Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Angels, whores and witches: the media and Amanda Knox

Disclaimer: this post is not about whether Knox is guilty or innocent, but about the media reporting and portrayal of a woman accused of murder. If in the comments you speculate whether or not the verdict in the appeal was correct or fair I probably won’t publish it, in case it falls into the libel end of the scale. So please keep any comments to the subject of the post, not wider ponderings.

So…I shall begin…

Witch. Enchanting witch. Motivated by lust. Demonic she-devil. Diabolical, satanic. You would be forgiven for thinking I was quoting something from Anne Boleyn’s trial. But no, these are all epithets used to describe Amanda Knox, who this week was acquitted of the murder of Meredith Kercher in Italy. And then, of course, there’s the tabloid favourite nickname that we can’t seem to escape from: ‘foxy Knoxy’.

Whatever you think of the fairness of the trial, and its outcome, there are two things that I am very certain of. One – that with the sensationalist reporting around Amanda Knox, the victim in all of this, Meredith Kercher, has been all but forgotten. And two, the mainstream media have shown that sexism is alive and well in their portrayal of Knox.

I don’t know what happened the night Meredith Kercher was killed and I am not using this post to talk about it. I don’t want this post to express any opinions about Knox’s guilt or innocence or to say that she is this, that or the other. This post is expressly about the language used to describe Knox in the media and how it has reflected some very real problems with how we talk about women, and the roles our mainstream culture still allows women. It is about how the focus has been on Knox, and not the men accused alongside her. It is not about my opinions on the case.

I really need to make that clear!

It would be easy to forget that alongside Knox, two men were also found guilty of murder, one of who has been acquitted with her. But unlike ‘foxy Knoxy’ their names have found themselves bereft of sexy nicknames, and barely register on the public consciousness. They aren’t witches and demons. The man who was acquitted last night has not seen his face on any newspapers today. There’s no public poll on a mainstream TV show today asking women whether they want to have sex with him! The attention today, and throughout the case, has been on Knox.

At the time of her initial conviction, the F Word published an interesting post about the media’s treatment of Knox: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2009/12/amanda_knox
They pointed out how her sexuality and the fact that she was ‘sexually active’ had been gleefully raked over by the media, including reports about the number of men she had slept with and the ‘revelation’ that she had had sex on a train. Similar questions about the sexuality of the men involved were never asked or brought up, and it would be surprising if they had been. Although there are some cases where a man’s sexuality are brought up in media covering of a murder trial, it’s rarely the fact that he has had consensual sex with a fairly average number of women (although there are of course cases when a man’s sexuality is judged in other ways). Alongside all the witchy and demonic language, it feels like we are back in the Middle Ages, where women’s sexuality was associated with evil, destruction and lack of control.

I know that some people are going to respond that her sexuality was brought up because of the accusations of sexual violence. But with the very particularly historic sexist language, and everything we know about the angel-whore dichotomy and the media thrall of ‘evil’ women, I think something beyond that was happening here. In my opinion, the discussion of the number of men Knox had slept with had less to do with accusations of sexual violence and more to do with the way women’s active (as opposed to performed) sexuality is discussed in the media.

As if expressly designed to prove my point, whilst writing this post Twitter started talking about the episode of Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff on 4th October (day after appeal verdict future readers). A segment of the show was titled:

‘Foxy Knoxy – would ya?’

This led to a discussion about whether (men) on the panel, in the audience and on the phones would have sex with Knox now that she wasn’t a convicted murderer. The discussion was led from the proposal that:

"She’s also undeniably fit and loves wild sex. So if you were a guy who’d met her in a bar and she invited you back to hers, would you go?"


It seems to me that this episode shows us something very clearly about how women appear in the mainstream media. It’s Angel and Whore again, with Witch thrown in. Knox has been taken her out of the ‘witch’ role and placed firmly in her new role of sex object for men to voice their approval or disapproval of. It completely takes Knox as a person out of the equation and treats her as an object to be judged as worthy or unworthy of male attention, as an object that they might or might not want to have sex with.

Throughout the media reporting of the trial, we have seen the media version of Knox inhabit all of the prescribed roles for women that are allowed to us. She has been the Angel – an innocent victim of a corrupt judiciary. She has been a Witch – an evil demon motivated by lust who is out of control. She has been a Whore – sleeping with men in trains, a woman who ‘loves wild sex’. And now she is an object who is judged by male spectators.

I would add one more thing. In all of this, in the trivialising nickname of ‘Foxy Knoxy’, in the post-verdict discussion about whether men want to shag her, in the flurry of sexist terms and the general prioritising of Knox’s role over those of the men accused with her, one very important thing has had a haunting silence about it. And that is that a young woman was murdered. As Kercher’s sister said, Meredith Kercher has been forgotten. I know I haven’t really helped matters by writing about Knox here, which is why I want to finish on that note.

Good piece on 'witch' language on CIF http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/27/amanda-knox-witch-hunts-italian-court

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