We all know what the name Amanda Knox has become synonymous with. The 2016 Netflix documentary named after her about the salacious tabloid-style twists and turns of her now-infamous Italian murder trial, and the sustained trauma of being wrongfully accused and convicted explored this to powerful effect.
Women like Knox know all too well the power of media in shaping how we view any woman who dares cross invisible lines into infamy, whether it is through their own free will, or in Knox's case, being thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. (Note that it is rarely a woman's "choice" — as we think of choice defined as individual autonomy— to pursue any kind of notoriety, but rather, and most often, a result of circumstance). All of this is done through intense media speculation around women's sex lives, public scrutiny about physical appearance, or when women voice any opinion outside of the ones they are "expected to have."
Since returning home to Seattle, having had some time to reflect on her own experiences, Knox has discovered a passion in learning what's behind all of this. She's taking up the mantle through the same outlet that demonized her to help vindicate women who've been unfairly maligned. Standing beside women who have been wrongfully accused no matter what the "crime," is Knox's life's mission.
We live in a patriarchal culture that upholds and destroys women (see virtually any analysis of the "virgin-whore complex") and once they've been destroyed, that same culture tells them it is wrong to reclaim themselves. It's a longstanding pathology that movements like #MeToo are successfully shattering, with literal policy-shifting, stigma-erasing results.
In response to her circumstances, and a desire to empower those the media has vilified, Knox has created The Scarlet Letter Reports, which takes its aptly-titled name from the 1850 novel detailing the plight of Nathaniel Hawthorne's central female protagonist, the publicly-shamed Hester Prynne. It's a new show produced by Broadly, Vice's women's interest channel, and it aims to help women like Anita Sarkeesian, Amber Rose, Daisy Coleman, Brett Rossi, and Mischa Barton reclaim themselves after being, well, Hester Prynne-d by patriarchal society.
PAPER spoke with the cat-loving Knox about #MeToo, redefining narratives of women, and creating deeper compassion in media. Read on and watch clips from her new show. (The first episode is about Anita Sarkessian, a feminist gamer who was subjected to torrential online harrassment because of her outspokenness about how female characters in games are portrayed).
Hi Amanda, how are you?
I'm good! I'm petting a cat at the moment.
That sounds like great therapy, what kind of cat is it?
Well, I have three cats. Call me crazy cat lady, everyone else does, but I got them at the cat pound so I never quite know what they are, but two orange brothers, and one very handsome, fluffy gray kitty.
That's so sweet!
I'm petting the fat one right now.
It's awesome to talk to you today. I've watched the first two episodes of The Scarlet Letter Reports with Anita Sarkeesian and Amber Rose. How did the idea for this show emerge?
I had been already writing several articles for Broadly. They all have to do with women and the criminal justice system and women in the prison environment. I pitched them several ideas, and one of them that struck them was the idea of dissecting the ways that women are vilified in the media. Once again it was something that was deeply important to me, and an issue I felt that I really wanted to address because even in my own life, with the people who know me and love me, and are horrified about what happened to me, not many of them get it when I get mad about tabloids. To this day, I get mad and they're like "Well, Amanda, you didn't ask for it, obviously. Famous people ask for it!" It has taken me a while to put my finger on it. But I had a turning point when I read Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed which is amazing if you haven't read it. It'll change your life. The way I've looked at this since then is you can be an objective journalist with integrity, and you can still have compassion. Because losing compassion and losing context in the process of telling a story doesn't just lose decency, it also loses truth. If you drop context and just decide to label a person as a thing and then put them up in a headline as a two-dimensional object, you are not being truthful. And that's what ends up being sacrificed along the way. You have to look at women in particular, who for the longest time have been set aside as not the most important experiences to be portrayed. When I was making this show, the #MeToo movement erupted, and it was as if suddenly we as a society were treating women's experiences like they matter.
You know? It's like we're now really beginning to question the assumption that women matter, and for the longest time we've said, okay there's one kind of woman who matter, and the other just does not. Right? So we're finally questioning that, and that's been my whole process.
What do you feel you've been learning from your talks with these women who've been vilified and harassed? Just to throw it out there, I was recently listening to a Liz Phair song, called "Canary." In the lyrics, she sings: "I learn my name/ I write with a number-two pencil/ I work up to my potential/I earn my name." To me, it speaks to this idea you're getting at that women who've been discarded by the media have to work 1,000 times harder than men to establish themselves/earn or even keep their names when they've been dragged through the mud.
Not only have certain women been dragged through the mud, but we give a person a label, and that becomes who they are; it encompasses their full being. You give the label of a "slut" to someone and suddenly all of the connotations that come with that, the social structure of how you treat women comes into play. It's not just the word, it's everything that comes with the word. Trying to escape from the deep black hole that someone tosses you into casually by calling you a "slut" or a "shrill bitch," you suddenly have to define yourself against a long history of society portraying women according to certain mythologies that work to delegitimize them constantly. When I'm meeting with these women to talk about their experiences, what I've found are women who've been through different versions of the same thing; who are at different stages of processing that same thing; who are doing different things about it, which is amazing because being in a room with an all-female crew -- a rare, strange paradise bird to begin with -- because we all came to these women trying to figure out what it all means. We all take certain things for granted, but we all knew what it felt like to stand on a subway platform and be leered at while we're standing next to super-objectifying advertising on the wall. We all knew what that felt like. But what was interesting is we were essentially, all women in the room, like a slumber-party vibe, were trying to figure out where we also disagreed. Where were we falling short in our understanding of each other's experiences? One of the things that I often talked about with the women I talked to was whether or not they felt they were part of the #MeToo movement and whether or not they felt their experiences were encompassed in that movement. How did feel judged, or welcomed, or unwelcome? I loved being around these women and feeling seen and heard as I was seeing and hearing them. You know? That's just a good feeling. I didn't know if I'd feel that way going into it.
Going through experiences like what you all have been through can render a woman voiceless, or feeling like her voice has been stolen from her. It's very much a primary goal of the patriarchy: to silence women. How do you feel like you've been getting your voice back and reclaiming it?
When I first came home from being in prison for something I didn't do, I didn't want to be the girl who was wrongly accused of murder. I'd just spent years in prison, and I just wanted to get back to the life I had. As many poetry classes as I took, the truth of my experiences was staring me in the face constantly: there was the wrongful conviction; there are the years I spent in prison; there was my pain and my fury and my loneliness. What I ultimately realized was whether I liked it or not, I was forever going to be associated with my friend's death, which is mortifying, but also that I am one of many people who have gone through an experience. By acknowledging that aspect of my identity, I've been able to pursue good work that comes from having the perspective I have, given what I've gone through. And so, in a similar way that being a wrongfully convicted person means that I can talk to what it is like to be interrogated by police and coerced into falsely confessing in a way that no one else can, also being a woman who has been vilified by the media has given me the perspective and the knowledge that is valuable in the discussion about how the media should treat human beings. In this case, women. Knowing that I have this perspective and applying it to the very medium I'm criticizing -- I'm not a media denier. I'm a media person who is trying to make media better. I'm trying to encourage a type of media that is fueled by compassion and integrity, and that is something I feel empowered to do given my experience. The fact that I'm even able to do that right now is incredible. Not too long ago, I was in a prison cell thinking I'd spend the best decades of my life there defined as this thing I was not, and I'd never get that or my innocence back. Now I'm given the opportunity to create something that reflects who I truly am.
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All the woman you're talking to are examples of what you're talking about.
Totally! Thank you.
What is your biggest hope and goal for the show?
My greatest hope is that when faced with the humanity of these women, people will genuinely question their assumptions about other human beings that are of a type that people have labeled in their heads. And that they will demand more of the media. The media is this powerful, wonderful force for good when it is used properly -- as we are seeing with #MeToo and other social movements in this country. But when it is wielded negatively it can be so psychologically destructive. I want people to say, when they see something going wrong, let's do better, and give a sense of how we can do so. One of the ways to do that is always taking context into consideration. Compassion has an actual role in journalism.
The Scarlet Letter Reports runs every Wednesday on Facebook Watch.
Photo Courtesy of The Scarlet Letter Reports