The Tamil memeverse can be a confusing place. On one end of the spectrum are meme pages that engage in anti-caste and feminist discourse, keeping in line with the Dravidian ideology. On the other end are those that take on the role of a patriarch and ‘advise’ women to dress modestly, not consume alcohol and/or cigarettes, not engage in pre-marital sex, among others, under the guise of preserving ‘Tamil culture’. Unfortunately, the latter is more popular and is perceived as ‘mainstream’ meme culture.
It would be unfair to say that these meme pages have not evolved. ‘Dupatta podunga doli’ (Wear a dupatta, friend) has evolved to ‘Leggings potta short top podathinga’ (Avoid wearing short tops with leggings). Instead of asking women directly to wear sarees more often, these pages now make memes with statements like ‘It’s the dream of every guy to see his crush/dream girl in a saree’. Earlier, men making the memes believed their dream girl was someone who would not wear makeup but now they want women to stop making Tik-Tok videos, until a higher power answered their prayers and the app was banned! A woman’s friendship with other men eventually leading to the breakup of her relationship with her boyfriend has always been the punchline of many Tamil memes. The term ‘boy bestie’ is viewed with suspicion by Tamil youth (mostly men) and has even made it to movies like Imaika Nodigal where the hero breaks up with his girlfriend, suspecting that she is cheating on him with her (male) best friend.
An annoyingly common theme is how these memes direct women to dress more modestly and wear ‘traditional’ clothes but sexualise female actors' pictures on social media. Sometimes, even actors in their teens are not spared this sexualisation in memes. Apart from actors, female models and public figures are mocked for their appearance, clothes and their opinions, often with overt sexual tones. Other stereotypes in these memes include portraying women as superficial, gold-diggers, and as being the reason for breaking up a romantic relationship under the pretext of disapproval from their families. While these stereotypes might seem harmless compared to the sexualisation, it does contribute to painting women as homogenous, untrustworthy and single-dimensional people. Mainstream meme pages run by women are also guilty of trying to infantalise women and of moral policing in an attempt to pander to the larger male audience.
The prevalent theme present in most Tamil meme pages is the normalisation and even glorification of stalking. However, stalking is not presented as explicitly as done in movies but in a more subtle manner. Here, it is portrayed as ‘one-side love’ (a term adopted from popular Tamil cinema) where the man is hopelessly in love with his ‘crush’ who often does not reciprocate his feelings and/or ignores him. But the man is relentless and continues his pursuits despite his crush’s lack of interest, to a point where he feels entitled to her replies and reciprocation of his feelings. However, the aftermath of the man’s romantic pursuits is hardly touched upon in these memes.
Mainstream meme pages often have a YouTube channel where video memes are posted. They usually consist of clips from Tamil movies that are edited to add humour to the issue they are discussing. While most of them make fun of movie trailers, teasers, short films and even politicians, these video memes contain extremely problematic content. For instance, when singer Chinmayi came out with sexual harassment accusations against lyricist Vairamuthu, a popular video memes page made many videos targeting the singer, calling her accusations fake and blaming her for unleashing a smear campaign against the lyricist, apparently paid for by a political party. At a superficial level, these memes might not seem to influence public opinion but the number of comments under these videos in support of the lyricist and spewing hate against Chinmayi suggests otherwise.
Pages with such sexist content have significantly more followers than ‘non-mainstream’ meme pages where the humour is dark and even offensive at times. anbe_diaanaa, for instance, posts memes on sexism, religion and politics, and the admin of this page is of the opinion that the general mindset of people is the reason behind mainstream meme pages receiving more attention. He says, “Who would you follow? Someone who glorifies stalking by calling it love or someone who calls you a creep for the same actions?” Another admin of a similar meme page who wishes to remain anonymous shares a similar idea. He believes that such mainstream pages are popular because a significant portion of the population agrees with the ideas they present and, in fact, tends to be uncomfortable by change and progressive ideas.
Hema Krishnan, who goes by the alias Rosa, is one of co-founders of the Tamil feminist page Karutthu Kannammaa that is popular on Facebook. Her Instagram page is known for calling out the sexism in memes from mainstream Tamil meme pages. She says, “Sexism, casteism, racism and other biases have been imbued into every fabric of our lives for centuries. It's passed down from generation to generation. These are the people who both run and follow such sexist mainstream pages. So, naturally such pages will achieve popularity.” While Hema believes pages like hers offer counter narratives, measuring how these meme pages’ perceptions of women have changed over time is difficult because it is intangible. She adds that meme pages may have toned down on the sexism not just because of pages like hers but as a result of their own introspection as well.
Non-mainstream pages have also been accused of posting memes that are sexist but might not receive as much criticism for it because these memes are known for dark humour. anbe_diaanaa’s admin agrees that a lot of ‘dank’ meme pages often say sexist and racist things without facing any repercussions. The admin of another page says, “Most memes in non-mainstream pages use a layer of irony to mask the sexism from the audience. But they should not be appreciated all the time because the audience of such pages might not understand the irony, and people with regressive ideas might take it seriously and act on it.” However, the admin of monsieur_danke believes that it is important for the meme maker and his/her audience to be aware that the sexist or offensive humour on the page is not serious. But he does believe that there are multiple occasions where these ‘dank’ meme pages have crossed a line and used sexist and casteist slurs in the name of humour.
Speaking about sexism in ‘dank’ meme pages, Hema says that this is relatively a new problem and that the admins of most of these pages think they can get away with saying problematic things under the pretext of it being ‘dank’. “If you counter them, you get called 'snowflake' or 'uncool'. But that doesn't mean you should refrain from addressing their problematic but 'edgy' content, which is often just plain sexism,” she adds.
Mainstream Tamil meme pages have become an important part of the existing internet culture in Tamil Nadu, having played an important role in organising movements like the Jallikattu protests in 2016 and coordinating relief programmes during natural disasters in the state. However, they are no longer simply viewed as a means of entertainment because they have immense power to influence public opinion. This is precisely why the memes made by such pages, especially on women, must be engaged with critically.