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Amanda Knox and the Virgin-Whore Dichotomy

December 5, 2009
Cosa mi fa ridere
Image by redbanshee via Flickr

As the recent verdict in the trial of Amanda Knox has brought more attention to a post I wrote some time ago about media sensationalism in the coverage of the case, I wanted to follow up by covering another problematic aspect of the portrayal of Amanda Knox. Her defenders have repeatedly characterized her, in the media and in court, as totally naive, a young woman almost unbelievably pure. Raffaele Sollecito’s lawyer Giulia Bongiorno described her thus:

She views the world, and people, with the eyes of a child. She’s bursting with energy and has an approach to life that is spontaneous and reckless. Amanda is a weak and fragile girl. I think of her as the Amelie of Seattle.

Playing off this statement, a Guardian story used “she-devil” and “the Amelie of Seattle” to describe “the two faces of Amanda Knox” but you might be more familiar with the terms virgin (or Madonna) and whore. The defense and the prosecution fit neatly into these two sides of an old dichotomy.

Because both sides have used these familiar and deeply ingrained notions of female sexuality, people have responded with passionate feelings about Knox’s guilt or innocence. Such comments only rarely discuss more than the superficial facts and seem more often to be based on which picture they see as being a more valid portrayal of women. Is Knox a pretty young woman who became a violent slut when she moved away from her parents and thought she could get away with it because of her beauty? Or is she sweet, innocent, and bullied?

Both these images are, of course, cartoonish and unrealistic. Murderers are, as much as we might wish to deny it, human; on the other hand, women need not be totally childlike and virginal to be innocent of brutal crimes. The idea that women must be one or the other hurts all of us by denying our basic humanity. Consider too that if Knox had not been a pretty young white woman, the “virgin” defense would not have been available to her. It might not have helped in her trial, as it turns out, but it has certainly influenced public opinion in some sectors.

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8 Comments
  1. Quid Pro Gnome permalink
    December 7, 2009 8:15 pm

    In my mind, the most prominent edifice for Amanda Knox has nothing to do with her gender, but with her position as another run-of-the-mill, upper class, American study abroad student who writes home about charity and global diversity while smoking pot and generally doing little if anything to actually depart from the insular apprehensions of consumerist-suburbo-liberal politics. One week in Seattle everyone is up in arms about the decade’s-past pardoning of a (black, male) eighteen year old purse thief in Arkansas (Maurice Clemmons), and the very next week they’re defending Knox, an entitled, exceptional polyanna who was clearly involved in a murder. There is no direction in which the wind doesn’t blow in Seattle, and yet it’s never less than a gale.

    • December 8, 2009 3:58 am

      No doubt the “virgin” version of Knox does rely a lot on her whiteness and class status, as I acknowledge in my post, but to deny that her gender has a lot to do with why she was portrayed alternately as virgin or whore and why her being sexual was used as part of the prosecution would be a mistake. These things intersect, and guilty or not, a person’s liking sex should not be used against them in court.

      As for Maurice Clemmons, if people were only complaining that he wasn’t locked up for life for stealing a purse, that would be extremely offensive. But let’s not forget that the man was also charged with raping a child before the crime that brought him to everyone’s attention occurred. I’m not going to deny that the so-called justice system in the US treats black men terribly (because that would fly in the face of all facts) or that white people fear black men enough to demand that it does (which is, of course, deeply racist), but I’m not sure that’s the best example.

      • December 8, 2009 7:31 am

        which isn’t to say that constructions of race and the image of the “scary black man” don’t come into the narratives people have about his case, and I should have said that in my first reply to your comment. Sorry!

  2. Quid Pro Gnome permalink
    December 8, 2009 10:56 pm

    Absolutely, it would be foolish to say that a person’s race or gender don’t intervene on considerations of guilt and innocence. Still, in terms of law, people are wrong when they call these things mere assumptions. They would be assumptions if they did not commit crimes; the commission of an offense gives one the right to judge someone accordingly as a murderer, rapist, absent parent, etc.—which is just to say, assumptions are made before the fact, but judging the causes of someone’s criminal actions after the fact is warranted by their offenses. For that reason, I am simply baffled that people find an exception in Knox, but can run the entire field with these high-falutin’ retroactive judgments about Clemmons. Here we have Knox who can be placed at a homicide, whose behavior makes her highly suspect, and who was found guilty. Then you have Clemmons, who was sentenced to a 108 year sentence for stealing a purse. And the rape occurred in Washington, not Arkansas—further precluding any passing of the buck to Arkansas. And yet, in stark contrast to Knox, people seem to be able to retroactively (psychically?) assign the label of “mass murderer” to Clemmons across the decades, years before he was even remotely involved in capital crimes—and, frankly, there’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s because he was black that people have given themselves such license. It’s because he was black and poor that there is this teleological progression from petty theft to murderer in his narrative, while Knox’s case can be rationalized any which way because she’s a young, white, faultless, study abroad student. There is no consistency between the standards applied to these two individuals, and the comparison is unavoidable.

    • December 10, 2009 6:22 am

      Well-said, Quid Pro Gnome.

Trackbacks

  1. More on the Knox Verdict « How It Works
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  3. Tweets that mention Amanda Knox and the Virgin-Whore Dichotomy « Gender Across Borders -- Topsy.com

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