Laurence Fox, misogyny, and the chains of post-truth politics

Laurence Fox's recent abusive comments on GB News are not just misogynistic - they also serve to silence women in the public sphere.

Right-wing activist and former actor Laurence Fox speaking into a microphone at a rally

Since Laurence Fox’s misogynistic rant directed at the political journalist Ava Evans on GB News recently, there has been much discussion about the responsibility of news platforms and the role of regulators around sexism in media content. Abusive comments such as those made by Fox are, however, not just misogynistic. They also have a political function to silence not only feminist ideas, but also remove women from the public sphere and the construction of public knowledge.

Fox was responding to Evans’ comments that a proposed ‘Minister for Men’ feeds into a culture war, emphasising that the mental health crisis is affecting everybody. After her appearance, she expressed regret for downplaying the need for a government brief on young men’s mental health. On GB News, however, Fox launched a vicious, misogynistic attack on Evans in which he described her as a ‘little woman’ who no ‘self-respecting man’ would ‘want to climb into bed with’. He claimed that ‘we don’t need these sorts of feminist 4.0. They’re pathetic and embarrassing. Who’d want to shag that’?

The outrage around GB News and Fox’s outburst is justified. But the focus on this incident, and GB News as a platform, risks treating this case as an isolated incident of extreme misogyny.

Dr Charlotte Galpin & Dr Patrick Vernon - University of Birmingham

The outrage around GB News and Fox’s outburst is justified. But the focus on this incident, and GB News as a platform, risks treating this case as an isolated incident of extreme misogyny. Our latest research shows that abusive comments directed at women, LGBTQ+ and racialised people, staged by news organisations – including mainstream newspapers – are a central form of post-truth communication. Post-truth, we argue, involves a violent process of excluding not just certain types of knowledge, expertise, or opinion, but also particular gendered, sexualised, or racialised bodies from the public sphere.

We conducted research into online comments posted underneath mainstream news articles about academics, using the case of Brexit debates. We find that online abuse directed at women, LGBTQ+ and racialised academics, experts, and professionals draw upon stereotypes of rationality as the sole property of white, heterosexual cisgender men, and attempt to police who can attain the status of an ‘expert’.

Fox’s comments very much reflect our findings. Comments about men and academics in general tended to be about what they were doing or saying as academics. Social media comments directed at women do not just criticise what they are saying or doing, but relate to their bodies, and who they are.

Infantilising tropes such as the description of Evans as a ‘little woman’ are typical. Such tropes function to downplay a woman’s intelligence, expertise, and respectability as a professional. We also found that women were described as ‘silly arses’ or ‘spoiled brats’ having ‘temper tantrums’. Women are also accused of being mentally ill or ‘needing to be sectioned’, evoking longstanding tropes of ‘irrational women’ who need to be ‘locked up’.

It is, however, the personal, degrading, and dehumanising comments about women’s bodies that are most extreme and, in our research, followed in response to explicitly feminist commentary. Fox’s claim that he ‘wouldn’t shag that’ is profoundly dehumanising and mirrors the everyday sexualisation of women’s bodies. Similar comments were targeted at women MPs during Brexit. Sexualised violence such as this symbolically reduces women to their bodies, transporting them out of the public arena into the private sphere of sexuality, of the bedroom. Women who experience multiple forms of marginalisation, especially women of colour, are subjected to sexist and misogynistic comments that also intersect with, for example, violently racist and xenophobic commentary, including threats of violence and death.

Post-truth politics is not just about false or misleading information, but about a climate of distrust, uncertainty, and anxiety about knowledge. Women and other minoritised groups have greater access to public debates today than in the past. Feminist, queer, and postcolonial research also has greater prominence. In this context, misogynistic, queerphobic and racist abuse functions to discredit these forms and bodies of expertise.

Fox’s claim that Evans has been ‘spoon-fed oppression day after day after day, starting with the lie about the gender pay gap’ reveals the underlying objective of his comments to fundamentally contest feminist demands for gender equality, such as the widely acknowledged and well-established existence of a gender pay gap. That the Harvard University Professor Claudia Goldin was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Economics last week for her decades of work on the reasons for the persistence of the gender pay gap is testament to the strength of scientific knowledge of this issue. His outburst also prevented nuanced discussion around the complexities of male suicide, its relation to masculinities and gendered expectations on men, and the relevance of factors such as class and race in shaping men’s access to mental health support.

Through the violent (re)assertion of gender, sexual and racial stereotypes, the abuse of women, LGBTQ+ and racialised people works to reclaim the public sphere as the domain of white, heterosexual and cisgender men, whilst discrediting feminist, queer, or postcolonial forms of knowledge. Sexualised abuse as post-truth is then a denial of minoritised groups’ equal stake in the production of knowledge. We need to challenge these instances not only as examples of extreme sexism and gender inequality, but also as forms of silencing that raise serious questions about democracy in the UK.