Tue, Feb 26, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Lurid media frenzies reveal societal prejudice

Media frenzies sparked by tragic events such as the Oscar Pistorius shooting or the Madeleine McCann abduction illuminate the warped motives of the media-consuming world far more than they do those of the suspects that they scrutinize

By Deborah Orr  /  The Guardian

These sorts of lurid media frenzies illuminate the motives and thought processes of the media-consuming world far more than they do those of the suspects in the spotlight.

In a crucial sense, the Pistorius case is an even more perfect empty vessel which constructed motivation can be poured into than the other two cases because the perpetrator of the act is not in question. Pistorius does not claim that a third party entered his home, only that he became overwhelmed by a fear that this had happened, a fear that had unspeakably tragic results. Reluctance to take his story at face value is driven not by dispassionate examination of the evidence, but by more general views about the vulnerability of women to violence from their partners. If, like Pistorius, those partners are middle class, successful, heroic and disabled, there is a strong feeling that societal prejudice in their favor is something to be scrupulously countermanded.

That Steenkamp died on the day designated by advocacy group One Billion Rising for “the biggest mass global action to end violence against girls and women in the history of humankind” offers a powerful reminder that suspicion of individual men does not happen in a vacuum. Certainly, whether people were aware of it or not, the news was presented in a context of socio-cultural prejudice right away, which in turn inspired immediate efforts to counter it. People were at pains to point out that the dead woman was not just the glamor girl she was being described as in the media. She was also a law graduate and a campaigner against domestic violence. She was a fully realized person in her own right, not just a trophy.

Yet, legitimate and understandable as the focus on Steenkamp’s intellectual achievements was, the subtext was abject. If Steenkamp had been entirely without accomplishment, just a pretty, empty blonde head on a beautiful, vainly pampered body, she would have deserved not one iota more to be shot dead at the age of 29. The people most keen to rescue Steenkamp from posthumous objectification were inadvertently legitimizing the objectification of women who more accurately fitted the description “model and girlfriend of ... “

That is why objectification is so pernicious. Valuing any woman only or primarily for the way they look risks implying that at least some aspects of all women are not unique and irreplaceable, but archetypal and expendable. That is why the London-based Sun’s front-page story showing Steenkamp modeling a bikini horrified so many. It presented her not as a woman who had been violently robbed of her life, but as a “model and girlfriend of ... ” a fantasy image, a glorious yet merely physical being whose personal reality — dead or alive — was not the important thing.

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