“MY NAME is Reeva,” proclaimed 29- year-old Reeva Steenkamp in a reality TV show that aired last Saturday, two days after her death. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
For the millions of South Africans watching the show, snappily titled Tropika Island of Treasure 5, the heartbreaking irony of her statement was not lost. Just 48 hours earlier, Steenkamp had been shot four times and killed. The Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius has been charged with her murder.
The decision to air the footage has not been without controversy. The TV station behind the move, SABC, was accused of cashing in on her death with a cynical attempt to boost its ratings. A short tribute to Steenkamp, aired before the programme, showed her telling the camera “I’m going to miss you all so much. I love you very, very much,” prompting suggestions that the channel was simply exploiting her death.
And yet whether the decision to go ahead with the programme was right or wrong, given the circumstances, it is chilling that it has taken Steenkamp herself, speaking from beyond the grave, to remind much of the media what her name is.
Because in the six days that have passed since she was killed, Steenkamp’s name has been little more than a whisper. Instead, we have been introduced to her as “a blonde”, “a model”, “a swimsuit model”, “Pistorius’s lover” or “Blade Runner’s girlfriend”. Sometimes, there has been no description at all. Instead, we have merely been confronted by a full-length picture of the woman wearing as few clothes as possible, and left to draw our own conclusions.
Tabloid newspaper the Sun was one of the worst offenders, with a picture of Steenkamp in a bikini covering most of its front page and speculation about the number of shots that had been fired. The New York Post meanwhile, surpassed itself with a full-length picture of Steenkamp, again in a bikini but this time smiling, alongside the headline Blade Slays Blonde.
On Monday, a South African newspaper printed a cartoon strip – not, I must say, the most obvious tool for trying to communicate the complexities of a murder case, nor indeed, the most sensitive one – in which it attempted to shed light in what, exactly, had occurred in Pistorius’s bedroom that night. For reasons best known to itself, it had chosen to do this by portraying Steenkamp as a silhouette, clearly naked and in profile – so her pert breast and behind are both seen.
Apart from the fact that such speculation is deeply unhelpful to any criminal investigation, it is a distasteful image to portray of a murdered woman.
Indeed, the silhouette could be a metaphor for what Steenkamp has become since her death. In the flurry of images of her, images some publications feel they have been given a green light to publish because of her death, her identity has been lost. The fact that she was a law graduate for instance, or that she campaigned against violence against women, a topic she was due to make a speech about the day she died. That she was a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being with a name and an identity, not just hot totty in a skimpy bikini.
She was, of course, a model. She posed for all of these images willingly, was photographed for men’s magazines such as FHM and by all accounts enjoyed her job. And why not? She was a beautiful young woman, and it was her choice to pose for these pictures. But what is so terrifyingly distasteful about the use of these, no doubt carefully chosen, images alongside the stories of her murder is that they sexualise her death.
Slapping a picture of her wearing a bikini next to speculation about her murder invites the reader to be titillated by the fact that a beautiful woman – who, oo-er, might even have been naked at the time – was shot four times. It’s beyond distasteful – it’s downright disturbing.
We don’t know the circumstances of Steenkamp’s death, but we do know that domestic violence is a huge issue in every corner of the world. In the UK, an incident is reported every minute. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. A world where it is OK to sexualise the death of a beautiful young woman is dangerous.
Reeva Steenkamp’s name should be remembered for many reasons, but this is not one of them.