Women: What do we have to do to stay out of trouble?

When we think of the Western justice system, the age-old axiom “innocent until proven guilty” springs to mind. It’s a comforting phrase, and many of us, thankfully, will never have the opportunity to test its application within the justice system itself. We can think about it abstractly, comfortable that so long as we don’t do anything abhorrent, we’ll be safe and well. Crime, after all, is what other, bad people do. But what does it really mean? What constitutes ‘innocence’? Innocence (like human rights) is a privilege automatically applied only to certain, majority groups of non-deviant people. Women are just one group of people who, it could be argued, have to earn innocence.

Amanda Knox, the American exchange student charged by the Italian authorities for the murder of her flat mate in 2008, was released in early October 2011, the case having been overturned. Knox spent over 1,000 days in confinement, but she is far from the only person to have been subject to gross miscarriages of justice whereby the media influence public perception of the defendant to such an extent that the it could be seen to be affecting the case in question itself.

In the case of Amanda Knox, a mixture of ancient sexism and an absence in the Italian media of investigative, objective journalism were primarily to blame. Reading any early article concerning the case, it is clear that sexist, medieval stereotypes of the good girl versus the whore were brought into circulation, and Knox’s femininity, expressed in her body language on a couple of occasions and deemed inappropriate, were potential contributors her conviction. Knox’s ‘sexy walk’ and her decision to accept a supportive kiss on the lips from her boyfriend at the time were both indicators, to the public, that she was a dangerous, provocative and sexually active woman. “We don’t need to rely on other kinds of investigation,” said the lead investigator, referring to Knox’s general demeanor.

Knox is far from the only woman to have been in the press recently as a result of heightened supposed guilt. Local Manchester nurse Rebecca Leighton made headlines this summer when she was convicted, through no firm evidence, of poisoning the saline drips of up to 19 patients, killing five, if not more of them. She was then acquitted, but the overhaul of her conviction was barely covered in the media, and when it was it was with a general tone of disapproval and suspicion from certain tabloids. During those crucial weeks in July 2011, it was not possible to walk down a road in Manchester without seeing the famous headlines, ‘Nurse poisons patients!’, accompanied by a range of pictures of Leighton that seem to have been chosen to highlight her sexuality, and, as a result, her depraved moral character. On the tabloids, Leighton pouted, posed, was pictured dressed in costumes, miming fellatio and wearing lots of jewelry with a heavy face of make-up. All photos clearly taken off-duty and were irrelevant to the case, yet apparently all were symptomatic of a woman unfit to be a nurse.

Or how about the case of Sally Clark from Wilmslow in Cheshire, who was famously convicted of murdering her two sons in 1999, fatalities later revealed to be as a result of cot death? The media coverage of Clark, a professional woman who drank alcohol, focused around her unsuitability as a mother and the fact that she probably hated the children and longed for her old lifestyle back. Since the inquest, genetic research has shown a possible biological basis for repeat occurrences of cot death within families, and eventually Clark was acquitted. However, the image of an insensitive career woman stuck with her, and in 2007 she died at the age of only 42, finally sparking sympathetic mainstream media coverage which she did not live to see. No longer a danger to society through her ‘un-motherly’ ways and progression up the career ladder (since she was dead), Clark had finally, truly earned her innocence in the eyes of the media. Clark may not have been immediately guilty of killing her sons, but she was immediately guilty of not behaving in the way a mother ought to, and in the eyes of much of the public and press this amounted to the same thing.

Historically, women have always been expected, and required, to behave in a certain way. The Greek myth of Medea is only one example of the ancient fear of women who contravene the sacred model of femininity and motherhood. Medea commits the most damnable act for a woman to commit: she kills her children. Yet, Medea is also cunning. She tricks her enemies, uses sorcery, and kills and cuts up her brother. But the fact is this: a woman cannot simply commit a crime without it being a manifestation of her failure as a woman or a mother. When a man commits a crime, there is a certain amount of muted acceptance – after all, he’s a man. Whether a man’s crime is cold and calculated, or the result of a fit of passion, he is seen to be contravening a group of expectations about what it means to be a good human being in civilized society – because being a human being is equivalent to being a man. When a woman commits a crime, it is something different that she fails. Criminality, in a woman, is representative either of a failure to repress sexuality, or the failure to be a classical image of a passive, selfless, caring mother-figure. Outside of these boundaries, sexuality in a woman is a deviant, criminal act and discordant with deeply ingrained and old-fashioned concepts of innocence and purity. Women are theoretically free, of course, to express themselves in whatever way they enjoy, and to be whatever kind of mother they see fit, but it seems as though there is still a long way to go until theory and practice, in the eyes of the media and the judicial system, are in harmony.

Written by: Harriet Ryder

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