As the death of Gabby Petito continues to dominate the news — and as it begins to look more and more likely that she was abused and eventually murdered — a disturbing online trend has begun to take shape. Incels, trolls, “men’s rights activists”, and self-described alpha males have begun rushing to Laundrie’s defense, as well as rushing to insult Petito, whose body was found just over a week ago in Wyoming. It is not a new phenomenon, but it does reflect the throbbing heartbeat of misogyny thriving and surviving both on and offline.
First reported in The Daily Beast, Reddit boards and Facebook groups supporting Laundrie began amassing followers and conspiracy theories not long after Petito was found dead. Though groups like r/FriendsOfBrian appear to have been started as mere trolling, it’s clear that at least some of the posters are serious. Many of the most earnest comments allege that it was Petito who was abusing Laundrie, not the other way around, and complain of a misandric media machine that always gives women the benefit of the doubt.
Even if it were not true that women are the overwhelming majority of intimate partner violence victims, which they are, the idea that women’s accusations are always taken at face value is belied by the well-publicized police response to an altercation between Petito and Laundrie. Bodycam footage shows the couple in the midst of a fight, and a highly agitated Petito admits to slapping Laundrie, who seems calm. Despite witnesses who reported seeing Laundrie hit Petito and her obviously frightened demeanor, police decided that Petito was the aggressor, and put Laundrie up in a hotel to preserve his safety.
Men’s rights activists point to this footage as evidence that Laundrie was being abused by Petito, and many argue that had the gender roles been reversed, feminists would say that the murder (if it happened) had been self-defense. “The bloodthirsty vengeful Feminist SIMP mobs of self entitled Narcissistic KARENS would forever point to the body cam video evidence of the cuts, scratches and bruises as total 100% justification for her to end his life,” posted user OriginalMgtow. “I think if there’s anything to take from this case, it’s that Brian has taught us how to escape an abusive relationship — no matter what it takes. He has likely saved countless lives because his actions have shown us how to be empowered and take action,” wrote balenciagogo. Meanwhile, users on Twitter and Facebook have gone to bat for Laundrie, accusing the “media” of ignoring Petito’s mental instability and repeating unsubstantiated abuse allegations. Whether the substance of these posts are genuine or satirical, the hatred that fuels them is quite legitimate.
The Reddit boards and social media posts’ mixed tones — a sexist grab-bag of sincerity, irony, and rage — coagulate into a mass of all-purpose misogyny. “Why were Gabby’s nipples erect after assaulting Brian?” reads the r/FriendsOfBrian post pinned to the top of the board. Others call her an “attention whore,” mock her weight, and accuse her of being a Nazi. Many co-opt the language of social justice, rallying the phrase #MissingWhiteGirlSyndrome — which calls out the many people of color who go missing and are ignored — to demonize Petito and those who would support her.
Disappointingly, such anti-Petito messaging seems to be everywhere: Even the official Twitter of popular true crime podcast Sword and Scale, which is run by Michael Boudet, retweeted a user that speculated: “If the cops from @moabpolice had treated Gabby Petito like any MAN who was confirmed/admitted to having committed domestic assault and arrested her, she’d still be alive,” with the hashtag #Accurate. The retweet has since been deleted.
Laundrie supporters online have been dismissed with a blanket “incel” descriptor, but these groups represent only a small part of the problem. Incels are a relatively minor and specific subgroup of misogynists who, yes, have been known to be violent. But then, as Petito’s case shows, men generally are known to be violent. This singular effort to flip the script — to vilify a murdered young woman and valorize her killer, however vile — is just that: singular.
After 17-year-old Bianca Devins was murdered and the grisly photos posted to Instagram, a cottage industry exploiting her death sprung up on the internet. Rapper Nicki Minaj and her husband spent years allegedly harassing and intimidating his rape victim into silence. It’s important to remember that Laundrie supporters aren’t really Laundrie supporters at all — they’re seething misogynists just looking for a target. And they’re everywhere.