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Female Representation in Indian Web Series – Myth or Reality

With the introduction of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and various other streaming services, and their original content, the web series culture in India is regarded as a new wave of narrating women’s stories, reflecting their realities.

the image used is for representational purpose only

This research paper by Pallavi Wardhan was presented at Indian Association for women studies conference.

Use of digital platforms accelerated in India quite late but geared up very soon, outshining various benchmarks in the world of digitization. As digitalization geared up in our country, people got hooked to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (much later), YouTube etc. It is possible to reach the largest audience through the internet. But it was only after 2014 that the ‘web series’ phenomenon began in India, and within no time, it spread all over. What stands out about the internet as an informative and entertainment medium is that it is comparatively free from the clutches of  censorship and budget, providing the creators with much needed independence with content, genre, forms and narratives. A web series is designed like a TV soap, through a series of episodes, but it is watched on the web. Another technical difference between web series and TV serials is that, web series do not usually require big productions costs, celebrities or large media companies.

With the introduction of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and various other streaming services, and their original content, the web series culture in India is regarded as a new wave of narrating women’s stories, reflecting their realities. This paper aims to verify these claims, by analysing the content centered around the journeys, aspirations and struggles of women.

A Lot of web shows have become very popular with the audiences, for example. Sacred Games, Mirzapur, Pitchers, Permanent Roommates, or Lust Stories, had powerful female characters, who drew high accolades for their performances. Though these tales majorly revolve around the male protagonists, female leads like Kubra Sait, Radhika Apte, Shweta Tripathi, Riska Duggal, Maanvi Gagroo and Nidhi Singh, were successful in building a strong hold for themselves, in a man’s world; creating an identity that begs to differ from that of typecast and stereotypical roles portrayed by women in TV serials. These characters are considered as modern, progressive and quite relatable. Their performances were highly appreciated, thus inspiring many others to take up such roles. Through this paper, my attempt will be to curate many such shows and validate whether the stories and struggles in these web series-  are relatable to the target age group, does justice to its said social location, how are they perceived by male audiences; studying indepthly if the plot and the characters actually empower women.

Tara from Made in Heaven shows the world that a career-oriented woman can be as feminine as she wants to be and yet be a woman chasing her dreams, leaving no stone unturned.  Breaking stereotypes. There is no denying that some shows series like Lust Stories or Ladies Room or Ghoul or Sacred Games of TVF Tripling gave us powerful women characters, who have a voice and purpose. But it is important to see if these women were relatable and were able to show a mirror to the society which judges gender identities, prohibits women from their sexual agency and normalises wrongdoings by patriarchy.

This paper would further analyse how many web series which have women protagonists deals only with female-related content. For example: Four More Shots Please, a series about female friendship, living flawed lives and  facing blunder as modern women. But this kind of content is only for women, by women. Or a series like Delhi Crime, based on a Delhi gang rape case, this crime show follows the Delhi Police investigation into the finding of the men who perpetrated the crime, has a woman protagonist and the issue being addressed in this series majorly deals with women and girls. On the other hand, a hit series like Sacred Games or The Family Man, which has male leads as its protagonist, does not necessarily have only male-related content. Which means, a web series portrays a woman as a single mother, independent professional etc. ie characteristics that define womanhood (by societal standards). But, it would be interesting to see how many web series and shows create women-centric content, with not-so female characteristics.

In conclusion, this paper will examine whether the web series is mass appealing.

INTRODUCTION 

In the last decade, the consumption of internet across the globe has increased in digital forms, such as mobile phones, computers, and laptops. As a result of this increase, it is also observed that there has been growth in digital channels as well. From streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon etc. to surfing for information on Google to using social media to exploring E-commerce services, there has been a significant rise in the use of digital marketing. Digital marketing is nothing but marketing of products or services by using digital technologies on the web, through mobile phone apps, display advertising, and any other digital mediums. Digital media grew by 42% in 2018, valued at USD 2.4 billion, noting that Indians spent 30% of their phone time on entertainment.

The number of Indian users consuming digital content has also increased. It includes – social media, video, audio, news and entertainment. The reason for this increase can be credited to gradual growth in internet penetration, convenience of content consumption (mobile, laptop, TV.etc) and mobile device proliferation. This has also led to an increase in pace of internet usage, reaching a wider range of audience. More often or not, the content on digital media is said to be influencing the lives of the people (We shall validate this statement in the upcoming analysis) One such example of digital content is “Web Series”.

A web series is designed like a TV soap, through a series of episodes, released on streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Alt Balaji etc. In the last five to six years, the popularity of web series has gained momentum, and it has become most popular with the younger generation. The reason being – entertainment and informative medium, free of censorship, affordable, diversity of content, genre, forms and narratives. As against TV serials or movies, web series don’t necessarily have to indulge in big production costs, celebrities or large media companies and it has proved to have given recognition to newer talent, from all across the country. Though streaming platforms have the potential to push boundaries with new and gripping content, will it challenge or be a threat to traditional medium of entertainment such as TV soaps and movies, in the coming years, is debatable.

USE OF INTERNET 

Time and again, Indian movies and serials have continued to portray a stereotypical image of women, which is widely accepted and appreciated. But with the introduction of web series, women-oriented shows and characters that depict a more real image of women, their journeys, struggles and friendships is a refreshing welcome. The rise of digital content in the form of web series began roughly in 2014. These web series not only celebrate womanhood but also focus on topics that aren’t taken up by mainstream media such as LGBTQ issues, dysfunctional relations, diversity in cast ensembles, and untold stories. Web series have attempted to highlight gender identity, normalise sexuality and showcase women’s real stories.

Web series has given us Cukoo (From Sacred Games web series), one of the only positive portrayals of a trans-woman on-screen. Not only is she humanised, but her character became as famous as that of her male counterparts like Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Sartaj (Saif Ali Khan). Her strong personality got many accolades and acknowledgement, with her character having some moments of vulnerability that make her relatable. Web series also introduced us to Tara, from Made in Heaven. A girl from a modest background who dreams big and is adamant in pursuing her passion, no matter what she has to do to achieve the same. In TVF Pitchers, the male protagonist’s partner Shreya chooses to shift her base to another country for her career and is ready to sacrifice her happy relationship with her boyfriend instead. While, IPS Officer Vartika Chaturved in Delhi Crime showed us that women are empowering, fierce, they have great leadership quality and they root for one another. They can detach themselves from their heartbreaking situations if their jobs demand so.

sacred games – Netflix

The female internet user population in the country is only half of the 258 million male Internet users, and the bias is more evident in rural India. A study released by industry association IAMAI suggests that even as India is moving ahead in terms of growth of subscriber base and data consumption with the number of internet users topping 451 million as of March in 2019, second only to China, there is an urgent need to rectify the gender gap among users. There is a clear gender disparity when it comes to internet usage in India. There are fewer female internet users in India as compared to male users. Among states, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Delhi have a higher proportion of female Internet users. The split of male and females is 60:40 in metro cities with a population of over 50 lakh.According to Pew research, gender divide on the use of social media platforms tilts toward men mostly in developing economies, while women in advanced economies outnumber men. No doubt, poor infrastructural facilities in low and middle income countries often create roadblocks in the expansion of the Internet, which affect both women and men, but power inequalities and socio-cultural norms have more adverse impact on women in those countries. Introduction of policies such as ‘Digital India’ in its objectives, does not focus on the visible gender gap, mostly in rural areas. The female internet users’ population is half of the 258 million male Internet users, and the bias is more evident in rural India. In India, nearly 1/3rd of users access the Internet for ‘more than one hour’ in urban India, whereas in rural India, a similar proportion of users access the Internet for 15-30 minutes.

In such a scenario, a power claim that web series is empowering women audience falls flat as the reach of the series is also niche. Web series is considered as the newest form of narrating women’s stories. These series which have women protagonists, with women-centric content or series which have strong onscreen presence may not even find enough women audience to watch it. Even on the web, there are more male series makers than female series makers. Thus, there is a chance that the pulse of femininity is lost in these women characters.

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

On identifying my research aim (gauge perception of overall web series content and how do men and women perceive this content), to analyze female representation in web series, I prepared a questionnaire for those who regularly watch web series. The questions asked to the respondents were open-ended. The sampling used was non-probability sampling because it allowed me non-random selection based on my convenience and other criteria such as  knowing the person watches web series, allowing me to easily collect initial data. The survey was conducted through an email. The participants responded in a week’s time. The sample size of the participants was 20 people (mixed genders), falling in the age group of 18-30. The participants were selected on basis of my personal equation with them, these were all the people I knew who watch web series, both men and women.

My conclusion is based on in-depth analysis and interpretation of the series, and the data collected through the survey.  I chose qualitative methodology of survey because it is best for describing, interpreting, contextualizing, and gaining in-depth insight into specific concepts. To interpret the data collected, I opted for Thematic Analysis to observe  patterns in the data and find whether they are important or interesting, and to address the research. I have used thematic analysis as it is a good approach to find out participants views, opinions, knowledge, experiences and values about female representation in web series. I watched 30 web series, with diverse content, which had both women and men protagonists. Out of which, I analysed 12 web series, mentioned in different parts of paper. These series were analysed on parameters such as: Content, gender roles (characterisation) and setting.

ANALYSIS

Rather than providing realistic representations in the media, men and women both tend to be depicted in a hyper-traditional manner, which maintains stereotypes of personality traits, capabilities, and aspirations (Bussey & Bandura, 1999).

Women-Centric Web Series

The way some characters are depicted in a show can represent their political and social views at that point Lauzen & Dozier (2005). Four More Shots Please! a web series, aired on Amazon Prime, deals with female friendships, their lives as single parent and single women, their flourishing and failing careers, their relationships and their routine lives. This story of friendship is very refreshing for the audience since Indians are only used to watching male friendships in Bollywood movies. But at the same time, Four More Shots Please! is not mass appealing because it is not relatable to middle class working women, as it focuses more on problems of modern, high-class working women. (All four girls come from a privileged social background). This content is only women-centric, by women themselves. In Delhi Crime, the Delhi Police is shown investigating Delhi gang-rape case. This story is based on Nirbhaya rape case, which took place in December 2012. Even though this series is led by a strong-headed female cop with huge responsibility on her shoulder to solve a case that created very tense situation in the entire country, Delhi Crime majorly addresses issues that concern only women ie. SAFETY. Again, a women-centric content, by woman herself.

Delhi Crime – Netflix

In Leila, an Indian dystopian drama web series directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar, the protagonist Shalini tries to find her missing daughter in a totalitarian regime, in the near future. It is based on the 2017 eponymous novel by Prayaag Akbar. This Netflix original series is about a totalitarian nation-state headed by Joshi (Sanjay Suri), a semi-divine figure who lords over the populace through holograms, photographs and statues. Transgressors are cut off from their families and sent to facilities where they are given uniforms and reschooled in the new ways of the new world (“Mera janm hi hai mera karm” – my birth determines my fate.) Shalini (Huma Qureshi) is one such transgressor, having committed the crime of marrying a Muslim, Rizwan (Rahul Khanna). They have a child together, Leila, who has been separated from Shalini. Over the course of six episodes, Shalini attempts to locate her daughter, dodging surveillance systems, thwarting thugs and uncovering a political conspiracy along the way. Leila has a strong and gripping story, with a powerful female character. But like Four More Shots Please! and Delhi Crime, even Leila is a web series though catering to larger audiences and focusing on wider concerns, it is more about a mother’s struggle to find her missing daughter, her journey and the problems she faces while doing so.

Similar premises can be formed about other women-oriented web series such as Ladies Room and Girl In The City. Ladies Room, by Y Films’ is a story of two female best friends and their emotional rollercoaster they go through in six different bathrooms. This show portrays modern young girls, in an urban setting, dealing with their career and personal life problems. Girl in the City shows the life of a 21 year old Meera Sehgal, who moves to Mumbai from Dehradun, for an internship in a fashion house to live her dream of working in the fashion industry. The web series Adulting has put together a tale of two young girls in Mumbai who are trying to find their way around adulthood; trying to handle the responsibilities of being independent adults in the fast-paced, busy Mumbai. Both the girls come from a decent family background, earning enough to rent a 2bhk flat in a decent location.

Girl in the city – YouTube

Web series is perceived as a medium that creates ‘relatable content’ for women and the setting of most of the web series that deal with female friendships or the struggles of young women etc. is urban. Then, what about those women and girls who do not belong to the urban setting? In this case, the current content in web series automatically becomes unrelateable to the masses. The other commonality here is that a web series portrays a woman as a single mother, independent professional, struggling young woman etc. ie characteristics that define womanhood (by societal standards). But this pattern cannot be found in web series which have male protagonists.

Men-Centric Web Series

Sacred Games, a Netflix series is a story of organised crime, corruption, power and gang wars. Gangster Ganesh Gaitonde who went missing for 16 years calls Sartaj Singh, a troubled police officer to tell him that Mumbai will be completely destroyed in the next 25 days. A link in their pasts leads an honest cop to a fugitive gang boss, whose cryptic warning spurs the officer on a quest to save Mumbai from cataclysm. Both seasons of Sacred Games became popular with the audiences. This entire series is highly dominated by male actors. There are two male protagonists in Sacred Games. Both of them have a strong character and equal screen presence. The story is diverse, with some female characters who have powerful personalities and also became popular with the audiences.

Unlike most of the women-led series which deal with only-women content, Sacred Games does not deal with only-male content or plot. Cuckoo played by Kubra Sait is a transwoman. She is uncompromising and elegant. The sensitivity with which the character was portrayed was worth appreciating. There was tenderness in her character and real struggle in finding her own identity. Her character was accoloded for showing positive depiction of a transgender character for the only time on-screen. Just when the audiences were enjoying the complexity of her character and as she empowers Gaitonde to pursue his ambitions, Cuckoo kills herself in the middle of an arbitrary gang war. Similarly, Subhadra (Gaitonde’s wife) is abruptly killed, and so is Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte), making once powerful-looking women as powerless and vulnerable.

The Family Man – Amazon Prime

The Family Man which got aired on Amazon Prime stars movie actor Manoj Bajpayee in it as a protagonist. The Family Man is an edgy action-drama series, which tells the story of a middle-class man who works for a special cell of the National Investigation Agency. While he tries to protect the nation from terrorists, he also has to protect his family from the impact of his secretive, high-pressure, and low paying job. This series has a powerful plot. Barring the protagonist’s wife character, there is no other noticeable actress in this series. Though her character had a strong premise (a woman aspiring to pursue her passion after compromising her dreams for the family, juggling with family responsibilities, sharing a sour relation with her husband because of his erratic work timings etc.), Suchi’s character got sidelined. She is clearly a hardworking woman and a doting mother of two young children. She is shown doing a teaching job in the initial episodes because that way it is easier for her to take care of her children. But in the later episodes, her colleague/friend persuades and encourages Suchi to work with him in a start-up company, because he feels that she is supremely talented and her teaching job does not do justice to her potential. When she begins working in a start-up, she realises her capability and passion.

The souring relationship between the husband and wife intensifies as the husband (the protagonist) always prioritizes his work over his family. The wife finds her solace in her work and her male friend. Inspite of Suchi having versatility and a strong personality, accompanied by great acting, her character did not flourish as it should have. Her screen presence was much lesser than that of the male protagonist. Just like Sacred Games, even The Family Man deals with wider topic, and not such only-male content. In TVF Pitchers is a story of four men who quit their high-paying jobs to develop their own start-up. This web series is an inspiration to the young minds who are stuck at their boring jobs while their passion lies somewhere else. TVF Pitchers excellently showcased that “dreams” come at a cost, in the form of – compromising your lifestyle, convincing your family members that you have to give away your stable income, compromise your relationship etc. The female lead Shreya in this series comes across as a “perfect partner” of the male protagonist Naveen because she is exceptionally understanding. But what made her character extraordinary is that she prioritises her passion over her relationship, giving the audience a strong message that her aspirations ie. relocating to another country for a job, is as important as his passion for developing a start-up. Wouldn’t Naveen go if he had got an opportunity, leaving his relationship with Shreya behind? He would, definitely. The ideal approach to female representation, is female representation. The lack of overall notable female superheroes and supporting characters therein is the issue. (James, 2013, n.p.)

TVF Pitchers – TVF

Empowering Characters

Web series showed the Indian audiences that a woman can be chasing her dreams, career-oriented, enjoying power and at the same time, she can embrace sexuality and be feminine. It is not necessary for a woman to be tough, masculine and a rebel to be taken seriously. She can be as feminine as she wants to be and yet crave success, be ambitious and complex. She can be someone who fights for justice on men’s behalf or could be someone who loves and enjoys sex way more than a patriarchal and judgmental society expects her to. Some web series gave us such women. Women’s sexiness is ranked higher than her intelligence in most films in the industry (Loredo 2012).

Set in a dystopian future, Ghoul brutally portrays atrocities. A woman leader Nida Rahim, played by Radhika Apte is a military officer, supporting the ongoing fascist, authoritarian and dictator regime. She believes that the present regime will cleanse the “wrongdoings” in society. As the show progresses, Nida learns some disturbing truths about the regime when she interrogates a terrorist. Ghoul has a horrific setting and watching a woman character who is not just self-determined but also is a mix of toughness and softness, is exhilarating.

Ghoul – Netflix

Made In Heaven is written and directed by all-women team  Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Alankrita Srivastava,  follows the lives of two wedding planners, Tara Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala) and Karan Mehra (Arjun Mathur) as they go about organizing extravagant, high class wedding one after another. The series highlights the unreasonable pressure we put on women to align with our idea of a shy Indian bride and deals with issues of women’s agency, empowerment, sexual harassment. In the entire series, the character of Tara outshined even though she had several grey areas. Though she plays mind games and manipulates her boss into marrying her to get out of poverty, Tara’s character is empowering because she works very hard to be a successful businesswoman who chooses not to compromise her dreams for anything. Tara stands up for the poor molested mehendi wali who chooses money over fighting a case against her oppressor (a wealthy and socially powerful man) because she knows that for many underprivileged women, money is of utmost importance than fighting a case. When your basic needs are not fulfilled or when you have to take care of your family, you have no strength to fight against the social structure and Tara does not judge this stance of the mehendi wali.

Made in Heaven – Amazon Prime

In Mirzapur, Golu Gupta played by Shweta Tripathi showed us that a woman does not have to hide her sexual desires. A series which is about mafia gangs, power, rivalry, terror and violence, and highly dominant by strong male characters, had a scene in it which showed a woman from a rural area taking power of her sexual desires ie. masturbating in the library while reading books. Golu is a level headed, strong woman with progressive ideas. A scene which shows a woman embracing her sexuality stands out for the very reason that it normalises sexual desires of a woman, which are experienced by everyone. Content so empowering surely becomes a step ahead to initiate discussions that are necessary in the mainstream media.

Indian cinema has continued to objectify women even today. We strive to see women depicting amazing personalities that inspire us in more ways. In an art form that largely casts men in the lead roles and women as supporting cast, web series that have strong women character, with engaging and unique content, is a refreshing change. Though overall in the entertainment field gender roles have evolved across the globe, objectification of women or queer community very much persists. Thus, when a show or a movie breaks through these prejudices against women and others, it is a delight to consume such content. All the three women mentioned above portrayed characters with purpose. Nida showed us that women can be fierce and tender at the same time. Challenging gender norms, she projected that women can achieve success in stereotypically non-masculine activities, including analytical skills and combat. Tara showed us that we can be vulnerable and yet not lose our ground. She gathers enough courage to tell the truth to her rich adulterous husband about how she manipulated their marriage and finally dumps him. She realises that her existence does not require any validation from her rich in-laws. Golu showed us that sexual desires are a common thing.  

Stereotypical characters

Bollywood movies cannot get enough of sketching stereotypical characters, especially when it comes to gender roles. In many movies that portray the beautiful relationship of teacher-student, more often or not, the character of the teacher (fun loving, supportive mentor, who changes the lives of the students, inspiring etc.) is played by male actors. This depiction of ‘most loved teacher’ has several stereotypical layers such as, men are friendlier, more understanding of students problems and more approachable. Movies such as Taare Zameen Par, Rockford, Mohabaatien, Black, Kai Po Che, Parichay etc. all have male mentors/ teachers. There is hardly any Hindi movie which had a female teacher in it, who got popular for her unconditional support and love towards her students. This same stereotype has been applied in one of the most popular web series, which was released in 2019. Kota Factory by TVF is a show that narrates the lives of students in Kota, and their efforts to get into IIT. In this series, Jeetendra Kumar plays Jeetu Bhaiya, a compassionate teacher which looks at the trials and tribulations of the students. He is the most respected and loved teacher in the institution, who reaches out to the students whenever they are confused or distressed. The conversations between the students and Jeetu bhaiya are very relatable because it takes you back in time remembering your own teachers. Kota Factory is named as the top Indian web series of 2019 in a list released by IMDb. Jeetu bhaiya’s character got extremely popular with the audiences.

Out of the box women-led content

Bollywood’s usual stalking roles portrayed by men are often romanticized. Such movies conclude with either the stalker attempting to kill the woman or the woman falling in love with her stalker. Turning away from this cliche, Pushpavalli offers us a unique narrative of a woman’s obsession with a man, that also leads into stalking. Pushpavalli played by Sumukhi Suresh, seems like a normal girl-next door initially, but as the plot develops, the audience can she her darker tones – that of a hardcore stalker. Yes, the premise is supremely dangerous, but to challenge the unrealistic portrayal of women onscreen is very much new.

Pushpavalli – Amazon Prime

The series is cringe comedy but asks some hard-hitting questions such as when does a normal relation turn obsessive or do we talk enough about women stalkers or do we wait for stalking to turn into a crime. There are moments when the audience feels sorry for her but can never agree with her obsession. Pushpavalli series showed us that a woman can have shades of grey and yet be playing a protagonist, because a woman protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be “all good” all the time.

Theoretical Framework

Audiences interpretation of how gender and class are represented in web series can be understood by Social Cognitive Theory and Cultivation Theory. Power structure plays a huge role in how a character is perceived by the audiences. All these characters had to be portrayed as leaders or women with powerful backgrounds, in order to stand out or to be noticed or to be perceived as “empowering woman”, which itself applies a “likeable”  or a “positive” filter to the characters. The Social Cognitive Theory suggests that people develop expectations for real-world situations from observational learning while consuming media (Hall et al., 2012).  It is highly improbable to think that the media does not affect people, their way of thinking, and the way they perceive the world and themselves (Gauntlett 2008,)

Data Analysis and Interpretation

Thematic Analysis method of analysing the data was used to interpret the data collected through the survey to analyse the content of the data whether Indian web series is a new wave of women narrative and women representation in these series is reality.

These categories have been labelled as:

Agreement – This theme is established on agreeing with the premises of the research that web series is indeed an influential form of narrating womens’ stories. All the participants felt that web series creates more space to develop more stories and content has longer life. Because there isn’t much regulation, the space deals well with issues of women’s agency and unexplored topics. They acknowledge that narratives of women by women are the most powerful, as it does not show women as oppressed anymore. It portrays real women in real life scenarios. They also believe that these stories are influential because people like to mimic what they watch. Movies/web series are often a depiction of everyday life. It shows stereotypes, biases, representation, politics, violence, victims, heroes, etc.

The more we are exposed to a certain narrative, the more we believe in those realities. Well made web series is a great way to introspect and reflect on our moral compass. Some even felt that they do gain some level of confidence when they see how women fight all odds or learn how they handle their relationships better on seeing women in web series do. The participants felt that web series has initiated an open conversation on the LGBTQ community with their families and helps them realise its normality. Characters are more relatable unlike the larger-than-life characters of bollywood actresses and  TV serials. The woman character is more believable since she isn’t shown to be a perfect or near perfect woman which is how all of us are with negative traits. Web series can provide a great platform for telling women-centric stories. All the participants in this category rated Tara from Made in Heaven as their favourite women protagonist.

Disagreement – This theme is established on disagreeing with the premises of the research that web series is indeed an influential form of narrating women’s’ stories. They believe that only if the content is relatable, the story can be influential. The participants in this category don’t feel that web series is one of the strongest forms of narrating stories or they have any impact on their lives and choices. They feel that women-centric content should be niche, tailored and expect most men in it to be vilified. The participants that fall in this category also feel that these are mostly stories of Hindu, urban, upper class, upper caste women (which is fine because even those aren’t told), but we can’t celebrate the bare minimum.

We still don’t have any stories from the perspectives of Dalit, adivasi, minority women. Only now we have stories/films that depict the raw and unforgiving nature of the caste system, which also largely have only male protagonists. All the women-centric shows or web series which have strong women characters in otherwise male-dominant shows, don’t have the luxury of being mediocre because like every other field, even in the entertainment industry there is huge gender disparity. The reach would be more if the content is localized in terms of the languages and story. Some participants in this category didn’t find women-centric web series appealing because they couldn’t relate to the show and they also feel that only strong content can be influential. The participants feel that the filmmakers are still trying to grapple with the nuances of storytelling required for a web series, especially while narrating women’s stories.

All the participants feel that the preference of the content does not depend on the gender of the protagonist. Content is important, gender of the protagonists isn’t. As long as the content is unique and engaging, female-only or male-only content doesn’t really matter. They also agreed that the reach of web series is very niche, making streaming platforms paid, cuts off a lot of audiences who cannot afford or don’t have that infrastructure. All of them accepted that a female-centric series will be appreciated only if it is well made. A pseudo women-empowering series or characters won’t have enough female audience as well.

CONCLUSION

Indian web series has seen a massive growth in content that begs to differ from that of Bollywood. It has helped in capturing and sustaining the interests of the audience. Web series offers creative freedom to the makers than movies don’t; it is an ideal space to experiment with topics that are sensitive and triggering. Web series’s engaging and appealing content is managing to keep up with audiences’ expectations of consuming diverse subjects and issues.

All of this is true but when it comes to women’s representation or women-centric content, even web series seems far behind. Most of the web series that have content centered to women are unrelatable, since it caters to a very niche women audience. Women living in cities other than Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore or other metro cities, won’t be able to relate with any of the four women from Four More Shots Please!. Most of the women-centric shows aired on web series have women who are either powerful or have women coming from privileged backgrounds. For example- Four More Shots Please! explores the “female centric” theme, as all four women protagonists with dynamic personalities  (Damini-   Editor-in-chief of a news website, Anjana – Owner of a legal firm, Umang – Fitness instructor, Siddhi – Woman from an elitist background who does not do a job and is groom-hunting) struggling in their professional and personal lives.

Representation matters because the entertainment world is anyway riding high on male performances and their narratives and in this scenario, if we narrow down the “representation” of women even further, “empowering women through web” becomes a myth. Shows like Adulting can be tad bit relatable for those girls who relocate to other cities for jobs. But that is it! Even their struggle for survival in a city like Mumbai is that of privileged class. Same with Kavya from Little Things. Her character in the series evolved from doing a boring, unproductive job (which also pays well) in Season 1 to earning 22 lakh package in Season 2. Kavya Kulkarni looks very impressive with her constant desire to do better in life, dreaming big, setting goals, being financially stable and her gesture of offering to help her partner pay off his family loan. Though, her accomplishment as a woman is refreshing to watch but we cannot ignore the fact that her caste and class identity plays a major role in lowering her social struggles.

It is important to note that overcoming under-representation of women in shows dominated by men is nothing but “mere existence”; it is nowhere close to liberation of women, as it does not seek to challenge the complex identities. In a show like Sacred Games, which is overloaded by highly dominant male characters (who by the way are also very popular off-screen), few strong female characters easily get overshadowed. Not just that but all three are killed at the highest point of the show, because a powerful women character can be a threat to her male-counterparts.

No doubt that the web series has established a space for untouched topics and enriching content, but it needs to widen its reach and cater to audiences apart from the urban audiences. The gender disparity in accessing the internet can’t go unnoticeable. Even if the web series continues to create more and more women empowering content, if it doesn’t reach its right audience, it is all a waste.

REFERENCES

  1. Gauntlett, David (2008). Media, gender and Identity An introduction. 2 nd edition. London: Routledge.
  2. James. (2013, May 4). Bechdel Test movie list. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://bechdeltest.com/view/4090/iron_man_3/
  3. Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Review, 206(1), 676–713
  4. Lauzen, M. M., & Dozier, D. M. (2005). Maintaining the double standard: Portrayals of age and gender in popular films. Sex Roles, 52(7-8), 437-446.
  5. What People Watch, Listen To and Buy: Nielsen India. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nielsen.com/in/en/.
  6. Neilsen, IAMAI. (n.d.). India India 2019. India India 2019. Retrieved from https://cms.iamai.in/Content/ResearchPapers/d3654bcc-002f-4fc7-ab39-e1fbeb00005d.psf
  7. Pew Research Center. (2018). Social Media Use Continues to Rise in Developing Countries but Plateaus Across Developed Ones. Social Media Use Continues to Rise in Developing Countries but Plateaus Across Developed Ones. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2018/06/19/social-media-use-continues-to-rise-in-developing-countries-but-plateaus-across-developed-ones/

Web Series

  1. Sacred Games (streamed on Netflix)
  2. Ghoul (streamed on Netflix)
  3. The Family Man (streamed on Amazon Prime)
  4. Made In Heaven (streamed on Amazon Prime)
  5. Ladies Room (streamed on YoutTube)
  6. Adulting (streamed on YouTube)
  7. Little Things (streamed on Netflix)
  8. Pushpavalli (streamed on Amazon Prime)
  9. Kota Factory (streamed on TVF)
  10. Mirzapur (streamed on Amazon Prime)
  11. TVF Pitchers (streamed on TVF)
  12. Girl In The City (streamed on YouTube)

[1] https://www.netflix.com/in/title/80115328

[2]https://www.primevideo.com/detail/Mirzapur/0PDOKMV9CRLOMO5EUKNCUJLG4Q

[3] https://tvfplay.com/show/tvf-pitchers/1

[4] https://tvfplay.com/show/permanent-roommates/3

[5] https://www.netflix.com/in/title/80991033

[6] https://www.amazon.com/Made-In-Heaven-Season-1/dp/B07P88GK21

[7] https://www.yashrajfilms.com/movies/ladies-room

[8] https://www.netflix.com/in/title/80245450

[9] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6005644/

[10]https://www.primevideo.com/detail/Four-More-Shots-Please/0HBU0DV03Q2R9RLV7NJP5H6CXK

[11] https://www.netflix.com/in/title/81076756

[12] https://www.amazon.com/The-Family-Man-Season-1/dp/B07XJ5JLV6

[13] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/digital-media-to-reach-5-1-bn-by-2021-report/articleshow/70330850.cms?from=mdr

[14]India Internet 2019 report-https://cms.iamai.in/Content/ResearchPapers/d3654bcc-002f-4fc7-ab39-e1fbeb00005d.pdf

[15]https://cms.iamai.in/Content/ResearchPapers/d3654bcc-002f-4fc7-ab39-e1fbeb00005d.pdf

[16]https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2018/06/19/social-media-use-continues-to-rise-in-developing-countries-but-plateaus-across-developed-ones/

[17] India Internet 2019 report by IAMAI

[18]https://scroll.in/reel/927014/leila-review-in-netflix-series-the-future-isnt-very-different-from-the-present

[19] https://www.netflix.com/in/title/80115328

[20] https://www.amazon.com/The-Family-Man-Season-1/dp/B07XJ5JLV6

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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