Salma Haidrani

What Steenkamp’s death reveals about the media’s treatment of women

By Salma Haidrani

When brainchild of Page Three Rupert Murdoch fuelled speculation on Twitter that photographs of topless models on Page Three of The Sun are ‘so last century’ on February 10, it appeared as if the UK’s most cherished sex relic in Britain’s most widely read newspaper may soon be consigned to the history books. But my premature optimism four days later turned to revulsion and rage. The very same newspaper ‘paid tribute’ to the recently deceased South African girlfriend of sporting legend and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorious by printing a large image of Reeva Steenkamp donning a pink bikini and pouting provocatively at the camera alongside the insensitive headline ‘Three Shots. Screams. Silence.’ Inviting us to salivate over the lingering shots of Steenkamp’s heaving cleavage in the same manner reserved for (the very much alive) bare breasted Page Three regulars confirmed that the not-so-subtle sexism and misogyny that runs rampant in our media is far from over.

Even the Daily Mail and Daily Star were not exempt in perpetuating the idea that even if women are lying in a coffin, we aren’t sheltered from the objectification and commodification of our bodies. In a needless accompaniment to my morning cup of coffee, both tabloids could not simply resist the opportunity to reduce Steenkamp to a pair of breasts, something to be ‘bought’, ‘sold’ and finally discarded, by relentlessly running scantily clad photos of the former law graduate alongside developments of Pistorious’ fate,as opposed to granting someone who may or may not have been murdered the respect she should be entitled to. I very much doubt that if the roles had reversed and Pistorious was lying in a morgue with four bullets in his head, chest and arm, his naked male flesh would be rapidly driving up the sales of these supposed family newspapers in an identical fashion.

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More depressingly than the fact Steenkamp was reduced to a sexual commodity, a body merely to be ogled at, media coverage of the case continues to be seemingly incapable of separating Steenkamp from her profession as a swimwear model. Repeatedly referred to as ‘one of FHM magazine’s 100 Sexiest Women in the World for two years running’ simultaneously conveniently justified the sexualisation of her body to act as a circulation booster while overlooking her Law degree and activism in ending violence against women in her native South Africa. This thus reinforces that the tabloid coverage that we so voraciously consume dictates that women can be neither both attractive and intelligent, reinforced by the photos of Steenkamp in a bikini, where looking as if being ‘had’ is the only thought in her mind.Moreover, the media coverage’s inability to name Steenkamp but reducing her to her relationship with a man by identifying her as merely the ‘girlfriend of Oscar Pistorious’ or as ‘Pistorious’ lover’, reinforces her position as the nameless ‘property’ of Pistorious, not an individual with achievements and aspirations of her own.

Although there appears to be an ever-mounting backlash against theunnecessary sexualisation of women in our daily news coverage, it seems unlikely at this point in time that we may cease to one day see the juxtaposition of hyper-sexualized images alongside news coverage of murdered women. Steenkamp for now remains an enduring symbol of the not-so-subtle sexism and misogyny that pervades our daily news coverage and the hurdles we will continue to face to eradicate it.

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