The Construction and Contestation of Homosexual Identities in Contemporary Popular Culture

Essay, 2013

12 Pages



Introduction... 3

Struggles around Identity in Popular Culture: Bollywood... 3

Popular Culture and Hegemony Theory... 3

Identity... 5

The Contestation and Negotiation of Identities in Bollywood... 6

Bollywood’s first gay kiss... 6

Transnational spectatorship... 7

Conclusions... 9

References... 11


Where the popular meets culture, a rich repository of oppositional voices versus hegemonic narratives evolves through representations, images and media discourses (Chopra Gajjala, 2011). Embedded in commercial networks of cultural production and distribution, popular culture is indicative of societal macro spheres and therefore resembles a fruitful realm for studying the construction and contestation of identities (Jules-Rosette Denis-Constant, 1997). The omnipresence of (sexual) identity conflicts in popular culture, such as Bollywood movies, can be interpreted as a manifestation of identity crises in postmodern society (Dunn, 1998). These crises reflect wider societal processes of change and progress that can give individuals the feeling of being thrown out of joint. Minority groups, such as homosexuals, are especially exposed, which is why it is crucially important to further advance related knowledge and inform associated current debates around the question: What is popular culture and how does it serve as a site of struggle around the construction and contestation around sexual identity? In an attempt to shed light on these highly relevant and prevailing questions, the present essay is structured in the following way.

After untangling the complexities of how popular culture serves as a representational, mediated space where identities are constructed, contested and negotiated, Bollywood cinema will be availed for a comprehensive case study of how different homosexual identity disputes are situated within cinematographic representations. Comparing national and diasporic audiences shows that culture is a powerful mediator exerting influence over how certain media texts are negotiated. The main argumentative conclusions propose that the construction and contestation of sexual identities is an individually unique, culture-specific and constantly evolving process unfolding at the intersection of macro and micro levels.

Struggles around Identity in Popular Culture: Bollywood

Popular Culture and Hegemony Theory

What is popular culture? Popular culture is associated with the material and non-material cultural expressions within a given society (Storey, 2007). Whereas popular culture is influenced by the non-material cultural expressions, it mostly manifests in the material ones. The material cultural expressions include but are not limited to cultural products and performances related to performing arts (e.g. theatre, comedy), visual arts (cartoons, paintings), types of decoration (e.g. architecture of houses, fashion) as well as television and cinema (Chopra Gajjala, 2011). The non-material expressions of popular culture comprise oral forms of cultural expression (e.g. language, jokes, and prayers), festivities and holidays (e.g. sports, Easter, Christmas) as well as everyday practices, gestures and traditions (Cunningham, 2001). In this sense, popular culture can be seen as a function of the material and non-material forms of cultural expressions within a given society.

Popular culture is inextricably intertwined with and saturated by a society’s culture, which is the entirety of belief systems, values, attitudes and practices of a society’s individuals. Imprecise accounts and confusions about the difference between popular culture and culture have suggested that popular culture consists of ideas, attitudes and beliefs (e.g. White, 2008). The seemingly blurry line between popular culture and culture is yet an important one to draw. Popular culture takes the form of cultural products and performances, whereas culture consists of the belief systems, attitudes, values and ideas within a society. Largely existing through mass media, popular culture is coined by and simultaneously permeates the everyday practices and life-styles of individuals (Harsin Hayward, 2013). Moreover, popular culture is manifested in cultural products and performances existing at the micro level, whereas culture exists at a macro level and informs production, individual reading and appropriation of popular culture.

After its introduction to the academic and intellectual world in the eighteenth century, popular culture had long been a field of marginal interest (Burke, 2009). More recently though, it has developed into an area of research attracting disciplines as diverse as women’s studies, sociology, communication and media, post-colonial studies, film and cinematographic studies as well as African American Studies and anthropology (Traube, 1996). Initiated mainly by the Germany-based Frankfurt School around Horkheimer and Adorno and later continued by British cultural studies (Bennett, 1986; Hall, 1981; Johnson, 1986; Turner, 2005), popular culture was critically re-theorized in terms of culture industries. The ensuing paradigm shift entailed that (popular) culture was no longer seen as a set of ideas and products independent of commercial imperatives and market forces coined by freedom of expression and experimentation, but rather as a standardized commodity industrially manufactured for mass consumption (Horkheimer Adorno, 1972; Kellner, 1995).

This reconceptualization of popular culture was an essential step to establish an understanding of the new hegemonic cultural politics in a world of mass media and communications (Mouffe, 1983). Epitomizing a form of cultural struggle, hegemony entails the subliminal manipulation of a society’s culture to establish a mass consensus about different forms of social reality (Gramsci, Hoare, Nowell-Smith, 1971). This conceptual framework of the domination of culture to engineer consent was the primary building block for the idea that popular culture is a heterogeneous site of opposing forces where the struggle for hegemony manifests itself through constantly shifting and unequal power relations over cultural capital (Bennett, 1986; Hall, 1981; Storey, 2007).

This cultural studies framework rejects both a production-oriented model as well as a reception-oriented model. That is to say that popular culture is neither a realm of top-down forces where mass culture is dominated and manipulatively imposed on the people, nor is it a space for open cultural expression and communication by the people. Rather, popular culture can more usefully be understood in terms of Gramsci’s ideas and the oppositional elements popular culture simultaneously comprises. In this sense, popular culture resembles a space of contestation “where the struggle for hegemony unfolds [through the dynamic interplay of] both ideological constraint and expressive process“ (Traube, 1996, p. 133).

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The Construction and Contestation of Homosexual Identities in Contemporary Popular Culture
London School of Economics
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Identity, Bollywood
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Christoph Rosenthal (Author), 2013, The Construction and Contestation of Homosexual Identities in Contemporary Popular Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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