Reeva Steenkamp was more than a sexy bikini model

The media finally introduces a fully rendered portrait of the woman who was shot and killed by Oscar Pistorius

Topics: reeva steenkamp, Oscar Pistorius, Violence Against Women, South Africa, Gender Issues, Violence, Gun Violence, Editor's Picks,

Reeva Steenkamp was more than a sexy bikini modelReeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius (Credit: AP/Lucky Nxumalo)

It’s been three weeks since Reeva Steenkamp was shot and killed by her Olympian boyfriend Oscar Pistorius. So why has it taken this long for the reporting on the case to start looking at Steenkamp as a person?

A New York Times feature on Tuesday and a new Time magazine story both delve more deeply into the story of the 29-year-old whose life ended in a Pretoria bathroom on Valentine’s Day, and the troubling epidemic of violence in South Africa that may have contributed to her death. The stories are both in their own ways haunting portraits of a nation that cultivates brutality and a woman who found herself the victim of it. And they’re a bracingly far cry from the revolting glut of sexy swimsuit shots and attempted witticisms that dominated the news coverage of the case in its early days.

Pistorius says he thought she was an intruder. Prosecutors are calling him a murderer. Whether she was the victim of an accident or coldblooded attack is still being investigated — though unconfirmed reports say there had been prior domestic disputes at his home, and in 2009, Pistorius was arrested for assaulting a woman. What is known for certain is that Steenkamp had openly talked about how she’d been in an abusive relationship in the past, and that she wanted to use her high-profile position to speak out on violence against women. She was set to give a speech on the subject just before she died.

Not every woman who’s shot to death is a blond model. And if you happen to be on a quest for images of Steenkamp, you won’t have to expend any effort to find photos of her provocatively slinking around in bikinis and lingerie. This is what is known in the media as a jackpot. As the news of her death emerged last month, it didn’t take long for newspapers and other news outlets to do the simple math of combining a hot photo of the dead woman with a pithy headline. The New York Daily News went for “Blade Gunner.” The New York Post opted for “Blade Slays Blonde.”  The Sun scraped the bottom of the barrel with “3 shots. Screams. Silence.” And Fox News ingeniously leveraged the story into a pictorial T&A bonanza of “Other Model Deaths.” It was quite the morbid spankfest, right there.

That there is an overabundance of media attention given to attractive young females who are the victims of violence is undeniable. The Natalee Holloways  and Sarai Sierras of the world make for more attention-grabbing headlines than the Shandell McLeods. Who’s Shandell McLeod, you ask? Exactly. But it’s all a no-win for everybody, either way. Because what are we left with? An insatiable news cycle that ignores women deemed insufficiently eyeballs-attracting, and sickeningly objectifies the pretty dead ones. I can’t wait for Maxim’s list of hottest shooting victims.

You Might Also Like

Much like the January death of Kasandra Perkins at the hands of her athlete boyfriend Jovan Belcher, the focus in the Steenkamp story has been everywhere but on Steenkamp. Steenkamp, the person. Steenkamp, who lived in a country known at the rape capital of the world, a nation where sexual violence against women is so profound they’re running out of rape kits. A nation with one of the highest violent crime rates on Earth. 

As the story continues to play out and evolve, the circumstances of Steenkamp’s death are starting at last to shed light on the environment in which it happened – and the very real woman behind the alluring smile and the skimpy bikini. In life, she wanted to be more than another sexy model. She aspired to a career in law; she wanted to enlighten her countrymen about violence. In death, she’s been for the past few weeks a fetish object, a body used to generate ratings and page views. But ultimately, there’s a chance she can be remembered as something more. She wanted to stand for something. She wanted to shine a light on the crimes of her country. And tellingly, she said that “people chose to be ignorant because the subject made them uncomfortable.” It makes people uncomfortable, and it doesn’t sell as many newspapers. It’s a lot harder to look at a culture of violence than it is to look at a beautiful girl in a bathing suit. So when you look at Reeva Steenkamp, which one do you see?

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>