Making of a Malayali Manosphere: How video streaming platforms and reality TV are promoting a culture of machismo

Making of a Malayali Manosphere: How video streaming platforms and reality TV are promoting a culture of machismo

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ACT ONE Sunday, June 18, 2023, Valancherry, Kerala The small town in Malappuram district of Kerala witnessed some unusual scenes as Mohammed Nihad, a YouTube game streamer, who goes by the handle ‘Mrz Thoppi’ on the online video sharing and social media platform and enjoys a fan following with over 4.7 million subscribers, arrived to inaugurate a showroom. The fans,...


Sunday, June 18, 2023, Valancherry, Kerala

The small town in Malappuram district of Kerala witnessed some unusual scenes as Mohammed Nihad, a YouTube game streamer, who goes by the handle ‘Mrz Thoppi’ on the online video sharing and social media platform and enjoys a fan following with over 4.7 million subscribers, arrived to inaugurate a showroom. The fans, predominantly schoolchildren, who turned up in massive numbers to see the social media influencer, caused a traffic blockade along the national highway, triggering public anger.

Thoppi (which means hat in Malayalam) is no stranger to being in the news for the wrong reasons, and as a game streamer who uses obscene and misogynistic language, Nihad has routinely been under fire from fellow YouTubers. He frequently engages in incredibly bizarre acts while live-streaming on platforms such as Loco and YouTube. His videos showing him shoving food down his pants and making masturbatory gestures while yelling profanities have earned him a lot of brickbats.

“We came to see Thoppi. He is super cool,” Mirshad an excited seventh grader told the local television reporters. “Today, we don’t have class, but even if we had we would have bunked it,” said 13-year-old Anish. “He swears a lot during the streaming, and that’s super nice, he knows how to show the ‘feminichies’ (local derogatory slang for feminists as in feminazis) their place,” Grigor a 17-year-old higher secondary student said.


Wednesday, May 17, 2023, Angamali, Kerala

Model, dancer and small-time film actor Nandita Sankara, aka Mastani, was travelling in a state-run KSRTC bus when a man named Savad Mohamed who was sitting beside her in the bus suddenly opened the zipper of his pants and started rubbing his hands on her and masturbating.

Mastani confronted him and got an FIR filed against him thanks to the timely intervention of bus conductor Pradeep and driver Joshi, who chased the man as he fled the bus which had been brought to a halt following the commotion. The man was arrested and remanded to judicial custody by a local court on the same day. The weirdest part of the incident unravelled after a week. Savad, who had to stay behind bars for a few days, got a rousing welcome when he was bailed out. An organisation called the All-Kerala Men’s Association organised a felicitation when he came out of the prison. The association leaders, who garlanded the man as he stepped out of jail, squarely blamed Mastani for what happened in the bus, accusing her of ‘honey trapping an innocent young man’.


Sunday, 16 March 2020, Cochin International Airport

A large group of Bigg Boss Malayalam – a TV reality show where the contestants called ‘housemates’ live together in a house which has no contact with the outside world for a stipulated period – supporters defied Kerala’s COVID health emergency to give a hero’s welcome to controversial participant Rajith Kumar. A swarm of admirers surrounded Rajith as he arrived at Kochi airport on a late evening flight, leaving the Kerala Police with no choice but to book them.

Rajith Kumar, a university teacher by profession and notorious for his misogynist worldview, was forced to leave the show after hurting a fellow female contestant. Rajith Kumar started a trend of building a dedicated fan base in the form of a ‘fan army’, which actively campaigned in his favour while denigrating other participants. As subsequent seasons of the show unfolded, a growing number of contestants embraced a toxic masculine trait, following Rajit Kumar’s lead. Among them was Dr Robin Radhakrishnan, who also adopted a similar approach to establish himself as an alpha male.

All the three episodes mentioned above have a common denominator. They all show an acceptance and even celebration of misogyny in its most blatant form. From the social media influencer, who operates from his own private space, to the exhibitionist, who flashes his genitals in front of women and the Big Boss contestants who fight for the age-old patriarchal values, all exhibit different doses of it.

The reality show, Bigg Boss, modelled on the Dutch TV show Big Brother, produced in Indian languages by Endemol Shine India through Viacom18 and Disney Star has often been criticised for its chauvinistic content and treatment. The Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam versions anchored by superstars Salman Khan, Kamal Haasan and Mohanlal respectively had its share of misogyny from season to season.

The show heavily conforms to regressive social norms and stereotypes, with contempt for political correctness being the bottom-line. Although women – and sexual minorities at times – actively participate in the programme and actively expose their genuine selves, ingrained gender discrimination manifests itself often, with one or the other alpha male participants at the centre of making insensitive comments.

Rajith Kumar at the airport with his fans.

“The show makers always want eyeballs and TRP and it is designed to gain exactly that,” feels Diya Sana, a queer activist, who had been a contestant of Bigg Boss Malayalam season 1. “We were instructed to refrain from discussing politics and religion, but it was not a fully scripted show. Yes, there is misogyny but it’s a reflection of our society,” Sana adds. “The first season winner of the Malayalam version, actor Sabumon Abdussamad, has his political stance which seemed to be very progressive initially, but look how he ended up being an alpha towards the end of the show,” she says.

Bigg Boss is undoubtedly not the first television programme to be conformist or retrograde in nature. This conformist content has been popularised by way of short videos and reels on different social media sites. The trend began with the video content creation apps like the formerly popular Dubsmash and TikTok. In what would have been referred to as the Malayali TikTok Universe, there were a number of profiles that openly promoted sexism as an ideology or worldview. They wore various patriarchal personas, such as a weary instructor unable to control his rowdy female students or a frustrated father.

As the Association for Progressive Communications, in a 2016 article argues, “The internet is a space where social norms are negotiated, performed and imposed, often in an extension of other spaces shaped by patriarchy and heteronormativity which is largely true for video content creation platforms. In fact, there are a lot of videos online that make fun of the LGBTQI community.”

Clubhouse, the audio platform which grew in popularity during the extended COVID lockdown period, very quickly slipped into the realm of mansplaining, misogyny and racism.
“Many people had felt alone throughout the continuously extended lockdown and were pining for a sense of belonging and enjoyment, and Clubhouse was filling that vacuum.

There are rooms dedicated to subjects ranging from stand-up comedy to discussions on gender and sexuality. But in Malayalam, because of its very nature, it turned into a safe haven for the ‘meninist’ groups inspired by the western incel cult who often indulged in women bashing amounting to verbal rape,” Maya, a researcher in legal studies who had been active on the platform, told The Federal.

“The popularity of the platform gradually shrunk as the lockdown was slowly lifted but the atmosphere created by those ill-mannered discussions seems to be continuing on various social media platforms,” she adds.

The ban on TikTok saw a lot of youngsters migrating to other video platforms, including Instagram reels, Facebook shorts and YouTube. These platforms became a major source of income for many of them. Vloggers made merry on a variety of subjects and gained popularity similar to film stars. A couple of years back, vloggers Ebin and Libin, who run the popular YouTube channel ‘E Bull Jet’, were arrested by the police based on a complaint registered by Kannur Regional Transport Office (RTO).

They were accused of altering a van used for their life tour and shooting videos. Their arrest led to a ruckus in front of Kannur RTO as their fans gathered to protest against their detention. The brothers had a van called Napolean whose licence was suspended for six months following the incident. At one point it appeared that the protest would turn violent.
Mohamed Nihad aka Thoppi, on the other hand, has zero social connection as he barely gets out of his room. Thoppi struggled as a child and was busted for stealing cash to buy gaming devices. “I was a ninth grader when I stole money from a local shop and ran.

Locals chased and caught me. When my mother got to know of it, she fainted on the road, and my father stopped speaking to me. This was around 10 years ago,” said Thoppi in an interview given to a YouTube channel.

Thoppi, who has been modelling himself after American teen video streamer Darren Watkins IShowSpeed, who is well-known for his ‘hot-headed’ demeanour and sexiest ‘pranks’ — for which he frequently apologises — was subject to sharp criticism for his ‘uncivilised’ behaviour towards fellow streamers, especially women.

Thoppi’s story took an anticlimactic turn as Kerala Police barged into his room in the wee hours of June 24 and arrested him after an array of complaints were registered against him for his online behaviour. Ironically, with the cops breaking the door to take him in — which he broadcast live from the flat — has earned him support from various corners.

Interestingly, he was arrested following the complaints from Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and All India Youth Federation (AIYF) both Leftist youth organisations.

“A section of YouTubers who spread anti-women ideology and resorted to flinging obscenity have become a nuisance. Unfortunately, young kids are becoming their admirers. There should be rules in place for content creation,” says V Wasif, state president of DYFI.

“It is obvious that a misogynist male influencer could eventually develop antisocial behaviour. However, keeping the children who are affected by these personalities on the other side would not be helpful. In order to interact with these youngsters, we must be able to speak their language,” says Mohammed Ibrahim, an Ernakulam-based lawyer and social commentator. Ibrahim contends that since they won’t pay attention to our lectures, we must engage with them politically using their own language.

According to many feminist activists and commentators, the incident involving actor-model Nandita could be read or seen as an offline extension of this toxic environment created on the internet. Despite being accused of a crime like flashing, Savad got the support of a large section of online and offline as well.

“It was disgusting to watch him get a rousing welcome outside the jail, while I was mercilessly trolled and attacked online,” says Nandita. “I got many messages from other girls who had similar experiences from this guy. Yet a significant number of people on social media were ready to question me with some even accusing me of setting a honey trap for internet popularity,” she says.

A couple of years back, vloggers Ebin and Libin were arrested by the police based on a complaint registered by Kannur Regional Transport Office.

It was worrying to see how the incident has taken on a communal tone after certain right-wing trolls on social media began drawing attention to the accused’s affiliation with a particular religion. Though it did not take off in Kerala and the Malayali cyber space, the communal angle got traction in the Hindi-speaking social media communities and groups.

Even though there isn’t a video hit chart with creator profiles available in Malayalam just yet, it is clear that the digital community’s Malayali content makers come from all walks of life, regardless of class or caste and most of them are impacted by misogynist ideas and world views.

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