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15 February 2013

Reeva Steenkamp: our media invites you to ogle a dead woman

Tasteless photos of the woman found dead at the home of Oscar Pistorius.

By Helen Lewis

There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter (isn’t there always?) about the media’s use of photos of Reeva Steenkamp, who was shot dead yesterday at the home of her boyfriend, the athlete Oscar Pistorius. 

Some newspapers and websites have been “paying tribute” and “celebrating her career” by running multiple photos of her in swimwear, or posing sexily.

Here is The Sun inviting you to admire the hotness of the recently deceased:

And here is the Mail inviting you to reflect on the tragedy of a young woman who died younger than she needed to:

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(It might be unfair to single out these two papers, but they’re the most obvious illustration of the point. Update: The Huffington Post did a slideshow of bikini shots.)

So I made what I thought was a fairly uncontroversial statement:

Cue four billion (that is my go-to made-up number today) people telling me one of a couple of things. Let’s deal with them in turn.

She was a swimwear model.

So she was. She also modelled cosmetics for Avon. She had a law degree. She campaigned against violence against women. And yet – I’m not hearing a lot about that. And it is not just reported that she is a lingerie model, but visually demonstrated.

What do two pictures of her in a bikini tell you that one doesn’t?

That Sun front page is particularly jarring – they’ve given Steenkamp the same treatment they’d give any sexy bikini-posing model. These pictures are intended to titillate, to arouse . . . and they’re alongside a thumping great headline about her violent death. 

Those were the only pictures available of her.

Bzzt! Wrong. I looked on the Getty newswire – which all British newspapers have access to. (The NS only has a basic subscription, so every picture desk on a national will have access to far more of its pictures, plus those from specialist agencies.) Here’s what they had:

You will have seen those pictures a lot yesterday, I imagine. But if your interest is in illustrating a news story, there are a couple of shapes and crops available where she has clothes on.

They’d print just the same of a male model or swimmer who was killed!

In response to me saying “try to imagine a man dying and the media running four billion pictures of them in swimwear”, many people came back with “Tom Daley” or “David Beckham”. It’s an argument that looks superficially attractive, but lacks sophistication. Yes, there might well be photos of Daley in trunks . . . winning medals. (Maybe even presenting Splash). Being portrayed as the successful athlete he is.

Similarly, there might be a single shot of Becks in his tighty whiteys among a retrospective of his life and career, but if you think that any British newspaper would run that on their front page, rather than a photo of him, say, at the World Cup, you are deluded. The backlash would be incredible. 

If either of these men were portrayed in a way that was solely about their looks, we would seeing the oddness of it instantly. 

***

It’s not that I have a problem with how Reeva Steenkamp made her living. And I don’t disapprove of the mere concept of women in underwear, or bikinis. If you’re at the beach, swimwear is a totally reasonable thing to wear, although obviously I prefer a Victorian-style pair of bloomers, because I’m a feminist.

What’s problematic here is the knee-jerk response to the death of a woman being to print exactly the kind of pictures you’d invite readers to perv over if she were alive. The subtext is so icky I don’t even want to type it out.

Roll up to ogle the recently deceased!

Look at the tits on this dead woman!

Buy our newspaper – we have 50 per cent more sexy pictures of a potential murder victim!