Reeva Steenkamp: The Oscar Pistorius story

In just over a week since the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp, a change.org petition demanding an apology from the Sun for their coverage has gathered well over 5,000 signatures.

The tabloid’s now-infamous front page was adorned with a full-length photo of Steenkamp, the victim of a fatal shooting, clad in a bikini and posing seductively for the camera. Emblazoned on the cover next to her were the words “3 shots. Screams. Silence.”; underneath, a cut-out of her famous boyfriend, who was later arrested on suspicion of killing her.

People were quick to decry the Sun’s objectification of an alleged murder victim – and rightly so – but it is not the only problem with the page. The fact that Steenkamp’s name appears nowhere in the headline has hardly been touched upon. “Blade Runner Pistorius murders ‘lover’”, ran the sub-heading. Steenkamp isn’t named; she’s not even the subject of the sentence.

Though this is an issue which has gained little attention from the mainstream press, it didn’t go altogether unnoticed. By the evening of the 14th, #HerNameWasReevaSteenkamp was trending on Twitter. Readers paid tribute to Steenkamp, reminding others that the news story should be about her. One tweet warned: “Cult of celebrity shouldn’t overtake remembering the real victim here.” “She had an identity of her own, not just a girlfriend,” read another.

It’s easy to direct righteous anger at the crude lechery of the red tops. The Sun’s front page is a particularly ugly manifestation of the profit motive, and Britain will not stand idly by while money-grabbing hacks leer over a woman’s physique just hours after she has been pronounced dead. However, the Sun is far from the only news source whose reporting has left a lot to be desired. There are few news sources, however respectable, which cannot be accused of erasing the victim in this tragedy. Too many have allowed Pistorius’ fame to overshadow Steenkamp’s death.

Take, for example, the Guardian’s retrospective on “the rise to fame of the fastest man on no legs’”, which seemed to be little more than a cynical exercise in effective SEO. ‘Oscar Pistorius’ will have quickly shot up the rankings in the list of most searched-for terms on Google after the story broke. The Guardian may not have sexualised the victim of a fatal shooting, but it was guilty of making the news story more about celebrity than tragedy.

The gallery depicting Pistorius’ achievements and the accompanying text read uncomfortably like a tribute. It was published on the 14th, hours after Steenkamp’s death had made the morning headlines and two days before the newspaper’s tribute to Steenkamp herself.

The number of articles focussing on Steenkamp rather than the man alleged to have killed her are few and far between. In a BBC article documenting the reaction to her death, she’s not even named until the second paragraph. In the first she is referred to only as “[Pistorius’] model girlfriend”, and in the headline not at all. The article does note that Steenkamp’s publicist called her an “absolute angel”, but not until after it has reflected on people calling Pistorius a “true gent” and “a delightful person”.

Of course, Pistorius must be considered innocent until proven guilty; nevertheless, the focus on the athlete as victim in the case is misplaced. Whatever anguish the former hero might be feeling, it is Steenkamp who is the victim. Many articles on the subject seem to be treating her death merely as an addendum to the story of Pistorius’ trial and the demise of his sparkling reputation. She is mentioned only in passing: as collateral damage in the fall of a sporting great.

This is symptomatic of a culture which considers celebrities more interesting and more worthy of attention than the millions of individuals who fall victim to violent attacks every year.

It’s particularly poignant that the lead story on the day which marked One Billion Rising, a day of protest against gendered violence, was about the suspected murder of a woman by her partner. Soon after news of the story broke, it was revealed that the police had been summoned to Pistorius’ home on previous occasions “to deal with domestic disputes”. The facts of the case are not yet fully known, and we have yet to discover how much relevance – if any – these bear to Steenkamp’s death. But as long as readers associate her death with domestic abuse, the manner in which the tragedy and the events that follow are reported will have significant implications regarding the issue.

As newspaper articles, blogs and everyday conversations have tried to wrestle with the issue in the wake of her death, Steenkamp has become a kind of public figurehead for victims of domestic violence. Referring to her only as Pistorius’ “model girlfriend” is reductive and robs her of intrinsic value. It echoes a trend whereby female victims of violence are referred to not as individuals, but only in reference to their (alleged) attackers. It suggests that victims of domestic violence aren’t worth talking about, and only pushes the countless ‘invisible’ victims deeper into the shadows. It’s easy to imagine victims of violence as distant and faceless; much harder and more uncomfortable to picture them as complex human beings. But it is doing this that will provide the urgency needed to take action.

By remembering Steenkamp, we go some way towards recognising the humanity of victims of violence. Masking her identity behind the fame of a sporting hero charged with seven counts of attempted murder does them, as well as her, a great injustice.

Her name was Reeva Steenkamp; let us not forget.

2 thoughts on “Reeva Steenkamp: The Oscar Pistorius story

  1. Pingback: Beckie Smith

  2. Great post. My student group led a discussion last night about this (among other issues) and something that came up was that many people didn’t even know Reeva’s name, and when we showed a news story about the case on the screen, all the little sidebars were about Pistorius.

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