The Notorious Woman: Tracing the Production of Alleged Female Killers through Discourse, Image, and Speculation

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Hiltz, Emily




This dissertation examines the visual and discursive production of female notoriety through the multi-mediated circulation of five images of Amanda Knox and Jodi Arias, who were both convicted of murder; Knox was eventually acquitted. This project employs visual discourse analysis to trace the movement and cultural use of widely shared and debated photographic images by consulting a broad visual corpus of mainstream American media content produced from 2007 to 2016. I argue notoriety is produced out of a necessary general relation of speculation that is (re)produced in processes of mass mediation. I illustrate the visual formation of notoriety by following the cultural use and spread of the selected digital images. Here I claim contemporary notoriety is fueled by repeated calls to speculate and judge images that seemingly resist full understanding while they are also used as evidence of perceived legal and sexual transgressions. This continual play to investigate, interpret, and define ambiguous imagery are key cultural practices that generate notoriety, for these relations compel further judgment and scrutiny. The dissertation draws critical attention to the cultural and visual practices tied to the creation of notoriety in contexts of digital mass media circulation, and questions the types of knowledge and spectatorship that are encouraged as images circulate over time and medium.

Through the visual discourse analysis, I conclude these five images are continually used to define and assess Knox and Arias relative to shifting norms of acceptable white femininity. Treating the images as performative sites, I outline their compositional and thematic patterns within the visual corpus (e.g. within news broadcasts, newsmagazine episodes, made-for-TV true crime dramas and documentaries, and literary exposés) that constitute discourses of sexual deviancy, inappropriateness, obsession, vanity, and image management. Through these discursive lenses, Knox and Arias are positioned as sexually transgressive, desirable, and excessive - yet remain debatable and highly scrutinized women because they seemingly transgress middle-class white heteronormativity. Taking an intersectional approach, I explore how this constellation of visual discourses works to uphold sexist, classist, and racist logics while also encouraging viewers to see, judge, and consult the familiarly ambiguous images for meaning.


Mass Communications




Carleton University

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Theses and Dissertations

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