Casey Anthony: Cultural Fall Guy

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Without warning, I was sucked into the Casey Anthony trial. That is, my girlfriend Kylan became obsessed, and because the trial was always streaming on the Internet, in real time, I was drawn into the case as well. But we are attracted to the infanticide for different reasons. Kylan enjoys the drama and courtroom procedure. Her sister is a former assistant district attorney, and true-life murder mysteries are a favorite pastime in her family. For Kylan, the hopeless dysfunction of the Anthonys is irresistible.

But I’m fascinated by the case because, at first, I couldn’t understand why anybody would be so fascinated by it. For sheer sleuthing, the evidence seems absurdly one-sided, and even if Casey Anthony didn’t slay her child, as most of humanity believes, her lies are too sloppy to make her an interesting villainess. At best, Casey Anthony is a spoiled brat and neglectful parent, who seemed completely unconcerned that her daughter was kidnapped. At worst, she is a cold-blooded killer who carefully snuffed out her own progeny and celebrated with liquor shots. Either way, the woman is bluntly horrifying.

Throughout history, certain courtroom operas have captivated the public, and Casey Anthony is just another example of instant legal celebrity. But most of the cases had broader significance, a tension that started with cultural anxiety. When the Dreyfus Affair tore France apart in the 1890’s, the trial exposed anti-Semitism, a corrupt military, and the paranoia of global espionage. Sacco and Vanzetti made anarchism and labor struggle front-page news. Rodney King showcased racism and police brutality. O.J. Simpson questioned whether famous people in hyper-televised America could even receive an objective trial. And so on.

Even the Lindbergh Baby offered enough confusion and red herrings to keep readers riveted. The Lindberghs’ maid, Violet Sharp, was also a highly imaginative suspect with a penchant for wild nights, but unlike Casey Anthony, she was also a sympathetic human being. At the very least, the Lindberghs were world famous and national heroes, which explained the case’s hysterical following. (H.L. Mencken dubbed it “the biggest story since the Resurrection”).

The closest media frenzy, thematically speaking, may be the Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco scandal. The investigation challenged no cultural norms, only affirmed our disgust. Yet the draw of the Amy Fisher case was the weirdness of its circumstances. Combine “affair,” “underage girl,” “auto body shop owner,” “shot in face” and “survived,” and the headlines write themselves.

Casey Anthony isn’t famous, and hardly a day goes by in America that some adult doesn’t kill some child, either through scheme or neglect. Kylan theorized that the Sunshine Law has something to do with the trial’s popularity, but Florida has plenty of murder trials to televise, and none of them have hooked mass consciousness like this trial. So why Casey Anthony? Why has her story become this summer’s reality thriller? What’s so special about the so-called “tot mom”?

I think it’s the case’s sheer, uncomplicated banality. Casey Anthony is white and middle class, and she’s also an unrepentant party girl; her own lawyer called her a “slut.” Americans enjoy feeling indignant, and the Anthony trial is something that everyone, no matter what their class or politics, can feel indignant about. The murder itself is indefensible, regardless of context. Everyone can condemn Casey Anthony for her daily behavior, and that makes every American feel like a better parent and citizen. In a way, The People vs. Casey Anthony is the feel-good story of the year. Whatever the verdict, we can all join together and despise a trashy, narcissistic liar. We may have our faults, but at least no one believes we would duct-tape our children and let their corpses rot in the trunk of a car. This is one opinion Sarah Palin and I have in common. For once, we are all on the same side.

Add to this the media, whose melodramatic coverage borders on self-parody. Take Nancy Grace, legal commentator on HLN, who has spent three years covering the murder and delivers her rants like an enraged minotaur. Footage of the trial’s key moments is warped by filters and cinematic soundtracks. Pundits micro-analyze every mouthed word and emitted tear from Casey Anthony’s marble face. This is not the American justice system. It’s ESPN.

As the jury deliberates, you could say that Casey Anthony is a kind of cultural fall guy. As we reel from moral relativism, she is the one personality that everyone can hate, wholly and unapologetically. There is no debate, no ulterior motive, no hidden theme or skulking hypocrisy. She is a boon to our Schadenfreude. If all our sins look tame by comparison, then Casey Anthony may die for them. Guilty? Innocent? It doesn’t matter. She’s serving us just fine.


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