‘I Am The Girl You Know’: Ashley Olsen and the Cruel Gaze of Social Media

Ashley_OlsenThe murder of Ashley Olsen last week has shaken and saddened the Florentine community. Not surprisingly. By all accounts (I did not know her), Olsen was a talented, kind-spirited young woman, well-known and well-liked in her Florence neighborhood, with many friends and professional ties in the community. She came to Florence to study art. Like so many of us, she fell in love with the city. She made a life here, one that to any observing outsider seems to have been a very good life indeed: creative and energetic, full of love, friendship, beauty. She was thirty-five years old.

Even as I write these words, I’m not entirely sure what I want to achieve with this post. I imagine my thoughts on the crime itself, the brutal and horrific end to a woman’s life, do not differ much from those of thousands of others.  But something forceful is compelling me to write. In a word, it’s The Stupid. For our purposes here, The Stupid refers to a vast group—mainstream and alternative media outlets and those in their employ, rabid social media pseudo-pundits, armchair experts, racists, sexists, a-holes, and all your run-of-the-mill mouth-breathers in between. I’m so very sick and tired of The Stupid. Today more than usual.

Less than a week has passed since Olsen was found dead in her apartment. Over the past few days, an investigation that appears to have gone very much by the book (an autopsy, DNA evidence and fingerprints collected, video surveillance reviewed, interviews, etc), has led to the arrest of a suspect who just this morning admitted his involvement in Olsen’s death. Some must surely be relieved. Many others are skeptical, expressing opinions verging on paranoid and bent on drawing connections between this case and the Amanda Knox trial (the same Florentine official is leading the investigation). This line of thinking, summed up, is that since Italians mucked up one case involving a (white, female) expat, surely they cannot be trusted to oversee any case with similar components. Suspicion among this camp is high; and those in it intractable in their convictions, despite the much more complex and convoluted nature of the Kercher murder. This morning, just after news of the arrest, I saw many comments on Facebook similar to this example:

‘mmmmmm…arresting someone makes them look good, if nothing else’ …’given the experience of the Amanda trial I have little hope’. What qualified this person to make such assumptions?: ‘I have lived in Italy for over 40 years and am very familiar with the way things are done here.’

The skepticism itself is not what troubles me. Surely a skeptical view forms part of a critical thinking process we’d all do well to practice more often. What’s bothering me is the quantity of individuals making broad proclamations about what must be this investigation’s inevitable faults and ultimate failure, when so far there’s been nothing to suggest mishandling of any kind. Very few are actually privy to all the details at this point, yet somehow everyone’s suddenly a bloody expert on forensic, investigatory, and legal processes. And anyway, if we are to judge the entire Italian criminal justice system by the Kercher case alone, then we must be prepared to accept the non-American’s (endless and nasty) assessments of our own system based on the example of the O.J. Simpson case. Or, as a friend put it today, ‘Not to mention the number of people on death row who should never have been there in the first place. And, worse yet, those executed who were instead innocent.’

The media doesn’t help. Facile and speculative reactions from news sources feed into The Stupid, fostering a cycle of uninformed, superficial debate. I call this ‘the pounce.’ We’ve seen it before, of course, too many times to count. Lacking relevant, concrete details, media outlets pounce on any informational tidbit in the race to hit the publish button. In this case, aside from the basic specs on her residence, livelihood, and reputation among neighbors, in the two days following the discovery of Olsen’s body, several local publications published stories that I’d categorize not only as irresponsible, but unethical and offensive as well—with a disturbing focus on her physicality, her youth and beauty. Here are some examples taken today from various media outlets (my rough translations):

‘Piccola di statura, molto carina, capelli biondissimi, quasi bianchi’ (‘Small stature, very cute, very blond, almost white hair’)

‘I capelli biondissimi di Ashley e il suo viso delicato dai tratti anglosassoni non sono passati inosservati nella piazza più battuta dell’Oltrarno’. (‘Ashley’s super blond hair and delicate face and Anglo-Saxon features did not go unnoticed in the Oltrarno quarter’s busiest piazza.’)

‘la bella americana bionda dal sorriso luminoso’ (‘the pretty blond American with the bright smile’)

‘Silenziosa, bella e biondissima, Ashley era la pin-up di Santo Spirito’ (‘Quiet, pretty and blond: Ashley was the pin-up girl of the Santo Spirito district’) This was, if you can believe it, a headline from an established Florentine newspaper.

The most disturbing line of reaction to this case relates to the sexual aspects. Early on it was determined that Olsen had engaged in sexual activity with her killer, and this together with other evidence (such as the lack of defensive marks on her neck) led to swift speculation by the media about the possibility of a ‘gioco erotico’ (could any two words be more click-baiting than ‘sex game’?). Leaving aside a woman’s right to engage in any form of consensual sexual encounter she chooses, this rush to cast Olsen’s final hours in a lurid and sensational light represents the rock-bottom of journalism. Yes, she was found nude. Yes, she had sex, most likely willingly (the suspect has said their sex was consensual; the post-mortem apparently confirms this). These facts play a part in the investigation, to be sure, and while I personally find the onslaught of the words ‘nude’ and ‘erotic’ to be at best in poor taste, I concede they are relevant factors.  Police have subsequently established that there was no ‘game’ going on at all. Yet the resulting character assassination backlash from The Stupid has been savage:

‘In questa triste vicenda mi fa pena il suo fidanzata (sic) che era innamorato di una zoccola’ (‘This sad business makes me feel sorry for her boyfriend, who was in love with a whore’)

‘Ottima idea scopare con un clandestino….avanti cosi donne…naturalmente passerà solo il concetto di femminicidio…perchè è questo che fa comodo al vittimismo…avanti avanti così…’ (‘Great idea fucking an illegal immigrant…keep it up, ladies…naturally femicide is the only explanation…since this serves the purposes of victimization…keep it up’)

Italy is not exactly famous for its gender equality. Worse, in many ways rape culture thinking still taints this society, and female victims here must often confront the odious medieval mindset that justifies rape. This is not a rape case, yet those inclined to blame the victim as a rule cannot resist viewing the Olsen case through the same abhorrent lens. For being out late, for (allegedly) having used drugs, for taking a man home to her apartment—she asked for it. I don’t wish to delve too deeply into this cesspool of commentary, as it is obvious how very ugly this vein of thought is from just a couple of examples:

‘Se l’è cercata? Si, se l’è cercata. L’integrazione ‘funziona’ solo nel crimine e nel degrado. Particolarmente bene nel mondo dei tossici’ (‘Did she ask for it? Yes, she asked for it. Integration ‘works’ only in the world of crime and slums. Especially well in the world of druggies’)

‘Se le cercata, una troia che andava con cani e porci! Il mondo ne può fare a meno.’ (‘She she asked for it. A whore who lies with dogs and pigs! Good riddance.’)

(A racial element is at play here, as you might have gleaned from one of the comments. The man charged is a Senegalese man who has been in Italy only a short time. What’s more, he’s reportedly a drug dealer. Many of the more, shall we say, uncharitable comments I’ve encountered today manage to not only stereotype and offend across a broad range of issues, but also extrapolate from this one tragic act a rationale for all anti-immigrant propoganda. Some of the worst, which I’ll not reprint here, cast both victim and perpetrator as similarly and equally immoral and depraved.)

As I’d like to conclude this ramble with something positive, I’ll point out how many sensible, sensitive, rational and balanced reactions I’ve come across in the past days. I strongly recommend reading this post from the blog Abbatto i Muri, which addresses (more or less, and more eloquently) what I’ve been attempting to say here; and this from Saverio Tommasi (both are in Italian).

The letter from Olsen’s friends published by The Florentine, so far the only piece published that speaks sincerely to the victim’s humanity, reminds us that it was a person, not a type, who was murdered in Florence last week. That sense of her humanity was particularly strong today when, while looking at Olsen’s Facebook page, full of photos of friends and travels and inside jokes, I saw her post of the song ‘Miss World’ (from one of my favorite albums ever, Live Through This), whose refrain I am the girl you know I’ll probably never hear again without thinking about this awful episode, and the girl known, truly, to very few of us.

As for The Stupid, thankfully it suffers from a short attention span. Barring some titillating turn of events to hold its gaze, The Stupid will move on to other targets soon enough, leaving those who knew Olsen to mourn and remember her free from the vicious scrutiny of the masses. And that must be some consolation, however small.

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34 Responses to ‘I Am The Girl You Know’: Ashley Olsen and the Cruel Gaze of Social Media

  1. Lee Foust says:

    Very well expressed, thank you!

  2. Linda says:

    Great Op Ed. However, I don’t believe for one minute the sex was “consensual” as the perpetrator, aka the suspect said so. Why believe him? As for the Amanda Knox case, they caught another guy and he’s in jail, yet blamed Knox and her boyfriend with zero dna evidence. My take is Italy loves drama and will, as you say above, make stories up for their own sordid fairy tale soap opera. Too bad, but I am glad they got the guy who did this.

    • Amy Gulick says:

      Hi Linda, All of the evidence, not just the suspect’s statement, suggests the sex was consensual. And why shouldn’t it have been? It’s important for us to remember, and continue shouting, that a woman has a right to be sexually free and that her sexual choices never justify or excuse abuse, violence, or degrading comments. Regarding the drama of it all, yes, I agree that this is that kind of story, but would add that of course this not an Italian thing (we see this reaction often enough in the U.S.). I focused on the Italian media by choice, not because there’s not plenty of lurid material out there from non-Italian sources. Cheers! Amy

      • JosephBishop says:

        All of the evidence? He flees, she’s dead and he stole her cell phone. Why believe him? A crime like this happens everyday somewhere around the world.

        Same with the Kercher murder. A young woman in her prime is killed by a troubled male. Tragic but not complicated.

      • Amy Gulick says:

        I think you might be missing the fundamental point of this post if your strongest take-away is that I ‘believe’ the suspect. A post-mortem, together with other evidence, has shown that the sexual encounter was very likely consensual, which changes nothing–not the woman’s rights and freedoms, certainly, nor the viciousness and cruelty of the man’s actions. Regarding the Kercher case, it was in fact more complex, when you consider the conflicting and changing testimonies, the finger-pointing, the contamination of the crime scene before the investigation started, etc. That investigation has no bearing on this one, yet numerous individuals throughout social media, considering themselves experts it would seem, feel they can call out Italian officials working on the Olsen case and predict their inevitable failure, when nothing so far has suggested mishandling of any kind.

    • Simone Monti says:

      1. “However, I don’t believe for one minute the sex was “consensual” : Did you know that an autopsy can state if there was any rape or not, much more than your personal “impressions” ?
      2. “yet blamed Knox and her boyfriend with zero dna evidence.” Well, there was dna evidence, with other clues, but if Fox News say so, it must be so
      3. My take is Italy loves drama and will, as you say above, make stories up for their own sordid fairy tale soap opera. : well, between us and you, it is you to be sexual phobic and obsessed with sordid sex backgrounds – doesn’t remind anything the Bill Clinton case? For a long time, every single day newspapers fished in troubled waters with him because of his story with Lewisky, and never talked about what he did as president, and he was a great president that many regret- it’s you to be descendants of the Puritans, not us. By the way, our soap opera are the American soap opera, so blame Holliwood.
      My best compliment Mrs. Jessica Fletcher, if you wanted to make a performance of superficiality, ignorance and cultural racism, you succeeded

      • Amy Gulick says:

        Simone, I agree that we Americans are in no position to label other nations as drama-hungry, given the examples you make and countless others. But I fear these comments are leading us far off topic. I mean, express whatever you like (as long as it’s civil), but let’s remember that my post was about analyzing the media reaction to this one case, and to this one woman, by The Stupid. Amy
        ps – I’m happy to publish your other comment, if you could edit it down. It’s far too long for this forum.

  3. Andrea Gatti says:

    We need to remeber: a woman, a person is dead.
    Thanks Amy for that.

  4. At last a sane and compassionate note is heard, some of those comments are truly abhorrent.
    Thank you for writing your piece.

  5. Truly one of the best articles I have read about this topic. I too have the same sentiment as you and it’s been hard to read the news lately considering to me, she was just a nice girl who I saw sometimes in the piazza. People are brutal in their opinions and judgement online, it’s truly very sad.

    • Amy Gulick says:

      Brutal is the perfect word. I sometimes wonder if we, humans as a group, have always been this brutal, or if it’s the modern age with all its ease of anonymous communication that facilitates this aspect of our natures? Anyway, thanks a bunch!

      • I really think it is a combination. Humans have always been violent (just think of Gladiators and all that they represent) but this new form online is frightening in a different way. Instead of being raw and in your face, it is hidden behind closed doors. Recently there was a case in my hometown in San Antonio of a boy committing suicide after being constantly harassed on social media. Tragedies like this happen every day and we must stop and reflect on how we act online.. :/

  6. Thank You
    fantastic Blog
    Good Louck

  7. Diana says:

    Amy….your piece struck SUCH a chord with me! Completely agree on every point..

  8. Thank you so much for writing this! A very well written article. Sadly, I did not know Ashley, and the only information about this girl I got to hear about was the media. Its just sad to see some departing from this world with a sordid reputation cos of asshole journalists.

  9. Celia says:

    Thank you for this balanced and compassionate view. It is not for us to judge this girl’s morals, as most of us never knew her. We can only express our sorrow for the loss of a young life and give her family and loved ones respect to mourn in peace.

  10. Olly says:

    A quick word about a thing I hope is clear to everyone: the nationality of the victim is completely unrelated to the fact that media started making assumptions about a “sex game”. They did it not only because of the evidence (and the obvious clickbaiting), also because unfortunately these kind of things happen more than we would like to think, if you google “gioco erotico finito male” or “gioco erotico finito in tragedia” setting the date span in a period before these last sad news you will find plenty of cases in the past months and years involving italian people, same titles. Not saying that it’s ok for media to make that kind of assumptions, just want to point out that there’s less prejudice towards the victim in Italy than many foreigners seem to think (from comments I read on many newspapers). Also they were media assumptions, not from authorities, police stayed quiet and tried to avoid any leaking of details because they couldn’t risk the main suspect to know they were on him. If I might, I think the police did a great job for once.
    I didn’t know the victim but this was a scary, very saddening and overall horrible way to start 2016.

  11. sculptor2015 says:

    No one ever really wants to be murdered. And in general, people need to take responsibilities for what each of us has control over: What we say and what we do. AND … whatever happened to the Benefit of Doubt? When you do not have enough information about a person, take the high road.

  12. Michelle says:

    Fantastic post Amy, thank you.

  13. Teresa says:

    Fantastic! Thank you for writing this. I rail against The Stupid often (and love that term; now I have a way to refer to it) and this piece speaks volumes for why we all should.

  14. joyce says:

    Amy, well done daughter, as always I am so proud of who you are. This needed to be said and you said it perfect. I agree with you and thank you for writing it. Love Mom

  15. turinmamma says:

    What a wonderful piece of writing Amy. I couldn’t agree more. The news on TV and in the papers is unwatchable and unreadable here, partly because of how events (often involving women) like this are portrayed. Thank you for reminding us of the facts of this tragic case and of who Ashley was during her life – very similar, it seems, to expats like us…

  16. bc mcleran says:

    Thank you for writing about this. I really understand your perspective. I was really moved by this news. Firstly because she was American like myself. I also saw a little bit of myself in her….many years ago of course. Also because I know her father, and he is a wonderful man.

  17. Sean Lamb says:

    I think the concerns relate to whether or not Profazio secretly shares these attitudes: ‘Se le cercata, una troia che andava con cani e porci! Il mondo ne può fare a meno.’ According to author Nina Burleigh: “In May 2009, Profazio, in Rome, made the news again as one of two detectives who elicited false confessions about a rape from some Romanian immigrants who couldn’t speak Italian.” So he has form.

    The fear would be the attitudes that caused Profazio to abjectly fail in the Kercher murder, will also lead him to fail in this investigation. To date, these fears don’t seem unjustified.

    • Amy Gulick says:

      Hi Sean, While I doubt the average person commenting on this matter is informed enough to discuss it as you have here (based on the comments I’ve seen on Facebook), I understand you. Again, I don’t think it’s wrong to be skeptical about such matters. On the contrary, countless past cases have shown that keeping a diligent eye on those in the position of charging and prosecuting is much needed. My issue was with the hundreds of comments from folks clearly not that informed on either case–but who remember, generally, some bungling of the Kercher case a long time ago–and then immediately assume or predict that any other case is doomed to fail, be corrupt, etc. I was particularly disturbed by how many Americans were condemning and ridiculing the Italian system, with no consideration for our own system’s grievous flaws and failures. Cheers, Amy

  18. Ina McDonald says:

    “No man is an island, and every man’s death diminishes me”. Sadly, Ms. Olsen’s death has diminished us all, however in today’s world where the press and social media act as jackals, a victim such as this poor lovely woman is simply reduced to prey to feed the fangs of a snarling public.

  19. John says:

    Having sat in on murder and rape trials where the suspects were convicted in the US, it is very common for defendants accused of rape to say that the sex was consensual. This is an intelligent (though morally questionable) defense strategy and is rendered more effective when the victim is dead, as the victim can give no counter facts.

    Basically, saying the sex was consensual is a way for a defendant to explain away DNA evidence, which is what could be happening with this case (and seems to have happened in the Kercher murder case, as Guede’s DNA in the form of semen was found on her dead body).

    It’s worth noting that rape doesn’t always result in vaginal tearing. Basically, in this case there’s a dead female body, DNA in the form of sperm, and a male who is placed at the scene at the time of the murder. Even if vaginal tearing isn’t present, that doesn’t exactly point to consensual sex. It doesn’t preclude it either, I suppose, especially if the suspect had a short fuse.

    • Amy Gulick says:

      Hi John, What you say makes sense and of course could very well be the case here, although it was not merely those particular details of the post-mortem but other factors that led to the conclusion that the sex had been consensual.

      I’m really amazed at how many people out there are focused on this aspect and who continue to speculate about the possibility of rape in this case. I suspect that a lot of folks do not want to believe that a woman could have engaged in consensual sex in this manner, and that labelling what happened between them as rape somehow fits better with moralistic views and opinions on women’s sexual freedom/choices. Obviously rape would compound the already awful thing that took place here, from both a humane and legal standpoint, yet my point continues to be that it does not matter in the end.

  20. Georges Duroy says:

    Unfortunately, it is no news that – almost everywhere – crime news stick to tabloid-like sensationalism and/or voyeurism, and that so called comments on social media can end up into a changing room-like speech. Italy makes no exception, and that’s all.
    Hence, pretending to draw any sociological conclusion and or portray the characters of the story (unless based on first-hand information and sense of appropriateness) sounds at least unwise.
    No doubt that all respect goes to true sorrow, pain, and mercy, which are rather kept just discreet.

  21. Serafino says:

    Rest in peace Ashley Ann Olsen.
    My picture with inscription as a tribute to remember her @


    The picture is taken from this Video @

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