“My Maid Watches It”: Key Symbols and Ambivalent Sentiments in the Production of Television Programming in India

While now classic scholarship in the anthropology of media and media studies has devoted ethnographic attention to active audiences’ resistance, subversion, and enjoyment of the ideological content of media products, ethnographers have only recently turned to the complexity of the subjective and imaginative processes at play in the making of mass media. In this article, I attend to the particularly complex case of the production of commercial satellite television programming in Mumbai, India in the era following market liberalization. Scholars have identified mass media, especially television, as key drivers and signs of the cultural and ideological shift precipitated by liberalization. Here, I explore how this transformation is negotiated by a prominent group of female producers of entertainment programming. Exploring how they assess their work, their audiences, and their social roles and responsibilities as media makers, I identify a striking degree of inconsistency, ambivalence, and regret that revolves around the figure of “the maid,” who serves as a key symbol commonly invoked to stand for the “mass” audience. I argue that the complex nature of sentiments expressed around the audience-as-maid reflects conflicts between the developmental models of Indian society in which these female producers were reared and trained and the neoliberal terrain on which they now operate. Analyzing the self-reflexive, imaginative work through which they are actively mediating India’s neoliberal transition, I argue here that the transition is more indeterminate than a simplistic periodization of Indian history into developmental and neoliberal eras would imply. This case illustrates the capacity of an ethnography of media production to complicate our notions of the “culture industries” as sites of monolithic ideological dissemination, particularly in times of cultural change.