The six-year saga that has been the trial of Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito for the murder of English student Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2006 has taken another dramatic turn after the guilty verdict imposed in 2009 and overturned in 2011 was reinstated by the court of appeal in Florence.
The pair were sentenced to lengthy jail terms: Knox to serve 28 years and six months and Sollecito to serve 25 years. But sentences still have to be confirmed and further appeals are expected. Knox, who heard the news at home in Seattle has indicated she would have to be “dragged kicking and screaming” back to Italy and would fight extradition.
And so another chapter opens in a drama that has played out in the full glare of media from the moment Knox was first arrested over Kercher’s killing in 2007. And in Knox much of the news media has constructed the femme fatale of its dreams.
Knox has been painted by many as the very model of a modern celebrity criminal, voted woman of the year by an Italian TV station in 2008 and in 2012 making Maxim magazine’s list of the top 100 sexiest women. Along the way, she accrued a number of other trappings of fame, notably fan mail and marriage proposals – which prompted a somewhat flattered, somewhat perplexed response. In an ironic diary entry, she cast herself as one of the most ancient of celebrities, prized for her beauty and little else: Helen of Troy. The swift and wide proliferation of websites, blogs and discussion boards devoted to the crime gives an indication of just how much interest the case, and Knox in particular, provoked.
From a very early stage, the idea of Knox as femme fatale gained traction as journalists shaped the slim established facts – and the much more dense material of supposition and rumour – into a suitable product for media consumption: a beautiful young woman apparently involved in a brutal sexual assault and murder. “I am not the femme fatale criminal fantasy they describe. This person does not exist,” Knox protested to Italian TV in October last year.
Unfortunately for “Foxy Knoxy”, it always had been a case about a femme fatale, from the moment that footage of her kissing Sollecito outside her apartment, just hours after the murder, was disseminated around the world.
By the time the counter-spin began to churn, with the PR firm hired by her family pointing out that the nickname had been given to her as a child on the soccer pitch, it was already far too late. While Sollecito and the other accused (and swiftly convicted), Rudy Guede, soon receded into the background, Knox was handed the role of celebrity murderess.
One of Sollecito’s lawyers even suggested that, “being with a beautiful girl, he allowed himself to be drawn into giving her an alibi”. Journalists in court reported that Knox frequently flirted across the court room with Sollecito, who later felt it necessary to insist he was “not a ‘dog on a lead’ – at the beck and call of Knox”. Meanwhile, the prosecution repeatedly cast Knox as prime architect and eager participant in the killing, and sections of the press lapped it up.
Knox has been spared no hyperbole: one lawyer called her “a diabolical, Satanic, demonic she-devil”. Though she has found her defenders in the media, some of the “quality” press has followed a similar line to the tabloids. At times a value system has been mobilised that condemns Knox for what it perceives to be an unhealthy, immoral promiscuity. When a writer in The Observer suggests that leaving a vibrator in a transparent washbag and enjoying one-night stands meant Knox “knew no boundaries”, one is prompted to ask where, exactly, we are locating those boundaries – and what century we are in?
Above all, however, it’s not the sex, it’s the violence. Violent male offenders are understood to be conforming to well-established patterns of behaviour, even if their crimes provoke horror and revulsion. But female agents of violence are, in the words of writer Ann Lloyd, “doubly deviant, doubly damned”: they have not only broken the law, they have transgressed the “rules” of what is understood to be acceptable female behaviour. A criminologist described Knox as a “gap-year Rose West” in the Daily Express, and a former chair of the British Psychoanalytic Association likened her supposed nonchalance in court to Radovan Karadzic’s “preening behaviour” during his trial.
The femme fatale meme is one by which society has historically sought to rationalise the violent woman, to make her “make sense” when she seems to depart so radically from accepted notions of femininity. It is a construct that provokes powerful and confused emotions. On the one hand, she excites feelings of desire in the heterosexual male; on the other, she also inspires fear, and very often her erotic charge is magnified considerably precisely because of the threat she contains.
The coverage of the murder of Meredith Kercher swiftly cast Knox in this role. One defence lawyer felt obliged to go out of her way in an appeal hearing in 2011 to protest that Knox “may have ‘femme fatale’ looks, but is not a killer”. Like that famous parody of 1940s noir femmes fatales, Jessica Rabbit, Giulia Buongiorno suggested, Knox was not bad – she had just been “drawn that way”.
The figure of the beautiful-but-lethal woman has always been “drawn that way”, from Basic Instinct all the way back to Eve tempting Adam. The enduring patriarchal myth of the femme fatale embodies abiding male fears and fascination with the idea that female charm conceals indelible evil. It may be that this has had little or no bearing on the verdict; nevertheless, it is significant and troubling that such stereotypes continue to circulate, and continue to be drawn upon so deeply as the media constructs images of women on trial for murder.