I was reading a book review about Amanda Knox when I got the idea for this post. For those who have been on another planet for the last few years, Knox is a young American women who was tried for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007, convicted, jailed for almost four years, then released after appeal. She is currently being re-tried in her absence.
What triggered me to write was this paragraph:
The court was also told how many people Knox had slept with since leaving America. Kercher’s British friends testified that she’d been scandalised by Knox’s bringing different men back to the house. The first words that Knox spoke in public, after 15 months of silence, were in defence of the vibrator that she had kept in her washbag, and that had apparently offended Kercher. She interjected: ‘It was a gift, a joke.’ (Nick Richardson review http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n20/nick-richardson/nothing-fits )
The above extract from a lengthy (and very good) book review by Nick Richardson encapsulates an ancient and prevalent trope that is both complex and yet scarily simple:
beautiful woman = promiscuous = dangerous
Amanda Knox is considered to be a beautiful young woman. This is important. It is important because we ascribe very specific characteristics to beautiful women that are enshrined in mythology and are still influencing how we judge women, on every level. Woman as temptress, woman as siren, woman as scheming, manipulative and treacherous.
Added to this is the obvious interest in Knox’s sexual activity. We are told she has had numerous sexual partners but more than that, her actual enjoyment of sex for its own sake is evidenced by her owning a vibrator.
Society is very clear about women who like sex and religious dogma, in particular Judo-Christianity, has set out a virgin-whore dichotomy that continues to fuel misogynist rhetoric and the myth of the bad girl. Amanda Knox is the bad girl; beautiful, sexually active, dangerous. Mess with her at your peril, as her former boyfriend, and fellow accused, suggested to a British newspaper:
Amanda Knox’s one-time boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito wishes he’d never laid eyes on the American brunette, he has admitted.
Six years after the murder of Knox’s roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, the Italian says his life is hell because of his short-lived romance with Knox.
As he prepares to face trial for Kercher’s 2007 murder in Perugia, Italy, for a second time, Sollecito said he doesn’t blame her – but still wishes the two had never been together, so he could have been spared the ordeal. Daily Mail, 3rd October 2013
Whilst he stipulated later in this article and elsewhere that he does not blame Knox for the murder, it is clear that he feels he is in this situation as a direct result of his relationship with her. His attraction to Knox has brought him to a life he describes as hell – not his much documented drug -taking, his addiction to porn or his fecklessness, but his association with Amanda Knox, who the press have labelled luciferina (she-devil).
I am reminded of a particular scene (much loved by teenage boys) in the 1986 film of the Umberto Eco novel, The Name of the Rose (dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud) in which William of Baskerville, monk and mentor to the young novice Adso, reminds him,
Of woman? Thomas Aquinas knew precious little, but the scriptures are very clear. Proverbs warns us, “Woman takes possession of a man’s precious soul”, while Ecclesiastes tells us, “More bitter than death is woman”.
Adso was ‘seduced’ by a local peasant girl and was afterwards tormented by his feelings of affection for the girl and pity for her hardship, and his shame at succumbing to his lust for her. He is later told that the girl is ‘already burned flesh’ and she is inevitably burned alive for witchcraft.
The bad girl doesn’t have to be beautiful but when she is, her beauty becomes a weapon, used to lure and entrap men, to drive them mad with desire, to make them steal, cheat, rape and kill. Such women are known as femme fatales; they provide the motive and also the excuse for the bewitched man’s behaviour. Read the transcripts of most rape cases and you will see evidence of how this myth has far-reaching and potentially fatal consquences for women. Man as victim. Woman as responsible for her own abuse. “He couldn’t help himself”, and “she knew what she was doing”.
The beautiful bad girl trope has been used to best effect in the films of 1940s and ’50s Hollywood known as Film Noir. Shot in atmospheric black and white, film noirs are essentially crime melodramas that typically have a treacherous, beautiful woman as a pivotal character in the action. Men kill for her, sometimes she is a killer, sometimes she is killed but her beauty and sexual allure is always seen as inherently dangerous.
A quick search of crime drama promotional posters of the time demonstrates how the femme fatale character is positioned within the narrative and as a source of menace in her own right, but also as a metaphor for the dangers and desires found in the dark, forbidden, criminal underworld where the films are set and for the forbidden excitement of the life of crime.
If film noir serves as a warning to men of the perils of female sexuality, especially when embodied in a beautiful woman, then it also reminds women of the dire consequences of living a life of moral destitution The femme fatale in film, is punished for her beauty and her sexual allure. She is shot, beaten, strangled and raped or worse still, she is abandoned by the man she loves, left to a life of degradation to contemplate the error of her ways.
The message is clear, be a good girl because bad girls always come to a bad end.