Misogyny, homophobia, and transphobic rhetoric are everywhere on the internet today. This is part of a broader rightwing ascendancy and the strengthening of exclusionary ideologies all across the world. YouTube (and particularly its ‘Shorts’ section), TikTok, and Twitter are awash with videos that feature hostility and mocking of any gender identity or sexual orientation other than a cisgender, heterosexual male. Critiques of patriarchy, advocacy of feminism, or positive depictions and visibility of queerness provoke instant backlash in the form of disparaging comment sections or commentary from well-funded right-wing talking heads.
I have seen many YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels that feature acts of hostility and hate speech against women and sexual minorities. There are so-called ‘interviews’ and ‘debates’ wherein one or a few women are supposedly ‘shut down’ or ‘destroyed’ by podcast bros masquerading as intellectuals, presented to associate feminist viewpoints with hysteria, emotionalism, and unreasonableness while privileging the male point of view as non-emotional and ‘objective’. It creates a spectacle of humiliation and point-scoring for the larger male audience to consume and feel better about themselves. Online spaces thus become an extended ‘boys locker room’ and the modalities of bonding and belonging are predicated on belief and participation in male superiority.
DIGITAL PATRIARCHY: SO MUCH HAS CHANGED, AND YET NOT MUCH
Despite all its ‘next gen’ trappings of modernity, the internet is replete with age-old sexist and homophobic tropes that are reinventing themselves in the online era. The moral panic over the sexual freedom of women, their transgression into male roles, the breakdown of the family unit, the so-called ‘mental illness’ of gender nonconformity, and the stereotype of the immoral ‘gold digger’ and ‘loose woman’ all have precedents in the past. It is a historical fact that men have had the last say in who women are as human beings and what course their lives can take. In the 19th century, for example, the famous Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote this in The Princess (1847) when it was often impossible for women to claim themselves as authors of their own poems for fear of being judged as ‘immodest’.
Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey;
All else confusion.
Notice the sharp distinctions in this dichotomy and the absolutism of the very idea of gender. The rightwing of today is militating against the very “confusion” that the poem decries. What Tennyson and the modern Right see as “confusion” is really a disruption of the settled order. This “confusion” is defiance and a refusal to submit to male prerogatives and fantasies. The steady and chiming rhymes have more than a lyrical or rhythmic value because the form reinforces the content: the reader is reassured (or warned) of the fixity of gender roles which is hammered in through constant repetition.
Gender is an institution that confers privileges to one group and keeps other groups subservient or invisible. The right wants to crush the consciousness of gender as a socialized performance that is constantly reproduced and instead wants gender and sexuality to be fixed and unchangeable aspects of an alleged ‘biological reality’ (an argument common with ‘race science’ and eugenics) Pulling down pride flags, banning books, drumming up fears of kids being ‘groomed’ by paedophiles and perverts are vicious attempts to silence and erase gender diversity. In the rightwing worldview, women are for desire and show only, whereas sexual minorities are the undesirables to be erased from view altogether.
The rightwing is trying to pathologize the resistance to this ideology by framing it as mental illness (in the case of gender scepticism among the youth) or social degeneracy (in the case of ‘OnlyFans girls’). The influencers who present the ‘trad wife’ as a foil to the purple-haired feminist and are rewarded for it through increased funding or ad revenues are performing the same function for the ruling class as a court poet like Tennyson did in his time. They are in service to the hegemonic ideology of the ruling class for which they are rewarded with fame and money. Capitalist billionaires are pouring in gargantuan amounts into online propaganda against social movements that jeopardize their ideological and socioeconomic hegemony while social media platforms look the other way on the proliferation of gendered hate speech because their bottom line demands engagement and data gathering above all else.
WHY FEMINISM IS NEEDED MORE THAN EVER
Feminism is not only advocacy for the rights of women (which is a very important facet at its core) but is a philosophical outlook on society that helps us to understand how patriarchy and masculine supremacy uphold other oppressive structures. We can see the present-day Hindu nationalist chest-thumping as a performance of heroic masculinity, which is the same rubric under which we can understand its militaristic rhetoric and its foreign policy of dominating smaller nations. We can see it in the way that peace, friendship, and compromise and sniggered at as weakness and treason whereas the buffing up of the Ashokan Lions (India’s official emblem) with extra muscles and added ferocity was celebrated as a show of India’s ‘strength’. At a more symbolic and psychological level, the desire to raise the national flag and Hindutva’s saffron banner ever higher, and to make them ever larger and stick them out of every rooftop has phallic overtones and conveys a sense of compensating for certain deeply felt insecurities.
Feminism exposes the male-centered worldview of society under which women can only breach some ‘safe’ boundaries like joining the State’s armed forces or becoming athletes. Other aspirations like being able to dress per their choice, be on the streets at night, breach caste by marrying by choice or not at all, not being raped just for being a ‘wife’, entering temples while menstruating, having control over their incomes, not being paid lesser than men, etc. are quickly shouted down citing disbelief or immorality.
CONCLUSION: FIGHT BACK FOR A SAFER INTERNET FOR ALL
We need to push back against this organized right-wing backlash to women and sexual minorities gaining only a sliver of their deserved rights. Gender is an institution of society and culture which is inherently political since it defines the power relations between different social groups. It dictates the outcomes of individuals’ lives and we all face consequences for nonconformity with gendered expectations. This makes it only fair that all gendered groups, and not just cis heterosexual men, should be able to express their thoughts and relationship to gender on the internet, which is the largest public space we have ever had. Online sexism, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment cannot be allowed to become the new norm in this collective space.
Arjun Banerjee is a political commentator