No sooner did an Italian court overturn the Amanda Knox conviction than pundits zeroed in on the really interesting psychological aspect of the case. As the Vancouver Sun put it: was she a “‘She-Devil’ or ‘Innocent Abroad’?” That’s what the public really wanted to know.
The trial was at least as much about how men perceive women than about Knox’s factual guilt or innocence. It was the inevitable outcome of a circumstance: Knox was a looker. And while that physical particular hardly seems relevant to the case, it set in train a whole sequence of psychological shifts; natural perhaps since it may be impossible for men — be they prosecutors or simply spectators watching from afar — to be neutral in the presence of feminine beauty. Even though there’s no good reason for it — and there never was — a sufficiently attractive woman almost always distorts the atmosphere in a roomful of men, and even a moderately attractive lady can produce a severe gravitational effect.
The males of the human species are an imaginative lot. And many can’t help but see an attractive woman who gains their attention except as a character in his own play. An instant tableau can spring up in the mind in which the lady is either one thing or another. That seems to have been the case with Amanda Knox:
Prosecutors depicted her as lascivious and slovenly — a drug-using party goer who regularly brought strange men back to her room. … Knox’s family have presented a completely different picture of a loving, sporty girl who spoke proudly to her mother of her friendship with Kercher.
The British Daily Mail newspaper quoted a guest at Knox’s going away party saying that it was a scene of debauchery, “with drinks, drugs and bodies everywhere. … Everyone just wanted to get drunk, get high and get laid.”
Friends of Amanda Knox groups sprang up in her hometown and on the internet, with messages of support deploring the “warped image” created in the press.
A more homely woman would never have engendered such scenarios. You can’t get Roseanne Barr to play either of the roles mentioned above in the imagination. But a beautiful woman can play either role if she wants. The French have a phrase to describe a woman who can project an image so strongly in men’s minds that they hypnotize themselves into believing that image is real: that phrase is femme fatale. “Her ability to entrance and hypnotize her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch, or demon.”
None of those powers inhere in femme fatale herself, their result is entirely the result of being able to make men give orders to themselves. Raymond Chandler’s novels are full of such characters, luring detectives in to alleys, getting brawny but besotted men to take the fall. But probably the most famous literary archetype is Alexandre Dumas’ Milady de Winter. Dumas’ Milady consciously calculates her words to produce the desired psychological effect. She can steal secrets, deceive people into committing murder, or even turn a man against the tenets of his faith. Who can forget how Milady demolished John Felton, Puritan:
In Dumas’s novel, Felton is a young soldier under Lord de Winter’s command who is entrusted to guard the fictional Milady de Winter. Milady’s master, Cardinal Richelieu, has ordered her to murder Buckingham so that he will not aid the Huguenot cause in the Protestant city of La Rochelle. As they question each other she puts on a façade of sorrow and broken innocence, even pretending to be a Puritan like Felton, and making up stories and anecdotes that demonise the duke. Milady manages to seduce Felton in a matter of days. They finally escape together and Felton is sent to stab the duke, which he still justifies on the grounds of his lack of promotion. Felton realizes that he has been deceived when Milady sails away without him and he is left to be hanged for his crime.
Felton was played in the 1973 Richard Lester production of Three Musketeers by Michael Gothard. The atmosphere of his gradual destruction at the hands of Milady de Winter can be gathered from Lalo Schifrin’s soundtrack. He didn’t have a chance. When the actress playing Milady is Faye Dunaway, would you? Buckingham should have employed another Puritan, by the name of Solomon Kane, to guard Milady de Winter. He might have had better luck.
One lady I know offered the view that the femme fatale was a totally self-generated male creation. “The self-destructive acts are not orchestrated by women of some preternatural cunning. Most femme fatales do nothing. All the work is done by the men themselves. Femme fatales are only ordinary women who’ve accidentally found the right combination of buttons to push to make men do what they want. It is the fantasy of men that does the rest.” Her explanation made me uneasy because I had heard the same argument offered, in a political context, to explain the 2008 presidential elections. But in that view, we will never know any more about Amanda Knox than we will ever know about Barack Obama. Maybe neither actually exists as we think they do, except in our imaginations.
And yet — who would be a Musketeer without encountering at least one femme fatale in youth? Would such a youth be worth living? At the end of the novel, when Athos by the feudal power of justice invested in him in his position as the Comte de la Fère condemns Milady de Winter to death, our heart leaps at the prospect that D’Artagnan will rescue her:
Oh, I cannot behold this frightful spectacle!” said he. “I cannot consent that this woman should die thus!”
Milady heard these few words and caught at a shadow of hope.
“d’Artagnan, d’Artagnan!” cried she; “remember that I loved you!”
The young man rose and took a step toward her.
But Athos rose likewise, drew his sword, and placed himself in the way.
“If you take one step farther, d’Artagnan,” said he, “we shall cross swords together.”
Even the price of breaking the Brotherhood, even at the cost of setting free the woman who killed his own mistress, even at setting aside the vow of “all for one and one for all” — nothing seems too much to pay for Milady’s escape. I know it is with everlasting fictional regret that I read of her end by the banks of that accursed river.
But perhaps that is fantasy also; maybe it is women as we imagine them, and not as they are, that men hate and love so. If so Amanda Knox will remain a mystery. She has been acquitted, and while that is not quite the same thing as saying she was innocent or guilty, that is all that we can know and perhaps all that we will ever know.