Why is it so hard…

…for people to believe that a person who performs inspiring, incredible acts can also be a total douche – or even a murderer – behind closed doors? Like every other blogger under the sun, I’m talking about the death of Reeva Steenkamp at the hands of her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius.

The language the media is using in discussing this case has been unbelievable sometimes, even if it first it doesn’t seem all that important. But it is important. Words matter. The particular words we use, and the way we use them. It matters.

For example, I thought about the differences in language between this case and that of the Indian gang-rape story from December which seemed to create outrage across the world. That case was described by the media as “sickening”. Today I heard Oscar and Reeva’s story described as “fascinating”.

Why the difference in language? Why is one considered an outrage against human rights, an appalling attack on a woman, an example of a country in crisis, and one considered the demise of a man’s reputation rather than the ending of a woman’s life?

The men in the Indian story were slum-dwellers. We can make all kinds of assumptions about them based on that fact, some of which might be true. The woman was a student, seeing a movie with a friend. We relate to her, rather than them. She is part of the new India. We know she is one of only many women who have experienced such a trauma. She was attacked by slum-dwellers – old India, in a way – on a bus. She is considered a hero. Inspiring a country to make changes to its attitudes, its laws, so that it never happens again (although we know it will – in fact already has). I’m not saying this is wrong. But compare how this woman’s story has been told, in stark contrast to Reeva Steenkamp’s story.

The man who killed Reeva is a millionaire. He’s overcome significant physical odds to achieve greatness in his chosen sport. He’s easy on the eye. According to Wikipedia, he’s university educated and has an honorary doctorate. He’s involved in charity work and has a shitload of sponsorship deals. He’s gotten a bunch of awards and accolades for being generally awesome. A whole country looks up to him as a hero. Even now in the media he is described as a hero. A hero who murdered his girlfriend, but still a hero.

Reeva is simply described as “his girlfriend”. She is not “a woman who was shot by her boyfriend”. She is the girlfriend of an Olympic star, who shot her. They mention her modelling and TV work, show footage of her on red carpets, swimming with dolphins. They don’t mention her law degree or the fact she hoped to be admitted to the bar (according to Wikipedia). But they show a lot more of Oscar’s achievements in the story. It’s not so much that we personally relate to a millionaire double amputee who runs faster than people with legs, but we know him. He fits with our worldview, just like the Indian student who went to see a movie with a friend. We admire him. He is the story. She is a footnote.

If she was the Olympic star, the hero of a nation, admired worldwide for her achievements, and he was the model, would the story be told the same way? Would the focus still be on his being “mortified”? Would we say he’d been “forced” to cancel some future engagements? (I’d have thought you should expect your plans to change if you shoot your girlfriend.) Would we give any credence to his claim that he thought an intruder had locked themselves in the bathroom of the house which was more like a fortress? (You know your girlfriend is in the house. In your bed. You hear a noise in the bathroom and instead of sweeping your arm across the bed to make sure she’s next to you, you shoot through the door. Multiple times. Yeah, I’m sure.)

I know about innocent until proven guilty, although the Indian men certainly weren’t afforded that by the media who visited their slum. But there are legal assumptions and then there is common sense. There is reality, for millions of women and their families. Reeva’s family buried her today. But I wonder whose family was receiving the overwhelming support as they did so.

Postscript: I am, of course, talking about the mainstream Australian media. I’m not sure how other media outlets are reporting this story. Although I did notice on the ABC some footage of South African newspaper headlines which included ‘Tears for Reeva’. So, in her home country where she was obviously much better known, she is getting the headlines. This is something.

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