"The Scarlet Letter Reports" is a new series hosted by Amanda Knox that explores the gendered nature of public shaming. The series premieres this Wednesday on Facebook Watch.
I walked onto the set to shoot the first episode of The Scarlet Letter Reports ten years ago to the day I was arrested and redefined around the world as “Foxy Knoxy.” You’ve probably heard of her: the two-faced slut who murdered her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in a fit of drug- and/or jealousy-fueled rage during a sex game gone wrong. That invented monster was convicted, but it was me—the real me—who spent four years in prison and eight years on trial in Italian court making the case for my innocence. Even in freedom, Foxy Knoxy precedes me into the world—everyone I’ve met in the last decade has already met and judged her.
As a white woman, I am rare among wrongfully convicted people, the vast majority of whom are black men. And most exonerees tend to have a very different relationship with the media. I was hounded and harassed before, during, and after my release, whereas most exonerees face being forgotten or ignored by society. These individuals have all borne the burden of our criminal justice system’s failures, and by extension, our society’s shortcomings: our racism, classism, and impulse to scapegoat, vilify, and punish. Foxy Knoxy was the product of some of these shortcomings, but filtered through society’s long history of villainizing women and particularly our sexuality.
In The Scarlet Letter Reports, a new series launching this week on Broadly, I explore the gendered nature of public shaming through interviews with women who have been objectified and villainized by the media, including: Anita Sarkeesian, Amber Rose, Daisy Coleman, Brett Rossi, and Mischa Barton. Though our backgrounds and stories are different, we were all attacked as women. And, in trying to live our lives or come forward with the truth, we faced vicious campaigns against our characters—our identities distorted and crammed into prepackaged tropes, ready-made to be discounted, condemned, and rejected: the slut, the psycho, the trainwreck, the liar, the man-eater.
In the midst of shooting this series, #MeToo exploded; we saw survivors begin to hold powerful men accountable for their actions on a massive scale, and this reinforced for me the notion that my story was not just loosely connected to those of the women I was interviewing, but a direct result of the same societal forces that allowed these other women’s traumas to occur. For example, Daisy Coleman was 14 when she attempted to bring sexual assault charges against 17-year-old Matthew Barnett. At the time, Barnett wouldn't face a trial, but Daisy did. Tried by her community, Daisy was not only viciously slut-shamed and vilified, she was also denied the same protections as defendants in the courtroom—the presumption of innocence—and punished with a guilty verdict that was never actually proven.
I was also reminded while filming this series that I am not the first woman, nor the last, whose identity and narrative has been stolen and recast for clickbait—even though the majority of us don’t think twice about sweeping up copies of US Weekly at the checkout stand or re-sharing scandalous Daily Mail headlines on Facebook. In Mischa Barton’s 2017 revenge porn case, her private struggles were carved up for entertainment. She was consumed by the tabloids, exploited as disaster porn, and, because of this, faced an uphill battle to be taken seriously when suing the con artist who was peddling revenge porn. Movements like #MeToo, though far from perfect, show us what good we’re capable of when we refuse to pull each other apart, and choose instead to stand together. I have to wonder how cases like Mischa’s could have been portrayed differently—how she could have been spared the vicious media attacks—had we taken her story, and her humanity, seriously.
For years, the notoriety of my case made me feel isolated and claustrophobic. I didn’t know if I belonged anywhere, or if I could ever be seen and accepted as who I really am. This changed the first time I walked into the Innocence Network Conference and met hundreds of other wrongfully convicted people, only to discover that they embraced me as a sister. Similarly, when I first walked on set for The Scarlet Letter Reports, I quickly learned to depend on this crew to see the real me and afford the same courtesy to all the women interviewed on the show. Our producer Renee Muza knew from the start that having an all-women crew was crucial for this. I was skeptical at first—the last time I had been in a strictly all-female environment was prison, after all—but I came to appreciate what it meant, not just for our interview subjects, but for all of us behind the camera. The all-women space allowed us to relax, find lighthearted relief at the end of long shoot days, and come together to process the matters at the heart of the show—everything from being taken seriously as female professionals to our own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Just as there are certain things that are easier for me to talk about with other exonerees—like what it feels like to be coerced into falsely confessing during a police interrogation—certain subjects were more easily discussed with only women in the room. Not having to explain them meant that we were all the more productive when we did disagree; we didn’t need to backtrack to explain and we learned from each other throughout the process.
The women you see on SLR—whether survivors of sexual assault, online abuse, or slut-shaming—all have one common denominator: we had our truth taken from us, our identities distorted and vilified. Even though some of our cases may seem extreme, most women have experienced some level of shame, mockery, or abuse due solely to their gender. It’s my hope that sharing stories like these enable us to reclaim the narratives of our own lives, and find comfort in other women’s strength and resilience. I don’t ever want anyone to feel isolated the way I did, and I also know that when we listen to each other’s stories with compassion and context, we also come much closer to actually understanding the truth.
"I only hope that by creating a space for more women’s voices to be heard, and exposing the thread lines between our disparate narratives, their stories may help others in the same way they have already helped me."
Throughout the making of SLR, I’ve never forgotten what a privilege it is to have a platform—one not often afforded to victims of bullying and harassment, and especially not to women who have been otherwise marginalized by society, including women of color, trans women, queer women, and sex workers, among others. It’s humbling to me, considering that, at a certain point in my life, I had to make peace with the idea that I would spend the best decades of my life imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit, and I would be forever branded as something I’m not. I’ve strived to treat this opportunity with the respect it deserves and have worked hard to earn my role in it. I only hope that by creating a space for more women’s voices to be heard, and exposing the thread lines between our disparate narratives, their stories may help others in the same way they have already helped me.
Monica Lewinsky once said, “One of the unintended consequences of my agreeing to put myself out there and to try to tell the truth had been that shame would once again be hung around my neck like a scarlet- A albatross. Believe me, once it’s on, it is a bitch to take off.” She’s right—it is hard work. But that’s just one more reason why we must stand together as we demand empathy and humanity from each other and from the media, for the sake of every woman who came before us, and for the woman whose story will be told next.
Watch the trailer for The Scarlet Letter Reports below.