The global culture war over Amanda Knox

How did one woman become such a talking point? Because she got bound up in a clash between ‘louche America’ and ‘medieval Italy’.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Although Amanda Knox has now been acquitted of the murder of her flatmate Meredith Kercher in November 2007, such has been the strange, four-years-and-counting obsession with her that one suspects her all-too-public trial is far from over.

In fact, commentators’ and pundits’ fascination with Knox – interrogating her looks, creating and deconstructing her character – has become something of a guilty journalistic compulsion. You can see this in the apologetic trope that now appears in almost all articles on Knox, something along the lines of: ‘We are forgetting the real victim in this tawdry affair.’ So the Daily Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon says: ‘Tragically, Meredith Kercher has become a footnote in the life of Amanda Knox, when it should be the other way round.’ Carol Midgley in The Times (London) complains that ‘Meredith’s wretched fate has, from the start, been overshadowed by an obsession with Knox’s gender, sex life and “hot looks”.’ A Mirror editorial simply lamented: ‘Meredith Kercher and her family seem to have been forgotten as a circus grows up around Amanda Knox.’

And each time this invocation of the ‘real victim’ appears, presented as the true moral highground in the sordid pursuit of Foxy Knoxy, it does so in the context of a commentary about… Amanda Knox. There is no escaping the blatantly obvious: the rape and murder of Kercher, the subsequent conviction of Rudy Guede (upheld on appeal but now unstable), the subsequent conviction of Knox’s lover-of-a-few-days Raffaele Sollecito (quashed with Knox’s on appeal) – all of this functions as little more than a less-than-scenic backdrop against which the main narrative in this foggy tale unfolds: the Amanda Knox Story. As BBC News put it last November, when Knox was still officially guilty, ‘what fascinated us most of all was the beautiful young murderess, and what was really going behind her smile’.

How has this come to pass? How did a then 20-year-old American student come to occupy the eye of an increasingly angry international storm? How did the details of the murder case, many of which have now become still more obscure following Sollecito’s and Knox’s acquittal, come to play second fiddle to the life and times of one of the protagonists?

There ought to be no doubt now that Knox has eclipsed every other key player in the case. There aren’t reams of print on what Kercher was ‘really like’. There aren’t acres of analysis of Sollecito’s good looks. And there’s next to nothing written about Guede. The whole Perugian mystery play is still all about Knox.

Yes, she’s young and, yes, she’s attractive, but these are neither exceptional qualities, nor do they explain what draws so many people to focus on her rather than on the other players. Rather, what lies at the heart of this strangely unsettling phenomenon, drawing in supporters and antagonists alike, is the fact of Knox’s nationality.

Of course, her US passport wasn’t the initial reason for the burgeoning focus on Knox. Back in the days immediately after Kercher’s murder, what marked Knox out was not just her foreigness, but her gender. That is, her behaviour simply failed to live up to what was expected of a supposedly grieving female. She didn’t cry, she didn’t wail, she didn’t break down. Instead, as shown by the now infamous pictures of her hugging and kissing Sollecito outside the cottage where Kercher was slain the day before, Knox acted outside the boundaries of contemporary emotional etiquette. She was gauche, insouciant and, while waiting at the police station, cartwheeling. And in being so, she rendered herself suspicious.

Her behaviour, and as a result her character, was seized upon by sections of the Italian and British press. Details of her private life, publicly available through assorted social media, fuelled the ostensibly gender-based character assassination. Even her 1970s-sounding, soccer-based sobriquet, Foxy Knoxy, became anachronistic proof of her sexual licentiousness. The belief that something was not right about her, driven in part by lead prosecutor Giuliano Mignini’s conviction that she, along with her enraptured boyfriend and a significant other, had engaged in some Satanic sex game, seemed to trump the need for evidence. The characterisation – young, female and depraved – was the evidence. Hence almost all the reports that emerged from both the original trial and subsequent appeal focused not on the purported evidence, a lot of which went misreported, but on what the prosecuting bench said about Knox: ‘She was a diabolical, Satanic, demonic she-devil. She was muddy on the outside and dirty on the inside. She has two souls, the clean one you see before you and the other.’ Her character was always key to the conviction. That the evidence that was actually found was so unconvincing, such as the dodgy DNA sample on a bra clasp collected from the murder scene six weeks after Kercher’s death, merely indicates how secondary the evidence was compared to the character assassination.

But what sustained this tale beyond the fantasy horror of the murder itself, what turned Knox into such a fascinating piece of international public property, was the fact that she was, above all else, an American. This was initially apparent in the surreptitious anti-Americanism that crept into the portrait of Knox as decadent, louche, hedonistic and so on. But as the case developed, the true importance of Knox as an American – and a white middle-class one at that – emerged. It meant that plenty of people from the US and elsewhere refused to accept the verdict on principle. To this, the defence side of the Knox phenomenon – the friends and family, the fan boys around groups like Friends of Amanda, and the countless supportive commentators and pundits – it was a priori implausible that someone like Knox did it. The willingness of too many in Italy to believe in the demonisation of Knox was matched on the other side of the Atlantic by the opposite reaction: a sheer incredulity at the demonisation of Knox. In the words of Knox’s hometown newspaper the Seattle Times, ‘the case against former University of Washington student Amanda Knox was always just too far-fetched’.

And what this incredulity quickly translated into, especially after Knox’s conviction in December 2009, was an incredulity towards the judgement of Italy itself, a judgement embodied in the Italian judicial system, from judges to jurors. If liberal American culture – its moral laxity, its looseness, its loucheness – was on trial in prosecutor Mignini’s demonisation of Knox, so Italian culture – its medievalism, its misogyny, all festering in Italy’s pre-rational recesses – was dragged into the light of the Knox supporters equally prejudiced purview. Accordingly, the judgement of an Italian court, peopled as it was by the culturally superstitious and the misogynistic, could not be trusted.

So in the New York Times, Timothy Egan slammed the ‘non-existent motive’ attributed to Knox that ‘played to medieval superstitions’. In the Guardian, Joan Smith also saw the persistence of the medieval in the Italian present, likening the trial of Knox to a fifteenth-century witch-hunt: ‘The key document in this centuries-long tradition is the notorious witch-hunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches, which was commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII.’ As far as Smith was concerned, Prosecutor Mignini was simply carrying on the Inquisitorial tradition, with he and his fellow prosecutors bringing ‘into the open a strain of irrationality and misogyny that exists as an undercurrent in many headline-grabbing criminal cases [in Italy]’.

In the New York Post, professional Knox watcher Nina Burleigh was equally keen to sketch the backward cultural determinants of Knox’s demonisation: ‘To understand Mignini’s worldview, to get what he saw when he looked at the crime scene at Hallowtide on a Thursday night, and to see what led him to think of a woman leading a sex game, we must dig far back into the history of the long battle of Catholicism versus alternative spirituality in Italy and know its signs and symbols as well as he does.’ She goes on to talk about Mignini’s recourse to ‘Italy’s culture in general’, and his knowledge of its most recondite spaces, ‘utterly closed and locked against the prying eyes of outsiders, rooms with keys that perhaps only native Italians hold’.

While the prosecution might have seen fit to portray as Knox as the foreign aggressor, the decadent threat to the social body, in the view of her defenders she was the victim of an Italy riven with superstition and rank with pre-rational mysticism. And it was this internationalised conflict, this seeming culture war, which informed the Knox phenomenon. Just look at the sheer number of articles about Knox with a binary question: ‘“She-Devil” or “Innocent Abroad”?’; ‘She-devil of family’s nightmares or Amelie of Seattle: the two faces of Amanda Knox’; ‘Angel-faced killer with eyes like ice or all-American girl?’. These are not evidence of Knox the individual’s split personality, as some contend. They are testament to the international cultural battle fought out in the form of Knox the individual. When a New York Times journalist concludes that Knox fascinates us because of some inherent ‘duality’ in her character, he gets it the wrong way round; it was the cultural battle between caricatures of America and Italy that found dualistic embodiment in Knox.

It was always these cultural prejudices about both sides, be it the New World of America or the Old Europe of Italy, that made the young American female accused of murder in Italy into the story. There was much more at stake in her trial and the subsequent appeal than her own freedom. It had become a matter of Italy versus America, of Italian judgement versus American judgement. The response to the acquittal verdict last week revealed as much. In the words of pensioner Gesira Ceccerlle, interviewed by The Times in a Perugian cafe: ‘I don’t think it was fair [Knox] was freed – the Americans always win because we are always the weaker.’ Italian newspaper La Repubblica was similarly open about the nature of the conflict: ‘America puts people on trial, but it doesn’t tolerate being on trial itself.’ Even one of the appeal judges resorted to referencing Knox’s home country as an explanation for why Italians are convinced of her guilt: ‘I think it stems from [her] American nationality’, he said.

What has been lost to this distorted international conflict, of course, has been any sense of the truth. While many commentators, especially in the UK, are ceaselessly reminding us that Kercher was the real victim, what has really suffered amid the cultural mudslinging has been the quest to find out what happened on that November night nearly four years ago. Prejudice has certainly flourished in the battle over Knox, but it has done so at a considerable cost.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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