Since Valentine’s Day everyone has been talking about the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, although rarely in those terms. We know that her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, shot her four times and killed her while she was behind a locked door in their bathroom in a gated estate. We know that he has a history of domestic violence, a penchant for shooting things. We know absolutely everything about his extensive sporting achievements. The main thing, however, that we know about Steenkamp is that she was a model, and that she was really hot.
There are other pieces of information framing the dead woman, including that she had a Bachelor of Laws from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and had briefly worked as a paralegal on graduation. However, almost every image of Steenkamp in the days following her murder featured her near-to-naked body, including the episode of a reality series aired in South Africa just after she died. This body was described in an article by a former editor of men’s magazine FHM as ‘tanned and taut’ — a (dead) body that appears to look exactly like (a) woman is supposed to.
Neelika Jayawardane and Sean Jacobs (in their recent blog post here) summarized the problematics of Steenkamp’s representation: “ … It did look unseemly that while we spoke blithely of the commodification of women’s bodies, and the relationship of such commodification to gender-based violence, we were simultaneously treated to images of Steenkamp’s participation in the industry that commodifies women’s bodies.” The post also linked to the two Guardian op-ed pieces that deal specifically with the imaging of Steenkamp in tabloids and mainstream media: Marina Hyde’s piece pointed to the pornification of Steenkamp in British tabloids, noting that The Sun did not bother with a page 3 ‘girl’ on the day of Steenkamp’s death since this role had already been ascribed to her image. Another Guardian reporter, Paul Harris, discussed how this was replicated in the United States as well as in South Africa.
These articles proffer a disgust of a media industry that uses the image of a recently-dead woman dressed provocatively to sell the story of her death. Each article hints that these images enact a violence towards Steenkamp and to women generally. However, it has yet to be discussed exactly how this very particular objectification fits into a chain of subject to object, women to corpse (un)becomings in a horrifying set of assumed complicities, participations and consents. What is it in this case that Steenkamp’s bikini might be said to provoke? And what kind of object does her body become in this schema? A commodity, a fetish, certainly. However, Steenkamp and her womanness also retain the status of another very particular kind of object: a corpse.
In the same week that the image of Steenkamp’s body was all over our media, a billboard appeared in central Cape Town’s Kloof Street (in the photo at the top of this post). The billboard also featured the body of an abused woman or, here, a girl. It shows a young black girl curled up on her side on the floor clutching a sheet. Her underwear is above her head, her trousers are pulled down, exposing her buttocks and there is blood on her shirt. It is difficult to tell if she is dead or catatonic, but it is clear we should infer that she has been raped. Across this image are two yellow strips reminiscent of crime tape, one of which reads, ‘Underage drinking: is it worth it’. Below in bigger uppercase lettering, the text, ‘YOU DECIDE’.
The billboard is jointly sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), South African Breweries (SABMiller) and the National Youth Development Agency. The advertisement is straightforward in its logic that a) you, the woman-reader, decide whether to be raped and thus b) you are entirely culpable and responsible for any sexual violence to which you are subjected. At the very least, the billboard states a) and b) with the qualifier [if you are underage and have been drinking]. Thus, if you drink when you are under eighteen you are participating in your own rape, and any underage girl who has been raped, and who had been drinking at any point in the lead up to this violence, is to be considered entirely responsible for this event.
The image shows us a woman, a girl, made up to look exactly like a dead body.
The pictures of Steenkamp and the girl on the DTI billboard share a relation beyond the fact that they both image women who have been subjected to male violence. Rather, both representations enact a particular equivalence whereby a woman ceases to be a subject as she becomes a sex object (through her own volition, her ‘self-objectification’, her willful vulnerability) and then since she is already an object, slips easily into being dead, a corpse — that is the most real and fearful manifestation of objecthood: subject made thing.
In Steenkamp’s case it is permissible, the media tells us, to show readers her body because she was responsible in part for these images’ production. Since she worked as a model, we are meant to assume that she is responsible for framing herself as a commodity fetish, as a thing. These are not sneaky tabloid photographs of a woman at leisure, but rather they are taken with her consent — and I shudder at the term. Following the logic that these are ‘images of Steenkamp’s participation in the industry that commodifies women’s bodies’, we are assured that Steenkamp has objectified herself through modeling. So, now that she is really an object — a body proper, dead — the equivalence of sex object and corpse is made all the more insidious for the implication that she had autonomy in this decision. The violence of her killer, of the media, of the beauty industry is all hidden beneath her taut and toned blonde corpse.
The images of Steenkamp in the media enact a far worse vehemence than ‘disrespect’ to the dead. Every image of the bikini-clad model shows us what this dead woman, Reeva Steenkamp, looks like. And, since we are so familiar with this particular representation of ‘Woman’, a woman, an image typified here by the objectified body of this dead woman, these images also infer that this is what a dead woman looks like. The equivalence of woman-object-corpse asserts to the reader that violence against women, the murder, rape, abuse of a woman, is no different to the pushing around of a thing, the bruising of a blunt object.
That the girl in the DTI billboard is implicated as complicit in her own brutalization is much clearer. We see the image of an objected corpse or, at least, a traumatised object, a frozen woman, on the floor. She has been relegated to the realm of things, presumably through brutalization. A man has raped and/or killed her. But, like with Steenkamp, the billboard assures us that this anonymous girl has consented to her own objecthood, abjection. The text YOU DECIDE is addressed not to an audience encountering the (no doubt incredibly triggering) obscene image corpse, but to the subject we imagine to be the dead girl’s referent. She has decided, in this case, to drink illegally. She may be dead on the floor, an object but — like Steenkamp — she did this to herself. This is not, we are told, what a girl who has been drinking and who then is raped looks like, it is every girl who chooses to drink, since these choices are equivalent. And thus the rape and brutalization and even murder of a young drunk girl is outside of any kind of structure of blame beyond the victim herself, beyond outrage, since the crime is reduced to mere complicity with the girl who has made HER DECISION already. The violence enacted on her, the man who has raped her is conspicuously outside of the frame of this image, he is still an active, gazing subject, like the viewing public encountering this image. There is nothing acting upon her, nothing to get her here except herself. She is a woman, a girl, made up to look exactly like a corpse.
Though they share their status as corpse, woman, object, these two representations differ notably in the race and class dynamics each infers. Steenkamp’s corpse becomes an image of a white, blonde woman, which makes it easier for an audience to associate her body with a normative conception of beauty and of wealth, glamour and, again, her own participation in her objecthood.
The object of the DTI billboard is a young black girl, which makes it easier to consume her image as victim within the semantics of South African and, particularly, international media images of poverty, sickness, helplessness, however even pity is leeched from this image through its title.
Instead, as well as its affirmation of misogyny, the YOU DECIDE billboard has worrying implications about blame and victimhood on a broader level in South Africa — the YOUR DECISION of the poster speaks not only to the particular circumstances in which a girl is victim of rape, but also more generally suggests an uncompromising meritocracy and victim blaming, so that brutality, be it physical, political, economic or structural is laid only at the feet of the one who is being abused, who has failed to make the right decision.
Prejudicial race relations help to instate the different, but here equally abject positions of both of these corpses.
I have been told that the billboard in Kloof Street has been removed to make way, I think, for this image of a dead boy in the gutter. There has been no apology from SAB or the DTI for this image; rather the You Decide campaign, which travels with this image as part of its educational model, is set to reach some 360 schools; targeting an estimated 400 000 learners this year alone, as well as increasing a billboard campaign throughout the country.
Steenkamp’s boyfriend has been photographed by a remarkable set of image-makers who have framed him as beautiful, sleek, downward-facing and painstakingly apologetic — he is an image of masculine vulnerability and poise. His image may be everywhere, now, but there is no danger of him losing his humanity. ‘Pistorius’s whole body shook and he wept uncontrollably, as if a chasm of grief threatened to swallow him,’ David Smith writes, helpfully, in The Guardian. ‘The magistrate halted proceedings for a few minutes, explaining: “My compassion as a human being does not allow me to just sit here.”‘ In the magistrate’s flagrant disregard for his own objectivity, he also assures that Pistorius will not become the object made of Steenkamp. The boyfriend who shot and killed her, remains in all senses alive, human, tragic, compassionate and overflowing with subjectivity. Granted bail, he is said to have returned to training this week.
The images of these dead women do more than encourage a sickly necrophilia, an ogling over feminine corpses (as if this were not bad enough). These pictures propose an existing equivalence between women and object so that the actual death of a woman/object is immaterial, tautological and inconsequential. These pictures of the corpses of women turn women into images, images into corpses, women into death. And since we are told that these image-women are already objects, dead things, of their own volition, violence against women is kept decidedly outside of the frame: invisible, permissible and nobody’s fault but our own.