This profile is part of our Culture Shifters series, which highlights people who are changing the way we think about the world around us. Read about film archivist Maya Cade, internet star Keyon Elkins , rapper Latashá, music historian Katelina Eccleston, artist Kay Rufai, filmmaker Alika Tengan, and actors Rhoyle Ivy King and Nicco Annan.
“Heeeeeey,” Drew Afualo opens her TikTok videos. “We gotta talk about something hilarious,” followed by her trademark giggle-laugh that strikes fear into every internet misogynist.
The 26-year-old TikTok creator has made a name for herself by posting reactionary content on the app. She pulls no punches when responding to misogyny and bigotry online — often against men hiding behind obscure usernames and nondescript profile pictures — and subverts the idea that taking the high road is the best and only route. (It’s not.)
“I just make fun of terrible dudes on the internet, which is a real short synopsis of it. The longer-form version would be that I essentially just stick up for women and many other marginalized groups,” she said. “And turn the tables when it comes to bigotry that’s so casually consumed online. It’s just turned into a crusade, if you will.”
Dubbed the “defender of women” by her fans — she has 7.7 million followers on TikTok — Afualo’s crusade has developed into a cult following and her own podcast aptly titled “The Comment Section With Drew Afualo.”
“Women are expected to be quiet and calm in the face of any kind of disrespect whatsoever. They are expected to take the high road every single time. ‘You should be the bigger person. Why don’t you be classy?’ That type of mentality is rooted in misogyny,” she said.
“For me, I’ve always found it odd when people are extremely misogynistic, because that’s not how I was raised.”
Afualo said she has always been outspoken against bullies. She detests when people “pick on others who would never swing.”
“I have an older sister and a younger brother. Me being a middle child makes sense to a lot of people too, because middle children tend to be the most confrontational children,” she said. “I always feel like it’s an attention thing, too. We gotta show out or no one’s gonna see me.”
Raised in a Samoan family from Southern California, Afualo grew up around sports her entire life, and her initial goal upon graduating college was to be an on-air sports talent. She hustled as the sports editor for the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s student newspaper and worked for the school’s athletic department, making appearances at March Madness, Pac-12 Conference games and other big sports events.
Despite sending reels, résumés and decks with her clips to countless employers, her first job after undergrad was in public relations for a construction company. A few years later, she landed a corporate role as a digital content creator for the NFL.
“When I finally got my job there, I was like, ‘This is it for me. My life’s gonna take off. This is what I’ve always wanted,’” said Afualo, who was 23 at the time. “My experience working there was less than favorable. It was honestly kind of a nightmare. I was so disheartened, disillusioned because I was like, ‘This is supposed to be my dream job. Why am I so sad all the time?’”
And right before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the world, Afualo was fired.
“The irony of me getting fired from there is one of the reasons they said they fired me,” she said. “They said I couldn’t build a platform. It turns out I can.”
Then, the pandemic hit. A bizarre time when boredom and introspection coalesce, Afualo felt unsure of where she was going. Her boyfriend suggested that she post on TikTok for fun, much like everyone else was doing. Afualo, who described herself as “only a viewer” at the time, was hesitant.
“I thought I was too old at the time. I hadn’t really found anyone that was my age doing comedy or anything like that, at the time. Once I really got into it, I found many creators that I liked. It was just something really nice to use as a creative outlet,” Afualo said. “I posted two videos in 2020, neither of which had anything to do with my platform now. Then, I would say early 2021 is when I really leaned into it. It just absolutely exploded. Thank God now I know that was never my dream job. This is my dream job. My purpose in life is to do this.”
Her first TikTok video that became an overnight, viral success was a video she stitched — she combined another user’s video with one she created — about very specific red flags in men. Afualo had a list ready to go, and elaborated just enough.
“It invited a whole bunch of women and femmes who were like, ‘This is so weirdly accurate. I can’t believe you knew that,’” she said. “For example, an obvious one I said was if ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is his favorite movie of all time. Another one that was more obscure was if he’s obsessed with Tom Brady — not a Bucs fan or a Pats fan — but just Tom Brady. He’s got problems.”
Despite the accuracy of her analysis, Afualo was met with a wave of hate and accused of misandry. Rather than shrinking away and turning her profile private, she cranked out 10 to 12 videos a day responding to the hateful comments. Not only did Afualo laugh at the stupidity, but she clapped back, crushing the expectation that women and people of color should always respond to abuse or violence with composure and calm. That, she said, is what made audiences start paying attention to her.
“Misogyny and patriarchy brainwashes you into believing that you’re going to be alone forever if you are loud, outspoken, confident, and know what you want,” said Afualo, who was also posting videos about her boyfriend and the sweet things he was doing for her. “It brainwashes people into thinking that if you don’t let men disrespect you, talk down to you, or treat you like garbage, you’re gonna die alone — you gotta settle, or you’re never going to find anybody. People really saw those two things happening at once, and I’m living proof that that’s not true.”
The next video that “really kicked it into overdrive” was a video she made about the archetypal “gym bros,” calling one user out for his internalized fatphobia, perpetuating the male gaze and propagating misogyny.
“My biggest fans!” she laughed sarcastically. “I was essentially defending men who are not built like that because that’s who he was making fun of. I made a video talking about how eating bland chicken isn’t going to convince women to be with you. This ‘gym bro’ culture, other than violent fatphobia, is also just this delusion that if I perfect my body, I don’t need to worry about anything else, I don’t need to have a personality, I don’t need to be nice. I don’t need to be respectful.”
Afualo was gaining 100,000 followers almost every other day on the platform at that point. While the internet was new to Afualo’s character and clapbacks, her family always knew she had no problem confronting others. However, they didn’t realize her personality would lead to a full career. Afualo attributes some of her ability to craft an online community to astrology and the signs.
She said her Virgo sun is why she’s “so good at insulting people”; her Cancer moon is why she’s always been driven to protect others; and her Sagittarius rising sign ignites her fighting spirit. Yet the biggest influence for Afualo is her incredibly supportive family. Her content and character is reflective of the cultural values they’ve instilled in her.
“Women are expected to be quiet and calm in the face of any kind of disrespect whatsoever. They are expected to take the high road every single time. ‘You should be the bigger person. Why don’t you be classy?’ That type of mentality is rooted in misogyny.”
“Many Polynesian cultures are matriarchal, so they center, uplift and empower women the most,” Afualo said, remarking that her dad has always elevated her mother, who empowered her and her siblings to be independent and to love themselves. “Women in Samoan culture are held in very high regard. They’re kind of like the sun of our family, like we all orbit around them. That’s how I was raised.”
Afualo said the fact that she gets to expose people to Samoan culture and its nuances is one of the best parts of her platform. What she hopes her ascent signals to Polynesian community members and her Samoan peers is that it is possible to build a life you want and desire — and it doesn’t have to be predicated on your physical appearance or ability. Her father, Tait, is a former NFL player, and her grandfather, uncle, brother and boyfriend have all played football. (American Samoans are overrepresented in the NFL for their proportional share of the U.S. population, according to the Wall Street Journal.)
“Samoan people are so well known for being such remarkable athletes, which is a wonderful thing. But that’s really where it starts and stops. When you ask people what’s their idea of Samoan people, they’re either football players, WWE wrestlers, or the Rock,” said Afualo, noting that the Rock was both a wrestler and a football player before becoming a mainstream media star.
“That’s why someone like him is so powerful, because he’s somebody who has transcended culture,” she continued, “He’s been able to reach audiences outside of just Polynesia. Typically what happens with Polynesian creators and artists, it typically reaches Polynesia — and that’s it. I did an interview with a Samoan reporter for The Samoan Observer a while back, and she told me the most powerful thing about me is that I’ve been able to transcend culture with my humor.”
But visibility also functions like a double-edged sword. Apart from the onslaught of misogynistic videos men make about her, one of the biggest differences in Afualo’s life since joining TikTok is getting recognized in public, along with her own family.
When she’s not online, the self-described “loud and proud Disney adult” watches “Monsters Inc.” or “Ratatouille” to console her spirit. Recently, Afualo has been venturing into hobbies that don’t involve social media. Her family does encourage her to step away from the phone to keep herself sane, but the comments accusing her of “being mean” are not what fazes Afualo.
What Afualo is more concerned about is criticism about her character, her integrity, her intellect, and ensuring that her feminism is intersectional. She also values constructive feedback from viewers of marginalized backgrounds. More often than not, she will see videos of women — mainly white women — relegating her to a “bully” and falsely equating her behavior to that of an aggressor, abuser or misogynist. They take up more issue with how she responds to abuse than the abuse itself.
“99% of that critique comes from white people,” Afualo said. “If you know that your intersectional feminism is strong, then you would understand why I do it the way I do it. If life has taught us anything, especially with access to social media within the last three, five years alone, these people don’t listen. They don’t listen to logic, reason, or emotion.”
She continued, “I could sit and cry and tell people why they shouldn’t say things like that. You know what they would do? They’d laugh, call me emotional, call me a woman and say, ‘That’s what you all do.’ If that makes me the bad guy, then so be it. Whatever makes you shut up, that’s all that I care about. I’ve told people countless times that I’m not going to be nice to you. I’ve told you if you do this, then game on.”
As people suddenly lord their moral superiority over Afualo, in the same breath, they try to replicate and steal her content. Afualo recalled that about a year and a half ago, one white female content creator on TikTok stole her jokes, mannerisms, and her laugh, without giving her credit. The same men who would accost Afualo online actually applauded her impersonator.
“Racism plays a huge role in the criticism of my content and the people who don’t like how I do things,” she said. “What I look like plays a huge role. Racism is embedded in every system and in this country. I was so upset, but at the same time, I felt better. Because I was right.”
However, for every impersonator and hater, Afualo receives thousands of encouraging messages and testimonials about how her content has positively impacted women and femmes. She said one of the high points of her career is getting to do her own podcast.
“I get to platform people that maybe others haven’t heard of before. I get to expose people to all different kinds of creators. They come from all different walks of life, are different minorities, have different gender identities, different sexualities,” Afualo said. “That’s something I feel very passionate about. It’s like continuing to platform creators that can make a difference for others, right?”
So far, Afualo has chatted with content creators like “Catfish: The TV Show” host Kamie Crawford, “The BBL Effect” pioneer Antoni Bumba, YouTube artist turned makeup mogul Jackie Aina and InStyle host Tefi Pessoa. Her hope for the future is that, one day, she’ll be able to return to her on-air roots, but in a way that feels authentic to her.
“I would love to do a talk show. Getting to do more legitimate forms of media on TV or even going into stuff like movies, that’s what I’m gunning for,” she said. “That’s like a huge bucket list thing for me so hopefully, all of that is coming down the pipeline. I’m manifesting it.”