influential role in determining the nature of their experiences and the possibilities that are open to them.
As we see in the accounts of other countries in Asia such as China, where financial independence, geographical mobility and the anonymity of the big city were influential factors in enabling alternative lifestyles for women desiring to break with the institute of heterosexual patriarchy (Engebretsen 2014; Kam 2007), Umang’s migration to Mumbai and financial independence enabled her to become a visible lesbian in a public sphere. Yet in the scene where her family visits, she has to attend another arranged marriage dinner set-up (Season 1 Episode 10), indicating that her move and financial independence didn’t give her a way out from the familial norms, obligations and therefore the institution of compulsory heterosexual marriage. Later in the scene, she stands up to her family and admits that she is in love with a woman. On one hand, her outspokenness and courage can be understood as an effective and the only strategy to challenge the familial norms. On the other hand, this strategy became her last option, when the picture of her kissing a famous actress leaked in media, and she had to admit her sexuality to her family. Until then, the strategy was to run away and to live your own life on your own terms. This is where the urban and rural divide becomes articulated but particularly the connection of Mumbai with modernity and its perception of ‘liberal city’ (Medium 2017). This divide, therefore, that is also made explicit in making fun of her family’s ‘backwardness,’ situates the social stigma and unacceptance of homosexuality along with the patriarchal discourse of marriage into a clear cut category of ‘rural’, ‘backward’ and ‘traditional’ in the opposition to ‘urban’ and ‘modern’ Indian that the show attempts to articulate. This is particularly problematic because it takes years of the criminalization of homosexuality for granted (The Lancet HIV 2018) and subsumes the stigmatization homosexuals face under the topic of gender oppression. In addition, it portrays a homogenous picture of Bombay and its citizens, diverting attention from the diversity of experiences and identities that exist within the same locality.
In portraying homosexuality as ‘modern’ while at the same time emphasizing its inherently indigenous roots, as we see in the scene with elderly aunties in Goa, the TV show avoids the criticism raised by some scholars of reproducing “the binary between ‘gay identity’ as transnational and the age-old indigenous identities of same-sex desire” (Ross 2016, 12). It brings those two discourses together and indicates the possibility of syncretism. Yet, in broadly portraying regional differences as ‘backward’ and not exploring the theme further, this possibility dwindles away. In the Indian context of a diverse multiplicity of cultures, religions and languages, to subsume all such differences into one category is to erase the complexity that shapes same-sex subjectivities and desires.
Engebretsen (2014), in her book “Queen Women in Urban China,” challenges the Western queer narrative of the linear and progressive development of becoming a lesbian, transitioning from not knowing to a declared sexual identity with clear cut boundaries. She suggests a number of symbolic factors that shape same-sex subjectivities. This framework can be useful to apply in this context too, where the sexual subjectivities of Umang and her lovers, exemplify the intersectionality of a number of factors, exceeding “the fixed identity categories and the binaries of homo/hetero grid” (Engebretsen 2014, 34). Umang’s first lover from her hometown didn’t have any other lesbian experience prior to or after Umang. She was unhappy in her marriage not because she was not attracted to the opposite sex but rather of the familial pressures and obligations that came with the marriage. Umang’s new lover – a famous actress Samira Kapoor – also didn’t have any prior same-sex experience. Her relationship with Umang thus marks her first sexual experience with women, and as she herself says, “This is my first relationship with the woman. I am not even sure if I’m…I am not even sure if I want this” (Season 1 Episode 8). This indicates the Western linear discourse of ‘coming out’ and how the same-sex experience becomes determinant to the sexual identity that Indian society assigns to individuals. However, the factors such as job status, type of residence and the place of origin are significant in constructing subjective possibilities for sexual agency among Umang and her lovers. Although for Samira Kapoor to ‘come out’ was to jeopardize her career, the personal autonomy that she enjoyed because of her position of privilege enabled her to enjoy the same-sex relationship with Umang privately, unlike Umang’s lover from her hometown. The latter saw no future for herself beyond the compulsory heterosexual marriage and didn’t have financial autonomy or geographical mobility that would enable her to escape those familial pressures as Umang did, although too temporarily, as we later see in the arranged marriage dinner set-up that she has to attend when her family comes over for a visit. This further illuminates the influential role that the place of origin plays in shaping sexual subjectivities and the possibility for sexual agency (Engebretsen 2014, 36).
In analyzing the two main scenes where the term ‘lesbian’ is used and articulated, it is important to situate them in their geographical context. Goa has a perception of being ‘liberal,’ perhaps more than Mumbai. It is a former Portuguese colony, and the most popular tourist destination in India (Bandyopadhyay and Ganguly 2015, 602), which indicates its transnational context. The scene of the encounter with local aunties who openly discuss and talk not only about their own sexual experiences but also instances of homosexuality in their youth, serves to represent its liberalism. Indeed, Goa is often associated with vulgar behavior, alcohol and nudity (The Navhind Times 2017) – all of which the TV show attempts to normalize in its feminist project. However, the critical examination of nudity on the screen and what may seem as ‘vulgar behavior,’ such as Umang having casual sex at work with one of the guys, and then having sex in the bathroom with one of the girls she picks up in the club (Season 1 Episode 1), can unravel the patriarchal gaze that is central to the production of such representations.
Although the show is written and produced by an almost all-female crew, and geared towards the female audience (Hindustan Times 2019), it nonetheless adopts and reproduces a set of patriarchal norms, which might seem new to the Indian context, but very familiar to the western one. In this, we might implement Butler’s ‘transcultural notion of patriarchy’, which illuminates how male domination takes different forms in different localities (Butler 2006, 46). However, not to say that the Indian context is completely distinct, and female sexualization on the screen is a novel phenomenon. Tejaswini Ganti, an anthropology professor in NYU, in her analysis of songs in Bollywood movies notes the popularity of foreign white dancers and actors in the film industry because of the stereotypes associated with white women’s sexuality such as their openness to wearing bikinis on set, and thus counter-perception of Indian women as modest (Ganti 2016, 263). Representation of Indian women as sexually open as they are in “Four More Shots Please!”, challenges the stereotype of modesty assigned to them, yet it does little for women’s liberation. From escaping the patriarchal role of domesticity, women are put into another role of being sexual beings under a patriarchal gaze. The music video “Bees in the Trap” by Nicki Minaj comes to mind (YouTube 2012), where what may seem like an attempt to subvert relations of domination, in fact, replicates them through the symbols of masculine power (Butler 2006, 40). Similarly, in adopting such symbols as casual sex, alcohol and over-sexualization of women, the TV shows produce the repetition of law that it attempts to challenge, and thereby reinforces the power of such symbols as tools of masculine domination.
Interestingly, even when it comes to Umang and her identity as a bisexual/lesbian, her sexuality is constructed as a “‘male-identified’ sexuality in which ‘male’ serves as the cause and irreducible meaning of that sexuality” (Butler 2006, 40). This is particularly evident in the scene where she seduces her co-worker at the gym, who at first says that he has a girlfriend to what she says “Break the chains dude”, which culminates in them having sex in the changing room (Season 1 Episode 1). On one hand, this scene along with others where she discusses her bisexual/lesbian identity places emphasis on the desire towards a particular person rather than gender itself and therefore enables to articulate same-sex subjectivity beyond identity (Engebretsen 2014, 39). In the representation of Umang as highly sexual, her homosexual experiences become less to do with her sexuality but more with sexual openness and desire, which holds the potential to challenge the performative aspect of gender and heterosexuality that it reproduces illuminating the psychic excess of immense possibilities that Butler talked about (Butler 1993). On the other hand, in using the symbolic order of masculinity, this scene does exactly the opposite. Umang imitates the male performance of gender.
In the next episode, one of her clients in the gym attempts to grab her, which she resists and makes a complaint (Season 1 Episode 2). When talking to her manager, her complaint is being dismissed because as the manager explains, the client might have thought she is ‘easily available’ because of her sexual relationship with the co-worker that everyone knows about. The manager then says, “You can’t demand respect. You have to earn it.” In standing up to sexual harassment at work, Umang thus brings out an important dimension of oppression that women face and the double standards that make sexually open women to be seen as ‘easily available’. As a culmination of this scene, she quits. Although a bold move on her side, it doesn’t challenge the issue of sexual harassment at work, particularly when few episodes later her new private client and therefore her employer – this time a female – oversteps the line and kisses her (Season 1 Episode 4). Since Umang also finds her attractive, she doesn’t freak out or decides to quit her job but instead ends up having sex with her. As a result, these scenes communicate a double standard, where a non-consensual kiss or touch within a professional setting is acceptable in some situations but not others. Important to note here is the privilege that all the characters of the show enjoy. The strategy of leaving one’s place of employment when facing sexual harassment might not be available for the majority in India and many in Mumbai, as the most of the country’s population is below a middle-class bracket (The Economist 2018). In addition, when it comes to same-sex desires, the liberal and modern outlook of Mumbai that the show portrays, make it seem natural and common-place that Umang’s client, who was unaware of Umang’s sexual orientation, could initiate a kiss. However, such an attempt of homogenizing modernity and Mumbai as a locality eradicates class differences and power relations. Umang’s client in the show plays a role of the famous actress, which automatically puts her in the position of power that enables her to ‘go for it’ without having to face or think of repercussions. Here again, we can see the imitation of masculine law of domination (Butler 2006), where males in power often take advantage of their position to cross a professional boundary at work with their female employees. On the other hand, her sudden desire for a woman personalizes it as a desire for a specific person rather than merely a means of sexual discharge that is characteristic to the discourse of the same-sex male sexuality in the Indian context (Khan 2001, 110). In this, the TV show points to the desire of love and companionship among women that the institute of compulsory heterosexual marriage fails to provide. In subsuming the complex and diverse identities of women in India into one homogenous entity of ‘urban modern Indian’, “Four More Shots Please!” articulates a certain discourse of feminism and normativity, and creates further marginalization and invisibility of those who are unable to participate in such consumer-orientated feminist project. Julie Moreau’s intersectional framework of citizenship could be particularly useful in Indian context of diverse regional, cultural and linguistic pluralism, where the individuals are belonging to a number of communities at the same time (Moreau 2015, 496). Therefore, in fighting discrimination that women face in India, their gender, sexuality, local culture, class, and even skin color, are needed to be taken into account. The show, however, on the contrary, constructs an upper-class ideology and consumption style, which cuts across all those multi-layered facets of identity, and attempts to mould them into a homogenous category of ‘modernity’.
Image Source: India Aware
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