Fleet Street Fox's hypocritical misogyny

Women should stop denigrating women, says columnist. In a column denigrating women.

Do you know why girls don’t run the world? The Mirror’s columnist Fleet Street Fox does, and it’s one of those truth bombs so powerful, it can only be dropped from the protective cage of a saucy-sounding pseudonym. The problem is that were all such goddamn bitches. It’s women, not men, who run other women down, according to the Fox – in a piece that’s substantially dedicated to running other women down:

“Another woman will think it's all right to sleep with a man who's already taken. Another woman will compete with you – whether you like it or not – to wear the nicest shoes, the best dress, and be seen as just better according to the unwritten set of rules females carry around in their heads.”

This women-beware-women stuff is textbook. Here’s a version of it from Forbes. Here’s Esther Rantzen in 2006, declaring that she “will not remain in silent solidarity with my sex” to cover up the issue of workplace bullying by women. And let’s not forget (or link to) the Samantha Brick “why do the other girls hate my beautiful face?” neverending opus.

If female aggression is a dirty secret, then we’ve hidden it badly – a pair of grubby knickers floating around on the carpet somewhere between the laundry basket and the washing machine. The fact that there’s a specific word to describe (and deride) female aggression makes it obvious that the Fox isn’t breaking new frontiers in anthropology when she accuses other women of bitchiness.

But she is a pioneer in hypocritical misogyny. Jump back to that quote: “Another woman will think it’s all right to sleep with a man who’s already taken.” Whose sexual propriety is under attack in that formulation? The other woman’s. Who’s a helpless victim of the woman’s floozy lure? The “taken” man – never mind that he would be the only one in this imaginary coupling with any obligation to be faithful to anyone.

The column tips a pair of implied expectations upside-down. Women? Not as nice as they’re supposed to be. Men? Nice. Really, really nice. Men listen. Men are supportive. The Fox makes a few token references to some female friends with whom she isn’t engaged in perpetual psychological warfare, but the overriding impression is that she sees herself as a man’s woman.

She’s not like the other girls, who smile sweetly as they drag each other down by the hair extensions to get ahead. She tells the truth about intra-gender warfare. She’s opening a window so the lovely boys can look into our savage female hearts – and see her, um, pulling down other girls by the hair extensions, or in this case armpit hair.

The topical motivation for the column is this: Amanda Holden has said that she watched Tulisa’s sex tape after Alesha Dixon sent her a link. “How grubby, how bitchy, how many new tips did they pick up?” sneers the Fox. Holden participating in the invasion of another woman’s privacy is unpleasant (as an exemplary tabloid journalist, I’m sure Fleet Street Fox has never done anything so grubby as watch a celebrity sex tape), but if you watch the chat show where Holden discusses this, it’s obvious that this isn’t just a girl-on-girl crime.

David Walliams makes a joke about the tape, Holden sniggers, and host Alan Carr gigglingly urges the conversation in that direction – the exchange lasts about 90 seconds, and the men are just as active as Holden. In the same way the Tulisa sex tape has been portrayed as an amusing instance of female sluttiness, rather than the betrayal of a very young woman by a vicious ex (as Tulisa explained, in a composed and affecting YouTube response), the actions of the men who shared the stage and the sniggering with Holden are ignored – they get off lightly in Barbara Ellens take too. Who gets the blame? The women in the picture. Because men are just so nice, aren’t they?

The Fox’s second example of lady scapegoating comes from disgusted Twitter reactions to the brilliant Vagenda writer Emer OToole’s display of armpit hair on This Morning. (The Fox claims that all the bile came from women, but one of the tweets pictured seems to be from a man, so bang goes that generalisation. Again.) “I too felt a little queasy… and caught myself thinking that she wouldn't be able to get away with it if she weren't pretty,” writes the Fox – and even though she goes on to argue that women need to give up the pretence of physical perfection, she also stresses that “It's not going to change any time soon, because humans have been removing 'uncivilised' body hair since the days of Ancient Greece.”

In other words, don’t worry boys: this Fox is hairless and in no way a threat to your gender conventions! Right the way through, Fleet Street Fox is claiming two contradictory but dependent things: that she’s a typical example of femininity (which by her account means bitchiness with a Ladyshave), and that she’s standing outside the mass of women by telling the truth. In other words, this is a massive wink and wiggle at patriarchy: love me because I’m an exception, and love me because I won’t challenge any of your beliefs about gender. She is a fox, after all.

That pseudonym reminds me of something else Tulisa related: the singer’s nickname is “the Female Boss”, because (Tulisa told the Guardian) “[the band] used to say if there was any other girl in this group, they would just get walked all over from head to toe”. It’s another version of the not-like-all-the-other-girls manoeuvre pulled by Fleet Street Fox, and by Margaret Thatcher before her in her “Iron Lady” guise.

Femininity is endemically associated with weakness, but a woman whose strength is interpreted as unfeminine becomes a despicable non-person. One way for women to succeed in ferociously male environments (politics, grime music, tabloid journalism) is to become a kind of hyper-feminine “female-plus”: sufficiently girlish that you don’t threaten the underlying principles of boy club, but with an edge that explains why you’re the one-off who should be allowed in.

If the Fox genuinely thought women were being held back solely by their attacks on each other (or genuinely thought it mattered), then she wouldn’t have written a column attacking other women. The fact that she’s done so tells us either that she doesn’t really think “the only reason we're not running the world is because we're so busy running each other down”, or that she doesn’t care. After all, there are plenty of rewards for women who’ll rip strips off each other, just as there are for male bullies and sociopaths, whether or not they’re representative of the rest of the population.

Sarah Ditum is a freelance journalist. She lives in Bath and blogs at her website.

Amanda Holden attends the launch of at BFI Southbank on March 22, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era