One Billion Rising while another one falls: Media treatment of Reeva Steenkamp

Thursday 14th February marked V-Day (or ‘One Billion Rising’), the celebration of a global movement designed to challenge the fact that 1 in 3 women will in their lifetimes be the victims of violence, many in their own homes or at the hands of someone close to them. It also marked a day, sadly like any other, when many women lost their lives as a result of such violence – one every 6 hours in South Africa alone, including Reeva Steenkamp, shot to death in her partner’s home.

Given that to cover every instance of violence against women in the world news would eclipse the coverage of anything else, it’s only natural that this particular case has been given prominence, owing to the alleged male perpetrator’s status as a famous Paralympian and Olympian. But my defence of the media’s coverage of this story ends here I’m afraid, because I certainly can’t get on board with what seems to be at best domestic violence apologism, and at worst victim porn.

Coverage of an instance of violence against women in South Africa probably should have started with the fact that the country has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, the highest rate of intimate femicide (women killed by their partners), and was the setting for a gang rape which left a 17 year old girl dead last month. Coverage of Steenkamp’s particular case could then have gone on to discuss the poignant sense of irony in how she lost her life, given that she was an active campaigner against rape and violence against women, and someone who visited schools to talk about female empowerment. She was also a law graduate. Instead, we were treated to accounts of her partner’s life, analysis about how this would affect his career, articles advancing his presumed defence (that he mistook her for an intruder) and editorials lamenting the tragedy for disability rights. Meanwhile, by broadsheets and tabloids alike, the victim has been defined by her partner’s fame, by a reality TV show she hadn’t yet appeared on, and by her venture into swimsuit modelling despite the fact that she was also the face of Avon and therefore most frequently photographed from the neck up.

This glamourisation and eroticisation of violence against women is, sickeningly, a familiar trope; you only need to take a look at Kanye West’s ‘Monster’ video, or this advert for Xbox game ‘Dead Island Riptide’ to see the extent of it. In drawing attention in a Facebook status to how this dangerous trend was perpetuated by the media’s fixation on Steenkamp’s modelling career, I was told that my argument was far-fetched and unfounded. Of course it would be preposterous to suggest that journalists saw this case and thought with glee, “oh great, another chance to talk about how sexy it is when men kill their partners”, but sex sells and that the sexuality being sold here is that of a murdered woman tells us all we need to know. The subconscious nature of such a focus is key – accounts like this are extremely telling of a wider media instinct to reduce a woman’s worth to her looks and body, regardless of how that woman ended up on their pages in the first place.

Not all coverage was subconscious and subtle in its sexism and eroticisation of violence. I would go so far as to say that the widely criticised Sun front cover served as an example of everything that is wrong with media representations of women. The suggestion that the highly sexualised image used was just one of her modelling, “as she spent most of her time doing”, is a ridiculous one. Come back to me when you’ve researched exactly how much time she devoted to lingerie and swimsuit modelling compared to feminist activism, studying for a degree and modelling for a cosmetics range among other things (hint: I think you’ll find the semi-naked stuff was a relatively small proportion). Come back to me when murdered shop assistants are pictured behind a till, or those who worked as doctors are seen examining a patient. That she chose to be in the pictures and make them public in the first place is irrelevant – I’ve posed naked in a charity calendar, because it was my choice to do so as a living, breathing person with agency. The same calendar is up on the wall of my flat, and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed by it. But I sincerely hope that if I ever went missing, for example, that it wouldn’t be the picture flashed up of me in the middle of a news report.

But wait – let’s not give The Sun such a hard time. They are, after all, beacons of morality where female modesty is concerned. Just last week they ran a double page spread chastising other media outlets for running pictures of a pregnant Kate Middleton in a bikini, and choosing not to print those pictures ‘out of respect’. Presumably because she’s a princess, obviously more worthy of our respect than a slutty lingerie model who took her clothes off for money, god forbid. Or maybe just because nobody violently murdered her first. Perhaps most sinister was the conspicuous lack of a page 3 in that edition of the newspaper. Who needs a living, breathing woman when you can ogle a dead one?

The problem here isn’t that Reeva Steenkamp was a model and took her clothes off in front of the camera. Good on her, she was beautiful and had a body to match. The problem here is the media’s instinctive reaction to reduce her to that, in the process glamourising the violence against her.  If they can flippantly turn a freshly murdered woman into a pair of boobs and a thigh gap, where does this ruthless treatment end?

It’s been very easy not to mention Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend and alleged killer’s name in this article – not because I necessarily advocate that style for all coverage but because, at the end of it all, he is to a certain extent irelevant in all of this. Steenkamp is just one of many tragic victims of violence against women, as she is one of many victims of objectification and media sexism. This is not primarily a tragedy for the sportsman, or for his sport, or for the wider category of disabled people; this is a tragedy for women. Yes, Steenkamp’s partner and alleged killer has the right to a fair trial, and I sincerely hope he manages to get one in amongst the media circus surrounding the case. But women everywhere also have the right to a safe home and equality of opportunity, and too often they still don’t manage to get that in amongst the media circus surrounding their bodies.

Originally posted on nanu-nanu.com and winner of the ‘Write To End Violence Against Women Award’, 2013

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