Yet another woman is dead as a result of domestic violence, and all the media can pay any attention to is the name of the man accused of murdering her: her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius.
Reeva Steenkamp was a model and she’d also graduated from law school. She’d been seen frequently with Pistorius at public events and in fact the South African media had christened the two as a bit of a golden couple. It was a match the media wanted to frame as made in heaven: the disabled sprinter known as the Blade Runner and his gorgeous model girlfriend.
But all was not actually that well in the relationship between Steenkamp and Pistorius. The two were involved in multiple domestic violence incidents which the South African media didn’t report on, because this would have undermined the portrait of Pistorius that the media, the nation, and the public wanted to maintain.
Putting the runner on a pedestal turned him into an icon, a role model, a person to look up to; for the global disability community, Pistorius had become an illustration of the peak of disabled athletics and what is possible in a world that spends a lot of time telling disabled people what they cannot do.
For South Africa, he was a national hero, a famous athlete bringing the country fame and glory.
Real heroes and role models don’t beat their partners.
So this information had to be suppressed, because it didn’t fit the narrative. Whatever Steenkamp endured in their relationship before her death was quietly shoved under the carpet, and no one, including her, apparently (a common issue for victims), talked about it; just like no one talks about domestic violence in any cases involving “heroes.” There seems be be a point where someone becomes famous enough to be too big to accuse, as it were.
SILENCE ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
This isn’t the first case where domestic violence occurred and no one talked about it and the victim died. And it’s not the first fatal case where the focus has been on the alleged perpetrator instead of the victim, to the point of completely erasing the role of domestic violence. When Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, for example, the media wanted to talk about everything but the elephant in the room: domestic violence.
The same holds true with Pistorius; the spin on most of the stories I’ve seen has been about “the fall of Pistorius” and how much he must be grieving, not the death of Reeva Steenkamp. People seem more worried about his reputation than what happened in the small hours of Thursday morning.
Pistorius had been involved in several domestic violence complaints before, involving Steenkamp and other women. Early on the morning of Valentine’s Day, police were summoned to his home in a gated complex in response to complaints about the sound of a dispute and gunshots. They found Steenkamp, who had been shot four times in the head and arm.
The athlete is claiming this was a case of mistaken identity, and that he thought she was an intruder. This goes against the story told by neighbors and the police, both of whom report that there was an argument followed by gunshots, something that doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a typical case of home invasion. Pistorius has, accordingly, been charged with murder.
Notably, many people are rushing to defend Pistorius, believing the story about an intruder and repeating “innocent until proven guilty” rhetoric (I like to avoid libel suits myself, so you’ll note I’m referring to him as the accused, since he hasn’t been convicted of anything just yet). Yet, this reaction highlights the racial aspects of this case as well. Pistorius is white in a world where White is Right, and in a nation where tensions between Black and white have a very long history.
It’s inescapable to note that Pistorius is “innocent until proven guilty,” while Jovan Belcher was immediately considered a murderer. Both men were high-profile athletes. One was Black. One is white. The inequalities in how society views people accused or suspected of murder mirror the inequalities of the justice system itself, where people like Pistorius get preferential treatment while those like Belcher, had he lived to see trial, would have been harshly condemned in the media and the courts.
THE INTERNET ADDS ITS CENTS
The public has blown up with commentary about this case, turning it into a global sensation. I first learned about it when I rolled over in bed this morning, crammed on my glasses, and opened my Twitter client to see what was going on in the world.
“Why,” I asked myself, “are there a whole bunch of ableist and misogynist Tweets in my stream, followed by complaints about ableist and misogynist Tweets?”
It took me a while to put together the pieces and find the actual news story that was spurring this tide of commentary. Then I realized; Steenkamp’s death was being made into a joke. Pistorius’ involvement was the source of much amusement and hilarious one-liners like “He won’t have a leg to stand on in court.”
A woman died, and people were making it into joke fodder. Intimate partner violence actually isn’t funny at all; the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that 30% of female homicide victims between 1976 and 2005 were women involved in domestic violence cases. In 2007, 14% of homicides were committed by intimate partners, and most involved women killed by men. Domestic violence escalates to murder, with most intimate partner murders being preceded by a history of violence. Domestic violence kills, and Steenkamp was actually an outspoken advocate about domestic violence issues.
So why all the jokes? Pistorius’ disability clearly played a role; people are uncomfortable with the sexuality of disabled people, and the thought that a disabled man might have a girlfriend who’s an FHM cover model clearly perturbs some. Many of the jokes revolved around the fact that Pistorius is disabled, but some of them were also deeply misogynist, and they came from sources that may surprise you.
Take, for example, this “icon” of feminism:
This Tweet was later deleted (hence why my screencap is of a retweet rather than the original), but numerous people caught it, retweeted it, and talked about it. Apparently domestic violence is so hilarious that even feminists can get in on the fun when Twitter is alive with jokes about a young woman’s life cut short.
Or John Cleese’s ableist Tweet: “Oscar’s defence will be that he was absolutely legless at the time.” Evidently he wanted to get in early on the action, and he wasn’t the only icon/role model who took to Twitter to show his arse this morning with the rush to make a witty comment about a woman’s death and the man accused of killing her.
A smattering of the charming Tweets you can find on the #Pistorius hashtag:
“roses are red, violets are blue, you have no legs and no girlfriend too #Pistorius” “I fear for Oscar Pistorius when this goes to court, he hasn't got a leg to stand on #Guilty #pistorius” “Double amputee Paralympic medalist Oscar #Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, making him an alleged murderer, not a legged murderer.” “Epic Valentine's Day surprise fail #pistorius” “What a way to avoid buying Valentines gifts #Pistorius”
There are high rates of domestic violence in South Africa, which some commentators argue is a clear result of socialization. “Violence=being a man,” said Justice Malala this morning, Tweeting about the issue. But South Africa isn’t the only nation with this problem, and the fact that the world is joking about a woman’s death this morning illustrates just how ingrained it is.