Reeva Steenkamp and the Language of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is an abomination, so why isn’t the media acting that way? Oh right, they’re a bunch of sexist hero-worshipers.

Reeva Steenkamp.
Reeva Steenkamp.

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.


By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

5 replies on “Reeva Steenkamp and the Language of Domestic Violence”

I have to say I’m really uncomfortable with this characterisation of Reeva Steenkamp’s awful death and your interpretation of the details.
– So far we have only heard what both sides have said in the bail hearing – there hasn’t been a full trial and there won’t be one until June.
– No forensics experts, as far as I’m aware, testified at the bail hearing – the only ones who spoke were police and lawyers.
– The prosecution’s investigator Hilton Botha has been replaced and the magistrate made clear in the bail hearing today that premeditation is still very much for the trial to decide.
– The premeditation element is part of the domestic violence interpretation the prosecution has made in its murder charge; it’s not ‘falling apart’ but in the absence of further evidence it’s hardly fact either.
– Reeva Steenkamp can no longer speak for herself; and her family haven’t spoken to media about their impressions of her relationship with Pistorius.

This is not to say the coverage of her death and Pistorius’s involvement in it – whatever that was – hasn’t been horrendously sexist at times – it has, undoubtedly. I liked Marina Hyde’s eviscerating takedown in the Guardian: “If only a hot woman could get murdered every day, then the Sun wouldn’t need Page 3, because they could dredge up some semi-covered tits in the highfalutin’ cause of illustrating a news story about her corpse.”

Fair enough. We don’t know all the details, so what I’m doing here is speculating from a feminist lens. I’m obviously not following the case as closely as you are, but I can still see this as an interpretation of events. That’s the interesting thing about murder cases with an alleged murderer, a single victim, and no witnesses- we so rarely hear the true story. I will admit that I feel a little uncomfortable about making assumptions about the life and relationship of a dead woman, but what’s done is done.

I don’t typically remember to read the Guardian, but I’ll make a note to go through that article when I get a chance. As usual, somebody’s probably said what I’ve said earlier and better.

It’s not that I think this coverage will affect the case (there won’t be a jury in the trial, for instance) but as your last line says, “All that’s left is the morbid, dark part of their stories.”

We don’t know how Reeva’s story ended yet (only Pistorious does, so far) and I just feel it’s unfair to characterise her as a domestic violence victim when that may not have been what happened to her, you know?

Yes, I pointed this out earlier today on another website. This woman was an activist and might have died by something she tried to prevent with her work. Yet now she’s only “the pretty” “the gorgeous” “she was so sweet” fodder in the Beauty and the Beast story.

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