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

Tue, Feb 26, 2013 - Page 9

It was inevitable, from the moment the news first broke, that the world would be fascinated by the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. This is not least because the man who ended her life is the hugely admired, world-famous South African athlete Oscar Pistorius — but that is not all there is to it.

A crucial attraction of the story is its intense vulnerability to speculation. It offers an irresistible invitation for all kinds of people to project or act out their prejudices, vent their societal critiques and animate their passionately-held theories about the world, safe in the knowledge that the motivation for the events that took place in Pistorius’ Pretoria home in the early hours of Feb. 14 are never likely to be independently and irrefutably established by a third party. The media, of course, is only too happy to whip such excitement up yet further. When such stories happen along, they attract readers in droves.

In recent years, the most egregious of such “opportunities” have been the Madeleine McCann abduction in Portugal and the Meredith Kercher murder in Italy. In both cases, the truth — that it was a crime of opportunity committed by a stranger — was rejected by many in favor of the idea of intimate, domestic horror carried out by people so psychopathic, so quick-thinking and so coolly brilliant that they could commit an outrageous crime, behave in a flamboyantly self-publicizing manner in its wake and yet, through sheer nerve, still expect to escape justice. That both crimes were being investigated under criminal justice systems unfamiliar in detail to global audiences and beyond the reach of straightforward considerations about contempt of court made the manner in which they could be reported all the more “creative.”

In the case of the McCanns, victim blame was writ large. It was quickly decided that Kate and Gerry McCann were not behaving in a manner befitting people whose child had been snatched from her bed to disappear without trace, as if a reaction to something so appalling and strange could ever be “just right.” In a widespread act of collective counter-prejudice, it was decided that it was precisely because the couple was middle class, educated, respectable and in vocational careers that one had to be careful not to be influenced by such signs of their previous good character.

Even among people who refrained from the wildest speculations there was a feeling that “ordinary” people would have been charged with neglect. The McCanns and their friends had managed to persuade themselves that dining in the grounds of a holiday complex was like dining in their own garden. For this delusion of complete safety, this complacent ease with and security about their place in the world, they ought to be held to account.

In the Kercher case, similar prejudices were brought to bear. There was a reluctance to “fall” for the idea that middle-class US college students just did not tend to be involved in acts of group sexual torture and murder. Furthermore, Amanda Knox was a beautiful young woman. Contrary to evidence across the globe and in virtually all walks of life, there is a perception that beautiful young women are to be feared and despised because they are used to getting their own way.

Both the McCanns and Knox were accused of behaving oddly in the aftermath of the crimes, part of their “bizarre” behavior being the exercise of their bodies, which was rejected as an understandable resort that they undertook in an attempt to still the manic, runaway exercise that had taken over their minds, and was viewed instead as solipsism. Actually, their inability to comport themselves in a manner that would seem appropriate to the eyes of those they knew were watching them was far more likely to be an expression of guileless innocence than of calculated bluff. However, the ability of humans to interpret matters to fit their prejudicial worldview is impressively well developed.

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.

Whatever the outcome for Pistorius, individual views about his guilt or innocence will depend on whether the holder believes him to be a man who understands the absolute integrity of women as fully realized people, equal in the value of their life to men, or whether they believe him to be a man who absorbed the age-old cultural message that women should be passive, like objects. However, the ongoing tragedy is that as long as that latter propaganda continues to be perpetrated, men will be distrusted by women and women will be in mortal danger from men.