A LAW graduate is shot dead by her new boyfriend, whom she has been dating a couple of months.
She is killed at his home — the police say that they have been called to the house before. (That was in 2009, when the man in question spent the night in custody, charged with the common assault of a 19-year-old woman. Not the dead woman. Another woman, who later dropped the charges).
The man is a keen user of guns, and a bloody cricket bat was also found at the scene, consistent with his girlfriend’s head injuries, which she had suffered as well as gun shot wounds. Prior to her death, the law graduate had been campaigning to raise awareness about violence against women.
Boring, boring, boring.
Far better a screamy headline — perhaps the New York Post’s “Blade Slays Blonde”, the story of the murder illustrated by a picture of the dead woman in a swimsuit.
Tabloids everywhere — and broadsheets too — swooned at the news of the death of Reeva Steenkamp. Never mind the press adage ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ — what about if the bleeding has been done by a woman for whom there are so many delicious images of her in a bikini? A model and reality television star best known for face, body, and famous boyfriend? Ker-ching!
The day after Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead, The Sun plastered a picture of her hot bikini body across its front page, even as her corpse lay cold in a Pretoria morgue. The Washington Post described her as a “leggy blonde”, who was “known for her bikini clad vamping photo spreads”, and many publications around the world reminded us that she had been voted one of the 100 Sexiest Women by FHM magazine (two years running — clever her!).
So. Not just dead, but dead sexy. And with some fascinating new vital statistics: 1983–2013.
As the news broke of her death, Twitter convulsed as the murder trended worldwide. Within what seemed like seconds there were puns involving band names — Bullet For My Valentine — and all sorts of commentary about Valentine’s Day massacres, surprises, and gifts. One tweet suggested that she had received for Valentine’s Day what every man dreams of giving. On the day of her death, the fast food chicken restaurant chain Nando’s had to formally issue a statement that an advert bearing their logo — “We don’t shoot our chicks, we just flame grill them” — was a fake.
Meanwhile, as the international press drooled over the body of the murderee, what of the murderer? Every report of the killing splashed his name in foot high letters, and that of his girlfriend’s almost as an afterthought. Had the headlines read, “Brilliant Athlete Murders Hot Chick”, the meaning could not have been clearer. The death of Reeva Steenkamp was never about Reeva Steenkamp — from the second it was reported, it was all about Oscar Pistorius, the athlete we deemed a hero because he could run fast on prosthetic legs.
Let’s have a look at what was actually written about the killer. Here’s Simon Barnes in a column for The Times: “The tragedy of Oscar Pistorius — for once the word can be used accurately — is that we need him as a living symbol of freedom; his and our own.” Rather, you’d imagine, as Mr and Mrs Steenkamp needed their daughter to remain a living symbol of being alive; there is no mention of ‘tragedy’ in relation to her suddenly not being alive any more. It’s all about him.
The New York Times illustrated its initial reporting of the Steenkamp murder with a photo shoot titled “The Blade Runner in Repose”, featuring the 26-year-old athlete looking masculine, in control, focused. It’s difficult to understand the link between these magaziney images and the news that this is a man accused of violent homicide. Sports Illustrated called the murder charge “shocking and disappointing”. That’s the murder charge, not the murder. Again, the Steenkamp family may have found events a little more than “disappointing”. And the Associated Press in Italy, where Pistorius enjoyed enormous popularity, described the athlete — 24 hours after the murder — as “calm and positive”, and “extremely nice to people”.
Unless you were his new girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, set upon with a gun, but let us not dampen the collective ardour of the myth makers. Even the BBC, reporting the murder online, had subsections titled ‘Latest’, ‘Profile’, ‘Reaction’ and ‘Girlfriend’. Which kind of sums up the position of the dead woman — a subtitle in the up-and-down story of a male sporting hero.
We live in an era of slasher movies, an entertainment genre featuring attractive actresses being hunted down and chopped up for the viewing pleasure of a predominantly male audience. Torture porn, a popular online diversion amongst men who generally shy away from admitting to its consumption, viscerally connects the petit mort with a more hideous grand mort. So when a handsome, heroic, against-all-odds Alpha male attacks and kills a beautiful, perceived-as-sexually-available woman, there is very little noise in the media reflecting the reality of what has happened: another woman has been murdered by her partner.
We all know the statistics are high — that being murdered by your partner is horribly everyday. Two a week in the UK, according to Women’s Aid, or 40% of all UK female murders; Amnesty International figures show that in Ireland, 72 of the 109 women murdered between 1995 and 2005 were killed by their partners or ex partners. But it’s all a bit poverty stricken, a bit Eastenders, a bit grim, isn’t it?
Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius were high power, high glamour. Which is why the death of Steenkamp was reported with such an undisguised frisson of something far creepier than mere horrified fascination; the media loves dead blondes, and murdered dead blondes are even better.
A real life snuff movie, starring a hero and his babe. South African television broadcast the reality show in which Steenkamp was participating almost immediately after her death, with a hastily constructed memorial obituary item tagged on at the start. Ker-ching!
When OJ Simpson killed his wife Nicole, it was never about her. She was a one dimensional blonde female, a prop in the OJ story. More recently, National Football League star Jovan Belcher — not famous over here, but a household name in the US — murdered his partner Kasandra Perkins in December, before committing suicide, and leaving the couple’s three-month-old baby daughter an orphan. He was referred to in the media as “a family man”.
What would the reporting have been like had Reeva Steenkamp shot Oscar Pistorious repeatedly? She would have been branded insane, deadly, vicious, an angel of death, a blonde assassin. She would have instantly become a global pariah, with widespread calls for her to be locked up forever. But because it was a male sporting hero who committed the acts described, everyone just scratches their head and sighs a bit distractedly. Because there’s one media reaction for boy heroes, and quite another for blonde models.
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