The XX Factor

What Amanda Knox Tells Us About Privilege

Amanda Knox reacts at the announcement of the verdict of her appeal trial, during which she was acquitted

Photo by Getty Images.

Katie Crouch asks an important question in the wake of the Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito exoneration: What can be done to stop a circus like this one from happening again? There are a number of important flaws in traditional systems of justice that this case helped expose, especially with regards to how character assessment of the defendants is weighed too heavily and actual evidence too lightly, and perhaps addressing those problems could help significantly. That said, one thing that could help is looking at the dangers of an overly simplistic view of prejudice and privilege.

I’ve seen a lot of liberals dismiss the importance of the Knox case because Knox is a generally privileged person: white, upper-middle class, American, young, and conventionally attractive. They rightly point out that these privileges are why her case got so much attention, and that the attention paid to it is why she probably was able to walk in the end, taking the just-as-surely-innocent Sollecito with her. These things are all true, but problems arise when you work under the assumption that “privilege” is a static thing, that you have it and that’s that. What Knox’s case shows is that privilege is often a slippery thing, and what is a privilege in one context can actually work against you in another.

Casey Greenfield has one of the best assessments of this situation that I’ve seen so far. She argues that Knox’s youth and beauty probably did help her finally walk free, but that her youth and beauty are also the reasons she was railroaded in the first place. This cases touches off one of the more difficult conversations in feminist discourse about looks and privilege. Less conventionally attractive women usually face more obstacles and prejudice, so often one shies away from discussing some of the problems that come with being conventionally attractive, for fear of ringing the “poor little rich girl” bell. With the Knox situation, however, this problem is unavoidable. The reason so many people are eager to believe the implausible prosecution claims that Knox was into Satanic orgies, where sexual pleasure was derived from murder, was that there’s a lot of of misogynist hatred for pretty women that goes hand-in-hand with all the privileges being attractive gets you, and this is true in both Italy and the United States. Both cultures are awash in images of beautiful women being put in degrading situations, where the viewer can get some pleasure out of putting the pretty lady in her place. In the United States, at least, women often mention how nice it is to reach the age when men stop harassing you on the streets as much, and I imagine Italian women feel the same. Whether or not being pretty is experienced as a privilege depends on the context. If you’re vying for a job or out on the dating market, absolutely. But if you’re a rape victim trying to convince a jury that you weren’t “asking for it”? Not so much. I have often in my life looked at some crap that a friend is dealing with and been grateful that I’m not as beautiful as she is, which means I don’t have to put up with so much guff from men who have issues with beautiful women.

I don’t hold out much hope for an honest conversation about this, however. It confuses people to think of privilege as being more complex than a simply up/down hierarchy. In addition, I think a lot of people fear, for some reason, that discussing this distracts from the more severe and routine problems faced by the less conventionally attractive. Plus, some folks will simply argue that’s the price of admission: If you want the privileges of beauty, then you should suffer the downside. Of course, that men don’t have to pay a penalty for good looks doesn’t come up at all in these kinds of discussions, but should be something to think about if you offer the “price of admission” rationalization.