By Reya Mehrotra
Barbie, the ‘picture-perfect’ doll, is the beloved of millions of children around the globe. The doll, which screams body and image stereotype, was also the subject of the massively popular 1997 song Barbie Girl by Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group Aqua. With lyrics like “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic… you can touch my hair and dress me everywhere..”, the song echoed sexualisation of young women. And that’s why the parody account Trophy Wife Barbie on Instagram comes as a breath of fresh air. On Trophy Wife, it’s all about realism. Barbie here is sarcastic, vocal about misogyny, has sagging breasts, a bulging stomach, smokes and drinks wine, masturbates and is as real as any girl could be. The aim is to normalise real bodies.
And that’s the beauty of online parody accounts. In a way, they are similar to vaccines, which help develop immunity by imitating an infection and tricking the immune system to release antibodies. These accounts might be ‘fake’, but the conversations they are stirring up are all real.
For a purpose
Trophy Wife Barbie was started in 2015 by conceptual artist Annelies Hofmeyr who was going through a difficult time in her marriage. Through the account, the 41-year-old artist, who is based in Cape Town, South Africa, wants to highlight the limitations of labels, as well as challenge stereotypes. “The main goal is to highlight the limitations of labels. I do this by giving Barbie doll antlers—a physical representation of a label imposed on her based on her appearance. I share images of her just going about her daily life, making her highly relatable and posing the question: what might happen if we focus on what we have in common instead of focusing on what makes us different,” shares Hofmeyr, adding, “Challenging stereotypes was a secondary goal, something that has proven successful by using a highly recognisable doll. It has also provided me with a way to circumvent censorship and be able to talk about more challenging topics.”
She also has accounts of Trophy Wife on Twitter and Facebook, and plans to write a book and expand into podcasts. Hofmeyr got a massive audience boost at the beginning when Miley Cyrus started following her and even reposted one of her images. She was also featured in Forbes in 2016.
Another parody account Diet Sabya, an anonymous account which is followed by the likes of Malaika Arora, Lara Dutta Bhupathi, Masaba, Jwala Gutta and a dozen other celebrities, exposes designers copying brands and labels. Diet Sabya, which has around 2.38 lakh followers on Instagram, has called out labels like Deme by Gabriella Demetriades for copying other brand designs. They also called out Hazoorilal Jewellers twice, once for copying Sunita Shekhawat’s earring design and then again for copying Sabyasachi’s neckpiece. Some call them trolls, while others appreciate their confidence in exposing blatant copies.
Often, what they do does not go down well with the renowned people they call out. But that’s hardly a worry for them. In fact, their straight and sharp approach has been praised by a few designers. Diet Sabya also recently raised the important issue of what they call ‘fat tax’, which is brands charging more prices for bigger sizes. Diet Sabya is the Indian version of Diet Prada, which has 2.7 million followers and calls out international brands.
But not all parody accounts are preachy. Some just exist for light humour and fun. Queen Elizabeth, who otherwise lives a private life and hardly speaks in public, has a parody account on Twitter, which posts tongue-in-cheek humour sprinkled with a lot of satire. When baby Archie made his first public appearance in a 2020 video wishing everyone a happy new year, the parody avatar of the monarch remarked: “Odd. One thought they’d moved to the US to protect their privacy”.
Other popular Twitter alter egos of famous personalities are just as fun. Former US president Donald Trump’s parody account bio reads: “Don’t tell Twitter I am back on my account”. Dalai Lama’s parody account is called ‘The Lying Lama’ and the list goes on with parody accounts of Prince Charles, Boris Johnson, Lalu Prasad Yadav and many more.
Then come the political parody accounts. Here, former PM Jawaharlal Nehru often engages in one-sided witty banter with PM Narendra Modi. The former is spontaneous, often sarcastic, especially when the latter talks about him. Last year, when Modi wished former PM Nehru happy birthday on Twitter, Nehru’s parody version was quick to respond: “Glad you remembered, Mr. Modi. I thought you would forget, just like you forgot to work for the nation in the past six years”. In Twitter’s parody world, Nehru still calls himself the ‘PM of India’. The bio of the account, which has around 49,500 followers, reads, “It’s all my fault”, a satirical take on the way Modi has attacked Nehru in Lok Sabha multiple times, blaming him for losing Kashmir. The account is followed by the likes of actor Swara Bhaskar, political analyst Tehseen Poonawalla, journalist Sagarika Ghose, among others.
While Nehru is at his satirical best, Rahul Gandhi remains the most popular victim of parody accounts online. There are a dozen such accounts in his name. Actor-turned-politician Mithun Chakraborty too has not been spared. On Twitter, he is ‘Maithun’ (@Being_Humor) with around 2.23 lakh followers. The founder of @Being_Humor is Vinay who prefers remaining anonymous. A fan of the star, he used his name with a little modification to avoid falling under the impersonation category as per Twitter’s rules for parody accounts. An engineer by profession, he created the account in 2012, but only started posting satirical content by 2013. By 2015-16, the account had become very popular and, in 2019, he quit his job to become a full-time parodist-satirist. He is now followed by Nirmala Sitharaman, Tejasvi Surya, Smriti Irani, etc. “I was working with Faking News, a news satire website, previously, but some of my articles didn’t get approved as they were too sharp, so I thought of starting my own account. Even before that, I used to get showcause notices from HR for writing political satires,” says Vinay.
He then started another popular account called The Fauxy, a fictitious news source, with 76,200 followers on Twitter. Vinay, who worked as a consultant with a popular Indian OTT platform in 2017 for a year, is now a marketing strategist to brands/companies which use his platform for promotion of products and content. He has a team of 10 people working with him to manage the accounts as well as an Android app. Vinay’s content comes from commentary on daily news/events. “Like any other parody account, I exaggerate/twist/draw analogy to create my own content. We can never run out of content because of our politicians. They just add to the humour somehow and take care of our content,” he quips.
Some parody accounts, however, become mouthpieces of political parties. Take, for instance, DaaruBaaz Mehta, a Twitter account with 80,400 followers. It is run by Nishant (who prefers to be anonymous) who works in an IT company and aligns himself with the ideology of Aam Aadmi Party. He shares that in the last five-six years, he has become well-known among the party members and, in fact, receives all the press releases and information from their social media teams to be put up on his account. “There was a time when CM Arvind Kejriwal did not have a proper social media team, so they used to share all their press releases with me to be put up. Even now, if there are certain things that cannot directly be shared through the main handles, they ask me to share and then they retweet it,” he says.
Nishant says he mostly tweets facts and information now as important people like Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia, etc, follow him. He also created another account called Doodhbaaz Mehta after his son was born and plans to put up tweets on it too.
Targetting brands and popular persons publicly can often result in a bad experience. Vinay says his accounts have occasionally had run-ins with the law as his content was mistaken for real news. For instance, beer brand Budweiser accused his page The Fauxy of tarnishing its image as one of its video showed a Fauxy reporter consuming the beer and spitting it out. After a case was filed by the brand, the Delhi High Court asked The Fauxy to take down the video. The video itself was based on an article by satire website Foolish Humour, which compared the taste of the beer with human pee.
Digital marketing and social media strategist Anoop Mishra believes that parody accounts are creating a lot of issues by creating misperception. “Most of the parody accounts represent celebrities or political fraternities. The presence of entertainment in the form of funny memes or sarcastic remarks and criticism keeps driving the engagement on these accounts,” says Mishra, warning against such accounts with a high number of followers for setting up paid trends and incubating agendas.
On its part, Twitter has some guidelines in place for parody accounts. Its parody, newsfeed, commentary and fan account policy says that the bio should clearly read that the account is a parody, fake, fan or commentary and the account name should indicate that the user is not affiliated with the subject of the account. Under its impersonation policy, the site removes an account if it misleads people. However, the site doesn’t remove an account if the profile clearly states it is not affiliated with or connected to any similarly-named individual or brand.