Last week, model Reeva Steenkamp was murdered by her boyfriend, Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius shot Steenkamp through a bathroom door on Valentine’s Day morning in his home in South Africa. Pistorius has since been arrested and charged with Steenkamp’s murder. Pistorius claims that he thought she was a burglar, but evidence has suggested that the murder may have been premeditated. However, the premeditation case is falling apart due to the lead prosecutor on the case being charged with several murders himself.
The implication here is that Reeva Steenkamp is a victim of domestic violence. Given Oscar Pistorius’s history of domestic violence, it isn’t much of a stretch to conceive of this incident as one of domestic terrorism. He says she was hiding in the bathroom from a home invader. The police have theorized that she was actually hiding from Pistorius, who according to gunshot forensics took the time to put on his prosthetics before shooting through the door and breaking it down with a cricket bat. It certainly paints a chilling picture, one that anyone who has been exposed to domestic terrorism knows well. You hide, they find you.
It is worth noting that while Googling Steenkamp to check the spelling of her name, the first three suggestions to come up were “pics,” “photos” and “pictures.” The fourth was “boyfriend.” These four words say everything that’s to be said about the media’s portrayal of Reeva Steenkamp and the way the public has responded to her. “Murder” does not come up. Nor does “abuse” or “violence” or any variation on the topic. Yes, Steenkamp worked as a model, and so there are bound to be pictures of her. But I wonder how many of those Google results have to do with interest in Steenkamp’s career and how many have to do with a morbid curiosity about what that the murdered woman looked like. Violence and sexuality go hand in hand in our culture, and as a result we end up with way too many people who think there’s something titillating about a murdered beauty.
All of the talk about Oscar Pistorius has been about his “fall from grace” or “downfall” or “shame.” He has been talked about in the media as a guy who made a mistake, a hero who lost his way. “Yeah, he might have killed that girl, but he’s still such a good athlete!” Oh, and isn’t he still a huge inspiration! Especially to non-disabled people, who have a habit of putting accomplished people with disabilities up on some sort of weird, fetishistic platform of awe-inspiring inspiration. The media gives him a pass because he’s just such a cool, handsome guy. How could he ever do such a thing? It’s this kind of patriarchal hero worship that has brought us Duke, Steubenville, the New York City rape cop case, and countless others.
Oscar Pistorius is still talked about in relation to his accomplishments, which are admittedly impressive for anyone regardless of ability. Steenkamp, on the other hand, is talked about in her relationship to Pistorius. Never mind her law degree or advocacy work or modeling career. She’s consistently referred to as Pistorius’s girlfriend. Didn’t she lose enough of her identity by being in what was a seemingly abusive relationship?
This has become the common narrative. We talk about victims and survivors in relation to their offenders. They lose their names, their accomplishments, and their faces. All that’s left is the morbid, dark part of their stories. Part of changing the acceptance of domestic violence is changing the language. We can’t keep remembering those who have been subjected to domestic violence in this framework. That dark, morbid story is important and it needs to be told, but other parts of their lives need to be remembered as well.