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The curious case of Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend

The media and the Internet are abuzz with the shooting death of law graduate and anti-domestic violence advocate Reeva Steenkamp in South Africa last week, an event made all the more prurient to many media consumers by the fact that the accused, her boyfriend, is a Paralympic and Olympic athlete with an international reputation. As the commentary spews on, over and over again I see the statement that he was a role model, icon, or hero, and I am driven to ask this: whose hero was he?

I am told he was a hero to the disability community before his ‘fall from grace,’ as though shooting your girlfriend multiple times in the head and neck after a history of domestic violence with her and other women is a ‘fall,’ rather than a ghastly crime for which you should be severely punished. This presumes that the disability community is a collective entity that thinks and moves in lockstep, which isn’t the case; for some disabled people, Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend undoubtedly was a role model, but to others, he was just an athlete. A very talented athlete performing at the peak of his game, because very few people qualify for the Olympics and Paralympics, but just an athlete. Full social integration to me means that disabled people are measured by their accomplishments and deeds, not their disabilities.

I suspect that Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend was more of an icon for the nondisabled community than for the disabled community, because of what he represented. His very mainstream successes; adapting to prostheses, becoming an extremely talented and driven runner, working with custom ‘blades’ that were his distinctive trademark, were what made him appeal to nondisabled people. His success as an ‘inspirational’ or ‘heroic’ icon lay precisely in his ability to pass, to conform as closely as possible to nondisabled norms, to become, in essence, one of them. He was safe, comforting, and familiar, presenting a framework of disability that suggested all disabled people aspired to be like nondisabled people, and could if they just tried hard enough.

He modeled a specific bootstrapping presentation of disability, one in which people ‘overcome tremendous odds’ and ‘keep persevering’ to achieve greatness. A very specific kind of greatness, one mediated by what is ‘great’ in nondisabled terms. The accomplishments of people like Paul K. Longmore and Laura Hershey, two of my personal disabled icons, aren’t widely known or celebrated in the nondisabled mainstream precisely because their accomplishments were so rooted in disabled identity and politics. They fought to liberate people from nursing homes and stereotypes, to create a world where disabled people were an active component of society as they were. They were frightening to nondisabled people in their expressions of independence, of disability pride, of ferocity.

Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend attracted attention because he matched with nondisabled expectations of what disability can and should be. And he was used, ruthlessly, as a tool for beating disabled people; if he can do it, so can you. Go watch him and learn from his amazing feats. Revel in the fact that a man born with congenital disabilities can run on two legs ‘just like a normal person.’

Shocked by the revelation that disabled people can actually be abusive assholes too, the nondisabled community has lashed out in confusion and bitter outrage. Suddenly their poster child, their supercrip, has been turned into yet another athlete caught up in a sordid and unpleasant domestic violence scandal, with a side of murder; possibly cold-blooded murder, according to some accounts. This upends everything they think about athletes, and about disabled people.  They were the ones who put him on a pedestal, and they were the ones faced with figuring out how to take him off it again after learning who he truly was.

Intriguingly, their response has been to put him back in the corner with the other cripples. Rather than directly confronting domestic violence in athletics and the culture that obscured prior reports of violence involving Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend and other women, as well as Reeva herself, people chose to attack him on the grounds that he clearly wasn’t ‘one of them,’ because ‘they’ don’t do things like shooting their girlfriends. Abruptly, his honorary nondisabled person status had to be taken away.

Notably, the jokes that started flying around about him almost immediately focused heavily on his disability status; he ‘wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court’ and ‘must have been legless at the time,’ commentators quipped on Twitter. Some argued that this was a case of resentment and jealousy: that an athlete at the peak of his career was bitter over his disability and took it out on his evidently nondisabled partner. This served dually to remind people both that he was disabled (as though they might have forgotten) and that inside every disabled person lurks a Bitter Cripple struggling to get out. Said Bitter Cripple, of course, can be violent and dangerous, angry at the world for not being nondisabled.

As more evidence and discussion rolled in, people turned to what they thought would be a fit punishment, and more than one person suggested that he should be ‘forced to go back in the chair,’ visualising this as the worst possible punishment for a man made famous by the prosthetic limbs he used to walk. As though there is something deeply wrong with using a chair for mobility. As though being a wheelchair user makes you less of a man; a common attitude held by nondisabled people, who view wheelchair users of all genders as desexualised and inanimate, objects rather than human beings. People turned vicious by the revelation that their icon was just another misogynistic athlete struck out in the way they thought would be most effective, by attempting to downgrade his status, visualising disability as The Worst Thing Ever, and suggesting that being forced to sit instead of walk would be a great comeuppance for their clay-footed hero.

At the same time the media linger over hero worship and elegies for Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend, Reeva herself is reduced to a background player; she is the one who died, yet she’s the one who’s usually not named until at least halfway down the page. She’s the one who died, yet the media focus on the fact that she was a model with, shockingly, modeling shots displaying her body. She’s the one who died, yet people are making her out to be a frivolous secondary story, rather than the core of the narrative: Reeva Steenkamp was in a relationship that may have been abusive, and no one talked about it because her boyfriend was an athlete, and Oscar Pistorius fired the gun that killed her.

 

13 Comments

  1. Anita wrote:

    Really agree with ya. A lot of these points were going on in my mind. You’ve put it together perfectly. Its appaling how her name is mentioned way later in the articles, or sometimes not.

    Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  2. Jesse the K wrote:

    Beautiful. I wish I had a less violent metaphor than “you hit the bullseye.” I hope that this strong sapling has been planted in fertile soil.

    Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Morgan wrote:

    Well said. I love that you didn’t use his name until the last line but focused on Reeva’s. I wish the media did the same!

    Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Athenia wrote:

    “I suspect that Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend was more of an icon for the nondisabled community than for the disabled community, because of what he represented.”

    I have a friend who is a disability activist and one day we were having a conversation about Christopher Reeve (when he was still alive). She told me she was really disappointed with his advocacy. This surprised me cuz I mean, hey, it’s Christopher Reeve. Superman. She explained that much of his advocacy surrounded stem cell research, which was fine, but that really didn’t have much to do with day-to-day accessibility issues and needs that were more immediate for the disabled community.

    Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Permalink
  5. Gillian Wallace wrote:

    Excellent analysis. Thank you.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 4:31 am | Permalink
  6. tielserrath wrote:

    Also, Steenkamp was a law graduate, a fact which is only mentioned (where it is mentioned) after dwelling on her ‘career as a model’.

    Because what she did with her body defines her far more than what she did with her brain.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  7. wjpeace wrote:

    Athenia, Reeve set back disability rights a decade or more with his pitiful focus on stem cell research and a cure for spinal cord injury. Only after severe backlash did the Reeve Foundation start to fund quality of life grants. I do not know a single person with a disability that respected the man. Many, myself included, learned to despise him because he was so narcissistic.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  8. Dee wrote:

    Interesting article. Initially, I too was annoyed by what seemed to be a general sort of overemphasis on her modelling/showbiz career over her law credentials, but that was before I’d read anything about her. Then I read that she described herself as a “SA Model, Cover Girl, Tropika Island of Treasure Celeb Contestant, Law Graduate, Child of God” on her Twitter account – based on her ordering, I’d argue that Reeva herself defined herself more by her modelling and showbiz career/achievements, at the time of her death, than her other achievements. And that’s fine, right? Sure, down the line, she might’ve been planning to switch over to focus on her law career or advocacy work, but she never got that chance, and who she was at the time of her death was a bright young person with a successful modelling career. So who are we then to suggest that her law credentials gave her greater validity as a person than work based around her beauty? Furthermore, given that she’s best known for her successes as a model and a media figure, isn’t really so bad that the press often chooses to call her a “model” especially in a quick one-liner summary of the facts. To me it makes as much sense as describing Steve Young as a “49ers quarterback” in the 1990s than as a “law graduate” or “philanthropist.”
    I do agree that the more tabloid-esque newspapers that decided sexy pictures of the deceased in lingerie was just what this story needed to “sex it up” was tasteless, ghoulish, and horrible. Just ew.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  9. Petro wrote:

    Thank you for your continuing education of me.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  10. Megpie71 wrote:

    Another point which does have to be made about Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend (and murderer) is he’s from a highly privileged background – his family is not only white South African, they’re also *moneyed* white South African. So he’s a highly unrealistic choice to be waved in front of the disability community for that reason as well – even if he did “lose out” on a genetic lottery, he won big in all the other ones that mattered. He was able to AFFORD good prostheses which allowed him to run rather than using a wheelchair, he was able to AFFORD to pay for revolutionary new technology which took advantage of his running style, he was able to AFFORD to devote time to being a professional athlete rather than trying to earn a living doing something else and running on the side.

    Yes, he overcame tremendous odds. But he had the greatest assistant available: money.

    Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  11. Sam wrote:

    Dee, I feel like you are completely missing the point. Why? Why is it more important to find “evidence” in Reeva’s twitter tag and argue that no, she really was more of a model, than to see that she is dehumanized by media stories that often fail to even mention her name? In addition to greatet point that her boyfriend was used as a model disabled person by a nondisabled majority because he “overcame” his disability, only to be shunned by the public jnot for his violence toward another person, but because of his disability! Why derail us? This of course is rhetorical, and for you to contemplate.

    Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  12. Nym wrote:

    Dee -

    she might’ve been planning to switch over to focus on her law career or advocacy work, but she never got that chance,

    You’re joking, right? She was a paralegal who’d applied to the Bar. She was an accomplished sportswoman in her own right, into her early twenties, until she was paralysed after breaking her back. She learned to walk again, and THEN crossed over to less physically exerting roles.

    Also, there’s a lack of foresight in your claim that she listed her media and modelling credentials first. You don’t think (come on, take the wild and scary leap into the unknown) that maybe, just maybe, she was ranking her achievements in order of societal approval of them as roles for women?

    Her roles, and society’s view of them –
    Model – thin, pretty, unspeaking. A blank canvas for male desire and female aspiration.

    TV personality – Available, popular, malleable, speaking the words of others.

    Legal professional – Yawn, dull, unsexy, how will she have time to be a mother?

    Putting “model” at the top of the list also showrooms someone who recognised that how you brand yourself, in the media age, will make or break you. Prioritising “Law graduate” could lead to accusations of snobbery, elitism, ungratefulness at being one of the beautiful, chosen for stardom.

    Someone as clever as her could probably not fail to note the toxic effects of. the swirling cloud of misogyny tainting the very air we breathe. She was playing the game.

    All gone now though, to a white man with a gun. The brother of a man who also gunned down his girlfriend. The son of a man who claims, apparently without irony, that 50+ household guns are necessary because black men are dangerous.

    This crip wishes that the supercrips were no more, that they weren’t weapons to bludgeon the rest of us with. This crip notes that successful women with disabilities, like Dame Tanni Grey Thompson, are not treated with anything like the respect afforded to Reeves and Pistorius. Dame Tanni,who won a prestigious award, but was unable to collect it from the stage because there was no ramp. Would anyone have dared do that to Reeve?

    Poisonous kyriarchal waves at work, continually drowning women, POC, PWD/MI, GLBT people and those of low SES, while the privileged look on, smiling.

    Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink
  13. Mike wrote:

    This case saddened me so much when I heard about it, and its even more sickening to realize Reeva Steenkamps’ life quite possibly would have been saved if we (both the general sports-watching society and specifically the police) had paid more attention to the previous reports of domestic violence.
    I have to admit that I also fell into the trap of first sympathizing with the accused killer instead of the victim. I had seen Pistorius before many times, and thus had a face to connect with him. But I did not recall ever hearing about Reeva Steenkamps before her death, so her death made little emotional impact on me besides “this is sad, no one should ever be murdered”. The media, in a misguided attempt to draw more attention to the story, helped to accentuate Reeva Steenkamps’ dehumanization by showing only nearly-nude modeling pictures of her in suggestive poses, and avoiding all discussions of her actual life outside of her modeling career and her relationship with Pistorius.
    My first thought when I heard about this murder I thought that Pistorius couldn’t possibly have done it because someone who put in years of effort and overcoming adversity couldn’t possibly throw away his fame, his athletic career, and his role-model status by murdering his girlfriend (or murdering anyone, for that matter). I was all too willing to believe the various theories that came out despite the evidence (“the gun went off by accident, he thought there was a burglar, someone else came in the house and shot her, etc.”)I still find myself hoping that this was some sort of horrible accident, because that would be easier to except than a beloved and respected figure being a domestic abuser and murderer (though it would make to difference to the victim).
    However, looking at the few public facts about the case, I know that if almost anyone else was accused under the same circumstances, my first reaction would be “guilty,” and I would dismiss most of the defense theories i.e. “the gun went off by accident…four times” as what they probably are, bullshit and wishful thinking.
    I post this not because I am trying to express sympathy for abusing, murdering rich men but because I think it is important for me to acknowledge that I had a big blind spot when it comes to this case, even though I don’t generally try to explain away domestic violence and other crimes against women.
    I imagine that how I felt when I heard about Pistorius being accused of murder was the same way that ardent fans of OJ Simpson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson, and other celebrities accused of heinous crimes felt. I think it is natural for think the best of someone whose work you admire, but we have to maintain basic empathy and common sense and avoid using this instinct to blame the victims. How often do even liberals minimize or explain away rape, domestic violence, and other crimes by musicians and athletes while a normal person off the street would not get the same pass.
    And I am not even going to touch how the public response would be different if Pistorius was a dark-skinned athlete.

    Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink