Thursday, February 21, 2013

Some depressing notes on cultural representation: Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius

If you're paying any attention at all to the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, you've probably seen these tabloid covers before. They're everywhere. (As is the still-developing story and trial, which I won't get into here... I assume that you have the Google.) But I wanted to a) have a copy of them where I could easily find them, because they'll certainly be worth talking about even years from now, and b) add a couple of my own comments.

If you haven't seen the covers, but you're familiar with the story more generally, I should probably warn you - the images are almost unbelievably tasteless:

Ugh. Here are some observations:
  • It's depressing, if unsurprising, that both papers chose to focus so totally on Steenkamp's mostly naked body, her name appearing in tiny print that's easily missed.
  • The Daily News one-ups the New York Post with their picture. While the Post's pose is a bit generic and Steenkamp's smile looks largely indifferent, the News uses a picture that's clearly been designed to, well, arouse. Most notably, Steenkamp is holding a melting ice cream cone, which is a hideously unsubtle allusion to ejaculation. It would be cheesy, if it weren't so sleazy.
  • One cover identifies her simply as "blonde" and the other as a "model", which, while true, also marginalizes the work - more important work, arguably - that she had been doing most recently as an aspiring lawyer and activist who spoke about violence against women. Reducing someone to their profession is hardly new, especially in headlines, but there's something particularly disrespectful about it - especially "blonde" - in this case. Both identify her as Pistorius' "gal pal", which seems unnecessarily cheeky and seems to minimize the seriousness of their relationship. (That is, it feels like very subtle slut-shaming.)
  • Equally interesting, both covers identify Oscar Pistorius by name only in the small print. One calls him "Blade" (as in Blade Runner, his nickname) and the other "Blade Gunner" (a play on the nickname), and both also refer to him as the "Legless Olympian". Again, not new or surprising, though there's something additionally awful about these identifiers, too. The "Blade" references seem designed to hint at violence - it feels aggressive and menacing - which is not at all how the name is intended to be interpreted, since the blades are literally his prostheses. The legless Olympian bit is also exaggerated, if not quite so twisted: Pistorius has legs, after all, though they are partially flesh-and-bone and partially prosthetic. That is, he's not actually legless.
  • The need to vilify Pistorius by way of his disability - and I'm not saying he shouldn't be vilified, just commenting on how I see it being done - is also telling. Disability scholars have commented on how Pistorius has been built-up, to this point, as some sort of "super-crip" or as "inspiration porn". As a disabled man who was able to compete against able-bodied runners in the Olympics, he inadvertently serves a couple of normative cultural functions. For instance, he confirms that everyone should aspire to a particular standard of able-bodiedness, while also appearing to demonstrate that this standard is available to everyone if they try hard enough. (It may not go without saying: these attitudes are dangerous and simply wrong, both of them.) But since he's now an accused-murderer, the media have to distance him from that inspiration function - and how better to do that than be recasting his unrelenting push against the social and physical boundaries of disability as, in fact, a nefarious character-flaw that somehow contributed to his need to murder a blonde model and gal pal? This is where that slippage between the blades of his legs and the blades of some implied murder weapon (the cricket bat that he used to break open the bathroom door?) seems particularly meaningful and not simply clever.
  • And this logic of equating disability with violence is hardly unique to the tabloids. The Toronto Star's never-classy Rosie DiManno makes an even more explicit connection, describing Pistorius in terms of "the musky whiff of danger, a risk-flirt, testosterone-propelled dash and flash, as if constantly defying the limitations imposed by a body with limbs missing because limitations were what Pistorius adamantly rejected." DiManno suggests, somehow, that the "restless and recklessness" with which Pistorius approached his disability and sport somehow makes it unsurprising that he could kill someone. If that's true, then we should probably begin to suspect that every non-normative body contains a homicidal maniac, and every ambitious person is capable of murder. Or maybe DiManno thinks this is only true of people who are both ambitious and non-normative, who won't simply accept definitions of normal that exclude them. Maniacs, clearly, all of them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello there, long time listener, first time caller. Loved your blogged piece about the blade runner, but i think you missed out some important insightful details, namely the wonderful acting of Harrison Ford. I don't remember any blonds in the film, but alas, it has been several weeks since last I've viewed it in all its glory, so I could perchance be wrong. Keep up the good work, Mate! Love you!