Freeing 'Foxy Knoxy': Why People Are So Obsessed with Amanda Knox

As Netflix announces its new documentary "Amanda Knox," we decipher the fascination with the acquitted Seattle exchange student who was accused of a brutal murder in Perugia, Italy.

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Sep 2 2016, 2:02pm

Photo via Netflix

On November 1, 2007, 21-year-old British student Meredith Kercher—"Mez" to her friends—was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in her bedroom in Perugia, Italy. She'd been in the city just a month, living in an apartment with three others.

The next day, one of Kercher's housemates, 20-year-old American student Amanda Knox, returned to that apartment having spent the night with her new boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. She found Kercher's door locked and assumed she was sleeping. She became alarmed only after she left and came home later to find Kercher's door still locked. Knox and Sollecito alerted the Italian police and forced Kercher's door open, where they found her body on the floor.

International media descended on Perugia to cover what was fast becoming a sensational case. By then, prosecutors had alleged that the murder was "a sex game gone wrong" and that Knox was a sexual sadist. Dubbed "Foxy Knoxy" by Italian and international media, Knox quickly became infamous—and all these years later, she remains the key figure in a crime that captivated the world.

In September, she'll be the focus of one of Netflix's brand new original documentaries, called Amanda Knox. Filmmakers Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn claim to have had unprecedented access to Knox, so that they could tell "a human story that goes past the headlines to examine the often fraught relationship between true crime tragedy, justice, and entertainment."

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After being charged with Kercher's murder, Knox and Sollecito spent nearly four years in jail in Italy, before their release in 2011 and exoneration by the Supreme Court of Italy in 2015. With suspects acquitted and the real culprit—a 30-year-old man named Rudy Guede—put away, what could this Netflix documentary have to reveal? Why, nine years later, do we crave more information about Amanda Knox? And what makes us so fixated on the grisly deaths of strangers in the first place?

Forensic psychologist and executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behaviourial Science, Dr N.G. Berrill, says it's about entertainment.

"People are interested in the lurid, the perverse, something with a sexual tinge, something that's a little bit odd or kinky," he says. "That case had a lot of wrinkles to it that would have attracted people's attention. The fact that the people involved were pretty young could also be a factor. The fact that Amanda Knox was an American abroad, when this crime occurred. Americans in particular pay more attention to crimes involving Americans, being decided in Europe. It becomes about fairness then; will they get a fair shake or will be there in built bias? And last but not least, she's physically attractive. It's a double edged sword, being particularly attractive, because people are rooting for and against you because of that, regardless of the case. There's a sport or voyeurism in it."

Photo via Netflix

But why wasn't Meredith Kercher—the one who lost her life that night in November, 2007—the focus of her own murder trial?

"The victims rarely are, in highly publicized crimes," Dr Berrill says. "Usually we focus on the people being charged with a crime. Some famous ones come to mind, I'm thinking of Oscar Pistorius or OJ Simpson. When people want to know more about the defendant, they certainly attract more attention than the victim. People are bored, you know. People's lives are mundane. When these celebrity-style cases emerge, it's like hooking into a new soap opera. People develop some sort of weird transient attachment to the defendant, whether they hate or love them. It's entertainment, really—that's all it is."

Another reason for the continued cultural fascination with Amanda Knox could be that the case feels unresolved. Despite her definitive exoneration by the highest court in Italy, people still have questions about Knox. The acquittal may prove disappointing to anyone who watched this case—unlike movies or television, reality doesn't necessarily have a satisfying narrative ending.

In the beginning, people were fascinated because they could relate to the victim and suspects—whether they were parents, students, or otherwise.

Barbie Latza Nadeau is a CNN contributor and the Rome bureau chief for The Daily Beast. She is also the author of Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox, which inspired the 2014 Michael Winterbottom thriller The Face of an Angel.

"In the beginning, people were fascinated because they could relate to the victim and suspects—whether they were parents, students, or otherwise. Now, I think so many people are still watching the case because it feels unfinished. There are still unanswered questions even though it has been decided judicially. There are still aspects that don't make sense; angles that were never fully fleshed out, stories that were never squared. It all feels disconnected and unfinished," she says.

Nadeau is right about the unfinished stories. If this case had been fictional, its writer would have been crucified for plot holes and loose ends. To start, Sollecito changed his story several times to implicate and then distance Knox from the crime. There was the confession that Knox made and withdrew, claiming to have been coerced by police. There's the changing testimony of Rudy Geude, who both placed Knox at the scene of the crime and denied her presence there. There's simply no way that this upcoming Netflix documentary can resolve all, if any, of these lingering points of interest.

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"People want the last word on this story, though I doubt Netflix will be the last word," says Nadeua. "Oddly, perhaps, Amanda Knox seems least obsessed by this case. She seems to be moving on, creating a new life."

Knox is now back in her hometown of Seattle, beginning a career as a journalist. And so she should, given her proven innocence in a case that stole her freedom and her reputation. In the book she wrote from prison, Waiting To be Heard, Knox says that part of the reason we obsess over her at all is because she's a woman. That thesis—that Knox became a global fixation, in part, because of her gender—is also the subject of The Gift of Beauty: The Amanda Knox Trials by Newsweek journalist Nina Burleigh.

I put this question to Burleigh, who covered the trial from Perugia: How different would the treatment of this case have been, if Amanda Knox had been a man?

"The case wouldn't have been covered much outside of Italy besides a few AP wire stories when the man got acquitted," she says. "My theory about why we were fascinated is that the story combines many streams of cultural button-pushing—nationalism, religion and superstition, European anti-Americanism, the global habit of misogynistic coverage of young women and crimes, and race and racism. What could be more riveting than a stew of all that?"

The femme fatale is a fascinating and terrifying figure for the patriarchy.

Dr Stevie Simkin, a professor at the University of Winchester, agrees that the demonization of Amanda Knox had a lot to do with gender—just as he believes that we speak about Meredith Kercher in terms of purity and gentility because we can't resist forcing women into archetypal roles. He investigated this for his book, Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale: From Pandora's Box to Amanda Knox.

"The femme fatale is a fascinating and terrifying figure for the patriarchy. From the start, Knox was seen as deviant and 'deviant' behaviour mobilizes certain attitudes and assumptions," he says. "Violent male offenders are understood to be conforming to well established patterns of behaviour, even if their crimes provoke feelings of anger, horror, and revulsion. Agents of female violence have not only broken the law but transgressed the 'rules' of what is understood to be acceptable female behaviour."

That transgression is what originally made Amanda Knox newsworthy. She was an educated, attractive, all-American student whose "angelic" appearance didn't match her alleged actions. She was, at every turn, not the woman society expected her to be. And that comes right down to her behavior during the investigation of Kercher's murder: she allegedly did a cartwheel outside the interrogation room at the police station and was famously papped kissing Sollecito in the street after Kercher's body was found. (In an ABC interview, she denied doing cartwheels but admitted to doing the splits.)

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In light of her innocence, these are just quirks of her personality. When the world thought she was guilty, they became sinister gestures of an alleged killer. But where, in all of this, is the figure of Meredith Kercher? Her memory has essentially been obscured by our overzealous fascination with Amanda Knox.

"The great void in the story for me remains the figure of Meredith Kercher," says Dr Simkin. "This human being died a terrible, terrible death. But then she was reduced to another archetype: the helpless female victim. Although she seemed to be conventional in terms of her own behaviour and attitudes, the press found it useful to construct her as the 'virgin' to Knox's 'whore'—that binary, again, goes all the way back to the Virgin Mary, the antidote to sinful Eve. So the real Meredith Kercher was lost, just as Knox says in her memoir that the 'real' her was lost in all the press coverage."

By working with the makers of this new Netflix documentary, she may have the chance to change that. Meredith Kercher, meanwhile, has all but disappeared from the narrative about her own death. With the imminent release of a documentary called Amanda Knox, it doesn't sound as if that's going to change. When it airs at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Amanda Knox will consolidate and revive our interest in Amanda Knox, the woman we can't seem to let go.