In Transnational America, Grewal (2005) has explained how “American” nationalities are formed in the United States and other parts of the world via the production of global consumers. Grewal argues,

“As a superpower, America produced subjects outside its territorial boundaries through its ability to disseminate neoliberal technologies through multiple channels. […] The relevance of America was not solely in the subjects it produced within the United States but in its ability to create networks of knowledge and power, cosmopolitan and ‘global,’ that traversed and rearticulated national boundaries” (p. 2-3).
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In the production of the “cosmopolitan” citizen-consumer is embedded the ideology that market-based choices offer the potential of creating individualized and freely choosing subjects – a notion that, according to Grewal, also formed the basis of liberal feminism. This engendered “lifestyles of empowerment” (Grewal, p. 16) that proved especially useful for the migrant female consumer to chart a course of emancipation from her restrictive home culture. As Grewal argues further,

“Choice here was not only the act through which freedom could be understood as central to the subject of modern American as well as of liberal feminism, but also an important aspect of neoliberal culture’s imbrication within the liberalism of democratic ‘choice’ figured as ‘freedom.’ The particular ‘freedom’ of ‘America’ thus became the ability to have the ‘choices’ denied to those in ‘traditional’ societies and ‘cultures’” (p. 65).

Chopra, playing Leeds in Baywatch, is an example of such a liberated woman, who was able to pursue her entrepreneurial ambition in the proverbial land of opportunities by becoming a high-value consumer.

We see this coded into the visual imagery of the film in Leeds’ expensive-looking clothes and other conspicuous markers of a wealthy lifestyle. She owns a yacht and has several people (mostly men) at her beck and call. In one scene, Leeds bribes a local politician with a Tag Heuer watch (made prominently visible in the shot because Chopra is the brand ambassador for this luxury line of watches). She is the affluent female consumer, at the helm of a criminal enterprise and real estate business, who acts deliberately and always to increase her wealth and power. In this scene, though, the extratextual star persona of Chopra as a Tag Heuer brand ambassador merges seamlessly into the role that she is playing in the film, coding the star and the character at once as consumers of high-end luxury items.

In the climax of the film, Leeds is cruelly punished for her excesses: she is killed by an explosion of heavy-duty firecrackers and all that is left of her is a severed leg and a high-heeled shoe. This dramatic end comes when Leeds is trying to kill Brody (played by Zac Efron). Her last words to Buchannan, as he is trying to save Brody, are, “If I was a man, you would call me driven.” These scathing words are followed, unexpectedly, by an explosion and, after a few seconds, we see her severed leg drop down from the sky in an instant that is both comic and gruesome. The character of Leeds incorporates a volatile presence in the film text – as a brown woman, as a woman engaged in business, and as a criminal mastermind – who needs to be completely annihilated. Even though Chopra’s inclusion in the film is an example of a more diverse representation of people of color in mainstream Hollywood and a significant career milestone for Chopra as a transnational star, I read her violent textual death as the film’s inability to assimilate her presence.

In contrast to Chopra’s role in Baywatch, Chopra’s ethnicity has been used in far more conventional ways in her other media-related ventures in Hollywood. For instance, in 2013, Chopra released one of her first music videos called “Exotic,” the subtext of which plays off the fact that Chopra is brown-skinned. The video begins with Chopra emerging from the sea in a bathing suit, as the camera lingers over her body, visually interpreting the lyrics in which she tells us that she is “exotic” and “hotter than the tropics.”

A shot from the “Exotic” music video – one of many in which Chopra features in a fashion model pose. Chopra dances in the foreground with the backdrop of a tropical forest. The dim lighting and her all-black costume serve to highlight her brown skin and emphasise her Otherness

Phrases such as “desi girl” (Indian girl) and “pardesi babu” (a man from a foreign country) are included to signify her transnational status. Chopra is captured in various poses throughout the video, always in bathing suits and high heels, a throwback to her erstwhile career as a model and beauty queen. In an extended dance sequence towards the end of the video, Chopra is placed in a mise-en-scène of a tropical forest and dressed in black. The dimly lit background emphasizes Chopra’s body and her darker skin tone. The way in which Chopra is presented in the video indicates that her brown skin tone is a marketable aspect of her stardom, which has been effectively used in this case to commodify her ethnicity and popularize her in an international context. The Leeds character in Baywatch, thus, becomes an extension of this commodification that simultaneously eroticizes and tames the other by sexualizing her in conventional “western” wear.

Similarly, the television drama Quantico (2015-2018) overplays the fact that Chopra is a brown-skinned, second generation Indian American. She plays the protagonist Alex Parrish in the series, a driven and ambitious FBI trainee and the best in her program. In the first season, Chopra becomes embroiled in a terrorist attack on a New York subway in which she is the main suspect. In Episode 5, Parrish directly addresses the public (and the viewer) in a video in which she claims that she is innocent and is being framed for the crime only because she is brown. Her public statement points towards the widely prevalent racist trope that identifies brown-skinned people as terrorists. Her skin tone is not incidental but is a crucial part of the narrative arc of the show.

Chopra’s ethnicity in these texts is deployed to mark her as the at-once fascinating and threatening Other, connotations that resonate with those associated with her character in Baywatch. The threat, however, never gets out of hand in any of the three texts mentioned earlier. In these texts, Chopra’s race and/or sexuality is oriented more towards entertainment and popular consumption rather than serious critique, eliminating any ideologically radical deployment of her identity as a racial and gendered Other. Chopra and her character Leeds are both examples of women of color who have been able to negotiate with the dominant system and gain affluence. Yet, certain aspects of their personality surface to make their presence within this system precarious.

In Off-White Hollywood, Negra (2001) has argued that an ethnic female star is readily absorbed and commodified by Hollywood as she symbolizes the myth of American pluralism and meritocratic achievement. Additionally, Negra states, she embodies the potential for “ideological disruption” as she “threatens to expose the fragile construction of white, American patriarchy” (p. 8). In a culture in which capitalism is the dominant ethic, then, meritocracy is used as the smokescreen to justify the logic of capitalism. The ethnic female star is the perfect example of the workability of this system, as she is neither white nor male. The ethnic female star, nevertheless, is not an exemplifier of meritocracy but a randomized exception to the inequalities spawned by capitalism, one of the lucky few that capitalism arbitrarily decides to reward with wealth.

A migrant woman’s efforts to include herself in the dominant consumerist ethic of American society is a complex idea to represent in a mainstream text such as Baywatch. On the one hand, her ethnicity must be used as a plot device, leading to fatal outcomes; on the other hand, the myth of the “American Dream” must be kept alive by depicting her as successful and empowered. The figure of the female migrant is instrumental in creating a subtextual contrast between her home culture as limiting and fixed and the United States as a nation of endless opportunities and multicultural ethos. Chopra, in her role as Victoria Leeds, fulfills simultaneously the stereotype of the oppressed Third World migrant woman and the high-achieving, hardworking US-American immigrant. Yet the fault line of the text is exposed through her extremely violent death, wherein her body (and delinquent individuality) is torn to shreds so that her excessive ambition is not only controlled, but also destroyed.

“Fierce, fearless, flawed”: performing brand “Priyanka”

In a three-part interview titled “Beneath the Surface” (2016), uploaded by the YouTube channel Film Companion, we are invited to visit Priyanka Chopra’s New York apartment for a glimpse into the person behind the star. Chopra takes us on a guided tour of her apartment – the space unfolding before our eyes as a spectacle of her status and affluence. In part three of this interview, we become aware of the marketing logic that underpins the show: a Microsoft Surface tablet computer used in a segment where Chopra watches and then talks about scenes from her most well-known Hindi films. The star Priyanka Chopra and the gadget Microsoft Surface have certain similarities: both are famous, both have internationally recognizable brand names, and both are associated with a lifestyle of expensive consumption. In the specific context of celebrity culture, Klein (1999) has termed this “fluid partnership” between famous people and famous products “co-branding,” – an interaction that enables both entities to leverage each other’s brands (p. 30). This is not a simple case of a star promoting a product. In times when popular culture is saturated with celebrities and products, the two complement each other in the mutual need to be noticed and demarcate themselves from other brands. In the interview, Chopra appears remarkably self-aware of her own brand and discusses her brand identity quite candidly.

When Chopra is asked how she views her success as a woman in Hollywood, she replies that the “exotic Indian girl” persona was an “easy business module” in the early part of her career. She expresses concern about “Bollywood’ stereotypes prevalent in Hollywood and says that she deliberately wanted to work towards dismantling the notion that she is only capable of song-and-dance and melodrama. She also mentions that she is a “princess” who does not busy herself with any household chores and cannot cook and is, therefore, not a typical eligible Indian bride. Chopra says that her staff and cook travel with her between Mumbai and New York so that her life as a transnational star is a seamless affair. Chopra, apart from performing stardom in this interview, also reveals her quintessential Indian class and caste privilege: a woman who will not do her own chores because she can employ people from the working class to do them for her.

Historically, stars have always functioned as brands, their name and fame used to launch and market films. McDonald (2000) has argued that stars are a “form of capital” and are used to gain advantage in the market and earn profits by commercial industries (p. 5). The foundation of the market value of the stars is their identity and recognizability as “individuated performers” (McDonald, p. 30). A star’s brand, therefore, is constructed around individuality, a notion that under neoliberal regimes of celebrity culture translates to flexible self-commodification to suit the cultural market. As Marshall (1997) has pointed out, individuality is one of the “ideological mainstays” (p. 635) of consumer capitalism, a context within which stars and celebrities operate as “highly organized cultural commodities” (p. 634). However, what is most attractive about the star is that she seemingly exists outside the realm of commodification as a creative individual, constantly changing and enacting creativity of the self. This pattern shows itself in the stardom and branding of Chopra, who presents herself as someone who has become a celebrity only after a relentless investment in herself, her star image, and her craft.

In another public appearance in 2018 for a talk on the topic “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” organized by the Indian news channel NDTV (also available on YouTube), Chopra describes herself as “fierce, fearless, and flawed.” She goes on to outline a twelve-step program that can empower young people to achieve their own dreams and “become Priyanka Chopra.” This list includes catchphrases such as “make choices,” “be greedy,” and “take risks.” She confesses that it was not her intention to break any kind of glass ceiling in her career, but that she only wanted to “chase her dreams.” Chopra’s stardom, in her own words, is a journey of continuous self-invention and of molding her persona to suit the demands of the entertainment market.

Chopra’s self-driven journey to success displays an affinity to the neoliberal understanding of atomized self-invention and enterprise. Gill and Shraff (2011) have argued that the neoliberal subject is gendered as a woman, encouraged to think of herself as an “autonomous, calculating, self-regulating subject” who functions as if she is unaffected by “any idea of individuals as subject to pressures, constraints or influence from outside themselves” (p. 7). Although Chopra refers to instances where she was discriminated against as a woman on film sets in India, she omits the fact that this is a systemic problem in the industry that female stars collectively face. Chopra’s “twelve-step program” advice is based on the presumption that any woman can easily follow these steps and become as successful as her, without referring to her own social privileges. In this neoliberal self-identification, individualism remains a free-floating ethic that anyone can strap on to their personality and precludes any grounding in social, political or economic contexts.

A female star such as Chopra, nevertheless, still exists within the contradictions of a capitalistic economy which dissembles traditional hierarchies but does not radically alter social and cultural mores. In the context of contemporary India, conservative values dictate women’s public and private behavior, causing friction between the neoliberal ethic of individuality and dominant values regarding gender and sexuality. I use a highly publicized instance to illustrate how Chopra’s star brand clashes with majoritarian views about how ideal Indian women must behave and present themselves in public. In 2017, Priyanka Chopra was trolled for posting a photo on Instagram where she is seen with the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. In the picture, she was wearing a knee-length dress instead of traditional Indian attire, and commenters shamed her for “exposing her legs” to the Prime Minister. Days later Chopra posted another picture of her mother and herself, both posing in short dresses with the caption “Legs for days.” Via her cheeky reply, Chopra, without naming anyone specifically, managed to rebuke Modi followers and trolls. Her tweet was a push back against their sexist attitudes towards Indian womanhood and (by including her mother in the shot) their favored trope of deifying motherhood.

Despite her self-assured response to the trolls, the backlash received by Chopra for her picture with Modi exposes cracks in the ideology of “choice” that she regards as an asset she possesses as a modern Indian woman. Chopra’s definition of choice, however, is imbricated within discourses of neoliberalism, wherein choice often applies only to empowerment within the commodity market. Chopra’s celebrity demonstrates the logic behind the apparent egalitarianism of the capitalist system: continuous labor and self-promotion is eventually rewarded. Yet, as King (2010) has explained, this is a form of tokenism specific to capitalism, in which “certain individuals [are selected] from subaltern categories to prove that anything is possible” (p. 17). This selection process, however, is not completely random and rewards only those who are willing to conform to the narrative of “creative” individualism – an endless process of recycling the self to maintain a state of relevance in the market.