Date of Graduation

12-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies (PhD)

Degree Level

Graduate

Department

Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies

Advisor

Frank M. Scheide

Committee Member

Lisa Ann Hinrichsen

Second Committee Member

Stephanie Schulte

Keywords

Bollywood, Cultural Studies, Feminist Film Criticism, Film studies, Mass Media, South Asian Studies, Women's Studies

Abstract

This study analyzes the controversial Bollywood convention “item number,” a vampy song with suggestive lyrics and hypersexualized imagery of dancing women, as a crucial cultural artefact reflecting the gender and sexual uneasiness in India. Sex avoidance is a common theme in Bollywood films and in the country, where media and people are heavily censored and policed by anti-Romeo squads under the Modi administration. The item girl breaks the sexual tension with a mega hit song and hook step that fuels the economy of dance and desire in India. While the song is completely unrelated to the narrative of the film, this blockbuster dance number is a key factor that drives audiences to the theaters. Despite the commercial value, and cultural heritage of the item song and item girl, scholars and film critics have failed to acknowledge their value and establish item songs as separate category, rather than absorbing it under the larger umbrella of Bollywood musicals. Using a triangulation method that looks at item songs as cultural texts themselves this study analyzes the cultural and national contexts in which those texts are produced, and the industry that produces them (including interviews with the producers themselves.) This study specifically creates a space for studying item songs as crucial cultural artifacts that produce an anti-social feminism meant to decolonize Western feminist film criticism that fetishizes Bollywood films, and subsequently item songs.

Through a critical feminist reading of item songs as cultural texts, I examine the subjectivity of the item girl and the “insider-outsider” politics of nepotism and representation of the Hindi film industry that treat the item girl as an outsider. By setting media representations against material living conditions of women in India, this project employs an eclectic study of Intersectional and Marxist feminism to understand compounded discriminations such as colorism and the feminization of labor faced by item song dancers, as well as the rise of the white item girl in corporatized Bollywood. This project argues that Bollywood uses the binaries of vamp vs. virgin to demarcate women, where the item girl/vamp emerges as an anti-heroine who practices the politics of refusal by being a shadow feminist and subsequently a cultural queer icon, who refuses to adhere to the Brahmanical, patriarchal construction of Indian femininity. To assert this claim, I traveled to Mumbai, the epicenter of Bollywood, to interview 15 industry insiders directly involved with the production of item songs, based on my networks and experience from the time I worked as an Assistant Director in Bollywood. Industry analysis revealed the cultural importance of the item girl as a key whistleblower in the #MeTooIndia movement despite being vilified as a scapegoat for the 2012 Delhi gang rape, both of which were key events for discourses on women’s representation in Indian media.

Keywords: Mass Media, Women’s Studies, Bollywood, Feminist Film Criticism, Cultural Studies

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