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Mapping the Indian Manosphere

Rather than confront complex ideas about women and feminism, a number of young men are being drawn to an aggressive kind of masculinity, advocated by ‘alpha’ influencers. Can conversations bridge this new gender divide?

The “manosphere” is an online ecosystem of videos, blogs, Reddit and 4Chan forums, talk shows and podcasts that push ideas of male dominance and female subservience
The “manosphere” is an online ecosystem of videos, blogs, Reddit and 4Chan forums, talk shows and podcasts that push ideas of male dominance and female subservience (Artwork by Kokila B)

One of the most popular videos uploaded by Dev Tyagi, a 23-year-old social media content creator and music producer with 85,000 followers on Instagram, is about how he doesn’t allow his girlfriends to have male friends. “Agar meri bandi hai, woh dost nahi rakh sakti… uske zindagi mein sirf ek ladka hoga, woh hunga main (If I have a girlfriend, she can’t have male friends. There should be only one guy in her life and that’s me),” says Tyagi, in the slickly produced, sepia-toned short video set to a low-fi beat, which has over 500,000 likes on Instagram and has been shared close to 200,000 times.

A 17-year-old student from Mumbai sent me the video in response to a call-out, shared among friends and family, to speak to teenage boys and young adult men in India about their idea of masculinity. For some time now, academics, psychologists, feminists and those working in the gender and social justice space in India have been aware of a rise in conservative, misogynistic opinion on the Indian internet. From X threads about the right “body count” for girls to shaming women for their looks, clothes and behaviour, to glorifying an extremely traditional idea of womanhood linked to purity and sacrifice, these opinions are most visible on X and Instagram. In parallel, there has been a rise in conversations around male supremacy, reclaiming a patriarchal idea of masculinity, and the mainstreaming of sexist opinions.

“If a guy is being nice to a girl, his friends tease him saying he’s being a ‘beta’ and tell him to be an ‘alpha’ man,” says 16-year-old Veda (who did not want to reveal her surname), a student of an international school in Bengaluru, referring to a popular taxonomy of manhood prevalent in the manosphere. In this view of the world, beta men are kind and gentle, alphas are fearless and dominant, while sigmas are rebellious leaders, and it is pretty clear which are the desirable categories.

It’s a global phenomenon—a January 2024 Financial Times article spoke about a new “global gender divide”, citing combined data sets from various studies conducted in South Korea, the US, the UK and Germany, which showed that young men are becoming more regressive and conservative in their views even as young women are becoming more progressive and liberal . Historically, ideological divides have been stark across generations; within the same generation, men and women have largely held similar positions on liberal vs conservative ideas. Today, in country after country, data shows that while young women are taking more forward-looking, left-leaning positions—on topics ranging from feminism to immigration—men have become more conservative and reactionary.

A manifestation of this phenomenon has been the rise of the “manosphere”—an online ecosystem of videos, blogs, Reddit and 4Chan forums, talk shows and podcasts that push ideas of male dominance and female subservience. It is not a monolith populated entirely by young men and boys—there are, increasingly, women who believe in it too, from the American “trad wives” to Indian women who call themselves “equal rights activists”. Ideas within the manosphere are a spectrum, ranging from fitness and self-improvement advice, albeit geared towards becoming a “high value” or “alpha” man, to overt misogyny and even calls for violence against women.

Its prominent spokespersons have been global influencers like Andrew Tate, who openly describes himself as a misogynist and has had an outsize impact on the manosphere since he rose to prominence around 2019—spawning hundreds of vlogs and social media accounts that parrot his views on how men can and need to become stronger, bolder, more assertive and dominant and how women need to be controlled and dominated.

Though currently facing trial for serious charges like human trafficking, rape and organised crime, Tate’s ideology, before he was thrown out by many of the social media platforms that contributed to his rise, had reached every corner of the globe where young people were online, including Indian classrooms.

Going by online and offline conversations, it is alarmingly common to find young Indian boys mouthing his views. Over a dozen 14-to-17-year-old girls I spoke to in Bengaluru for this story said that their male classmates were plugging into the “manosphere” and were fans of Andrew Tate and his ilk, including Indian content creators like Elvish Yadav and Beer Biceps, who have repeatedly shared problematic, sexist content. While Yadav has trolled and body-shamed women like influencer Kusha Kapila, actor Swara Bhaskar and his female co-contestants on Bigg Boss OTT 2 to wide applause from a largely male audience, Ranveer Allahabadia or “Beer Biceps” has shared alpha male advice, such as, “Nobody is coming to rescue you. Take responsibility for your life like a grown man does. Or remain the same boy you were.”

When influential parts of the internet double down on gender stereotypes and binaries, they trickle down to ordinary young men and women as well. “When we were younger, boys and girls used to play separately, but slowly we started becoming friends. These days there are hardly any mixed groups,” says A.D., a 16-year-old male student of an alternative school in Bengaluru. “Many of the boys say horrible things about girls they are dating or want to date, or they talk about how they don’t want to date girls who are not ‘feminine’.”

When influential parts of the internet double down on gender stereotypes and binaries, they trickle down to ordinary young men and women as well.

The young man who shared Dev Tyagi’s video had similar concerns about his classmates. Though he did not wish to be quoted, he made it very clear he himself did not subscribe to the ideas expressed in the video and found it “stupid”.

GETTING MEN “BACK ON TRACK”

Intrigued by the 23-year-old who is seemingly so popular among boys and men only slightly younger than himself as a kind of truth-telling uber-mensch, I reached out to Tyagi on Instagram. His grandiloquent videos are replete with cuss words and a performative harshness. One-on-one, though, he speaks politely and intelligently in English interspersed with Hindi. “This is my professional voice. This is not how I would talk with my guy friends or in my videos. I have to be authentic or my listeners won’t identify with me,” he says. Are his views about women and dating performative too? He denies it. “It’s the truth. Indian men lack clarity. No one gives them constructive advice on love, women, career….” Most of his advice for men focuses on dating, and he believes women have “more power” and “the upper hand” in a relationship. “There is more desire for women than men, and that’s why there are more women than men in the dating game. A few years ago, I had a breakup and was extremely depressed. I felt that the girl had a lot of power. I felt even I wanted that power,” Tyagi explains.

Content creator and influencer Dev Tyagi has over 85,000 followers on Instagram
Content creator and influencer Dev Tyagi has over 85,000 followers on Instagram (Instagram)

His ideas of what women want from men veer towards the conservative and traditional. “I see girls from a biological perspective. They have many expectations from men. They want to be able to rely on them. They want someone who has potential, who is more successful than them. But guys are failing to attract them because they are taking inspiration from Bollywood and from reels telling them that you need to focus only on your girlfriend. This is the wrong way to go about it,” he says. According to Tyagi, he is teaching men to focus on themselves—their careers, their bodies, and on boosting their own self-esteem.

"I see girls from a biological perspective. They have many expectations from men. They want someone who has potential, who is more successful than them"

He does let some vulnerability through when he says that “men have this urge to prove themselves from childhood, because that’s what their families and society have always forced them to do.” But he doesn’t seem willing to delve deeper into whether this patriarchal dynamic itself should be questioned. His response to a cruel world is to make himself stronger; to create a shield of hypermasculinity and invulnerability around himself.

Content creator and men’s personality coach Sarthak Goel, 25, frequently refers to “his men” going off-track when it comes to love and relationships. “I had a realisation that my emotional behaviour was feminine in a relationship—over-apologising, not taking the lead, agreeing with everything… I was operating from a place of fear,” says the Pune-based creator with over 450,000 followers on Instagram. Goel, who helps run a business owned by his family, employs 12 people in his role as a content creator and coach, and is planning to launch his own fragrance brand called “Daddy”. He says he decided to focus on his career and “stay away from dating” for some time after a breakup, and had a sort of epiphany about what was missing from many men’s and boys’ lives. “Certain things in the environment told us that we needed to behave in a way that was harming us. Like Shah Rukh Khan in his films—he is always chasing the girl, he wants to please her and be nice to her, he is a ladies man. These were our role models. I thought ‘how can I get my men back on track’?” says Goel.

Sarthak Goel, men’s personality coach and content creator, has over 450,000 followers on Instagram
Sarthak Goel, men’s personality coach and content creator, has over 450,000 followers on Instagram (Instagram)

In her book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, economist and author Shrayana Bhattacharya describes Shah Rukh Khan as representing a certain idea of masculinity—gentle, supportive and self-effacing—that appeals to young Indian women seeking autonomy. Without having read her book, Goel’s views are exactly the opposite: he thinks Khan’s dominant image is that of a “simp”— a derogatory term for a man who is seen as being attentive and submissive to women. On Goel’s Instagram page, a pinned post shows him dressed like the character Ranvijay Singh from Animal, a film that glorifies toxic masculinity, and has done business of over 800 crore globally.

There is a strong connection between the popularity of pro-men content online and the sheer volume of it being produced and consumed via social feeds. Social media engagement—the economy of clicks, likes and shares—makes it extremely lucrative to keep producing content that works for a certain audience, and the more extreme the views, the better the engagement. “Social media algorithms amplify extreme content, such as misogynistic posts, which normalises harmful ideologies for young people,” says a February 2024 report, Safer Scrolling: How algorithms popularise and gamify online hate and misogyny for young people by researchers from University College, London, the University of Kent and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). As a teenage boy or young man engages with this sort of content, the algorithm pushes more of it at him, creating a toxic echo-chamber made up of equal parts victimhood and anger.

The website Life Math Money caters to a slightly older demographic. Its creator, who calls herself “Harsh Strongman” and has a presence across X and Instagram as well, says it is a resource for men; “no-bullshit information you need to get the most out of your life—this means more money, more muscle, a bigger network, and more success with women.” While it is, naturally, targeted mainly at men, its founder claims it has “hundreds of thousands of female readers”. “Harsh”, who is 28 and married, believes society has become “feminised”, and that their content helps men navigate this world.

In response to a follow-up question about what she means by the “feminisation” of society, she replies, “There’s the literal aspect where men’s testosterone levels are in freefall. Your grandfather had higher T levels than your father who has higher T levels than you. This is because our environment is full of plastics and endocrine disruptors... Not a good thing for the future of humanity obviously. On a metaphorical level, a feminised society just means prioritising compassion over ruthlessness, feelings over facts, popularity over truth, participation trophies over winning trophies, etc.”

If you watch a fair amount of manosphere content, it will become clear that health and fitness, sometimes based on pseudo-scientific ideas, can be a gateway into hypermasculine spaces, especially for teen boys focused on building their self-image. Fitness, in this context, is not just about taking care of one’s health for its own sake, but for how it can make one more successful and powerful.

THE RISE OF ANTI-FEMINISM

A couple of weeks ago, a verified X user by the name of “Prateekaaryan X” (@ Prateek_Aryan) shared a video of a woman dancing at a college function with a nasty, derogatory comment comparing the performance to that of a courtesan’s using a crude Hindi word.

When he refused to take down the video and the tweet even after repeated requests, the young woman in the video and one of her friends lodged a complaint with the Mumbai police. The matter is being investigated. X has not taken down the account but has merely disabled the video in the original tweet.

Bear in mind that X is owned by billionaire Elon Musk, who has often shared or retweeted sexist jokes and has declared that he abhors political correctness. One of the reasons for a rise in toxic masculinity could well be a global shift in cultural and political discourse towards conservative ideologies. In the political sphere, it is demonstrably an era of dominant male leaders who are portrayed as strong, masculine, lone-wolf figures.

“Men’s spaces have always been hierarchical,” says Vinay Kumar, a lecturer at the School of Arts and Sciences at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, whose research interests lie at the intersection of caste, gender and popular culture. “The rise in conservative ideologies in the political sphere has given so much steam to social conservatism. It has given us the freedom to express these ideas more openly, to embrace violence more openly, as we see in films like Animal,” says Kumar. While in an earlier generation of cinema, violence was employed as a tool against oppression or corruption, now it is beautified and glorified, he says.

Even a few years ago, Indian Men’s Rights Activists or MRAs were the cranks on X who would reply to every feminist post with an out-of-context response like “what about Article 498A?” (referring to Indian dowry laws), but the MRAs of today are altogether more savvy, more media literate, and know how to market their message.

In their December 2022 paper The Indian Anti-feminist Movement On Twitter, researchers Sheyril Agarwal, Urvashi Patel, and Joyojeet Pal from the University of Michigan show that these ideas were strengthened, ironically, by the #MeToo movement, which started in India in late 2018. In an X thread about the study in 2022, Pal writes : “The anti-feminist MRA (Men’s Rights Activists) movement has grown in India online since India’s MeToo revelations on Twitter, it argues that women take undue advantage of laws and norms. MRA groups are active on Twitter, but many have offline meetups…. The main thrust of MRAs offline is around dowry and alimony disputes, but online, the main thrust is anti-feminism, much of the most successful messaging involves body-shaming, doxing, and attacks on well-known feminist females and their allies.”

The researchers thematically coded the content and style of the posts, and found certain common patterns: the use of humour, sarcasm and memes, such as making jokes around feminism, relationships, gold-digging women; body-shaming and shaming for one’s sexual choices; attacks on independent powerful women, including prominent women members of Parliaments, journalists, actors and lawyers; and anti-westernisation, which includes any criticism of the Indian joint family system or expectations from women in arranged marriages.

“There is always a push and pull in society—a push to change something and a pull to bring it back to its status quo,” says filmmaker and columnist Paromita Vohra, founder of Agents of Ishq, a digital platform that discusses gender, feminism and popular culture through storytelling. “Decades of feminist activism and social changes have meant that women have created new definitions of success and goals for themselves, but for men these haven’t changed. Men are still expected to actualise themselves in terms of jobs, wealth, getting a bride. This shift, where men have been de-centred, is leading to very specific anxieties, which most men don’t have the emotional tools to deal with.”

A NEW DEFINITION OF MASCULINITY

In recent years, a few platforms and initiatives have emerged to engage with men in healthy, wholesome ways, such as Biraadari, a community-based listening circle for men, founded in August 2020 by Shiven Prem, a language and music teacher from Coimbatore, and Bengaluru-based Kalpesh More, a consultant on gender issues. They conduct Zoom calls every week for men, facilitating conversations concerning men and masculinity.

In his chat show Be A Man, Yaar!, launched six months ago, writer, director and podcaster Nikhil Taneja discusses positive masculinity and feminism through conversations with well-known men. Taneja is also the co-founder and CEO of Yuvaa, a youth media and research organisation that goes to college campuses to meet young people. “We have conversations around mental health, gender, sexuality, masculinity and empathy with young college students. Typically, women talk about the challenges they face, the harassment that comes with being a woman, but also about sisterhood. On the other hand, when boys are given a safe space to talk, and if they use it seriously, they typically talk about loneliness.”

 

 

Young men and boys who are still searching for an identity and believe they have found one in the new vocabulary of an age-old power structure need a new definition of masculinity—one based on kindness and empathy and not anger and judgement.

Taneja believes that this loneliness stems partly from men not being good allies to each other. “For long, the emotional burden of listening to men fell on women, but this is a burden that men should take on for each other. Which is why I felt that the chat show was necessary—because it’s important that men talk to other men about emotions,” says Taneja.

In his view, it is important to acknowledge that social and economic power can be a zero-sum game, and encourage men to come to terms with this. “We need to make peace with the idea that men are going to lose the power that patriarchy has given them for centuries (as women become more empowered). We should not be afraid to acknowledge it. What we need to ask is why is that power even necessary? Why can’t we talk about collaboration instead of authority, about what men gain when they let go of authority and focus on connection, shared responsibilities and allyship?”

Be A Man, Yaar! is supported by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies (RNP), which has been working in the field of gender equity, with a special focus on boys and men, for the past few years. Through its project “Laayak”, the foundation supports initiatives that work with young men and boys to transform their attitudes and behaviours and reset gender relations. The core agenda springs from the understanding that in India, the masculine identity is tied to traditional male breadwinner models, and that as societal and economic realities shift, this traditional model will exacerbate gender-based conflict.

Grantee organisations of RNP, like the Centre for Health and Social Justice, operating from Delhi and Kolkata, have been engaged in dismantling masculinity and patriarchy through involving men and boys in gender justice. They do this through grass-roots level work in creating awareness around gender equality.

Uninhibited, a Bengaluru-based organisation, works with young men and women on reproductive and sexual health. Over the past couple of years, it ran a free helpline called Hello Saathi for men to seek help with their sexual health concerns. “We understand that men’s comfort with their bodies and understanding their own reproductive health is crucial for supporting women in their families and communities. By addressing their concerns, we aim to promote overall well-being and encourage healthier relationships,” says Dilip Pattubala, co-founder at CEO, Uninhibited.

“The idea here is not to say that boys are ‘worse off’ than girls or pit genders against one another. The point is to look at the lived realities of all genders and recognise the unique challenges they each face, for which specific solutions need to be developed. Failing that, we might see a further exacerbation in social crises,” says Natasha Joshi, associate director, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.

Young men and boys who are still searching for an identity and believe they have found one in the new vocabulary of an age-old power structure need a new definition of masculinity—one based on kindness and empathy and not anger and judgement.

Updated: On 27 March 2024, this article was updated changing Harsh Strongman’s'pronouns to ‘she/her’ as per her request after the publication of the article. She did not mention her pronouns during the email interaction. The error is regretted.   

 

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