Gender violence in the media: elusive reality

The death of Reeva Steenkamp has highlighted the problematic way in which the media treat the issue of domestic violence.  We need a better way to transmit and therefore tackle the reality – how violence is built into our lives and how space is gendered, says Heather McRobie.

Heather McRobie
6 March 2014

Athlete Oscar Pistorius, currently on bail pending trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will be judged by legal trial, not media. But in the period since the death of Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day – the same day as the One Billion Rising events worldwide to highlight the issue of gender violence – the media coverage of her death has both reflected and refracted public understandings of intimate partner violence.

The coverage by the UK tabloid The Sun was most jarring, and quickly produced its own backlash on Twitter and by other journalists.  Helen Lewis in the New Statesman outlined the way in which Steenkamp was depicted in the tabloid as a sexual object presented to titillate the reader – that the newspaper was inviting you to “ogle a dead woman.”  That Steenkamp’s appearance, and race, meant she conformed to physical standards idealised by mass media meant both that her death received a level of coverage unlikely afforded to other murder victims and the majority of those affected by South Africa’s shocking levels of gender-based violence and that simultaneously her treatment by the media, in her death, was grimly objectifying.  Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project has spoken of how the coverage by The Sun and other newspapers illustrates the sexualisation of women by the media but is also more specifically about “the titillation and the pornification of female victims. The portrayal of them as sex objects prevents people from seeing this as a crime against a human being.”

Journalist Deborah Orr has made the case that even the attempt to ‘humanise’ Steenkamp as part of the reaction or backlash to The Sun’s fraught and lurid reporting of her death – highlighting the fact she was a law graduate and an activist for women’s rights – in turn reinforces problematic assumptions about which women we should care about, the implication being that, if she had been “just” a model after all, she would be less deserving of our concern for her as a victim of a violent crime.

Nonetheless, the later emphasis placed in the media narrative of Steenkamp’s life that she campaigned on the issue of violence against women is striking, as it coupled with another fact that is both thought-provoking and easily media-packaged: the fact that she was killed on Valentine’s Day.  Not only is a murder – possibly an intimate partner crime – on a day designated for the celebration of romantic love a jarring juxtaposition, but February 14th is also marked worldwide as a day against gender violence, and this year the One Billion Rising campaign had received extensive media coverage as the event was commemorated with dances in a record number of countries.

 It’s worth noting that the One Billion Rising movement is itself not without its detractors, such as Natalie Gyte’s criticism that the movement initiated by Eve Ensler refuses to critically engage with and condemn the concept of patriarchy as the underlying cause of gender violence.  Like Steenkamp’s death, it has generated headlines where more complex realities remain unreported.

To follow the thread of media coverage of both the issue of and incidents of violence against women, one of the reasons why the One Billion Rising campaign was so high on media agendas this year is likely due to two recent media ‘stories’; realities that have been re-wrapped in newsprint – the rape and murder of a woman in Delhi in December 2012 and the epidemic levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault in post-revolutionary Egypt.  The rape in Delhi and the escalating levels of sexual assaults in Egypt have both become international news stories, as have the protests they ignited in response

Media coverage of such incidents is necessarily fraught, beyond issues such as respecting the survivor’s desire for anonymity if stated, and presenting information devoid of prurience.  The coverage of both the Delhi attack and the epidemic of post-revolutionary sexual assault  and harassment in Tahrir Square have fostered critiques by feminists on the global media’s perpetuation of imperialist lenses in their sensationalist coverage of sexual violence.  The assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in 2011 exposed the issue of media representations of sexual violence in Egypt, from the problematically unsympathetic response by those such as Nir Rosen, that Logan will ‘get all the attention’, to depictions and comments of attacks that reinforce colonialist lenses on the Middle East or privilege some attacks over others.

Arundhati Roy’s comments on the Delhi rape case – that it was an unexceptional (as in, tragically commonplace) event treated as uncommon because the victim of the attack was middle-class – was condemned by some who had protested in Delhi, who insisted that it was a human sympathetic  response to the brutality of the attack, not the socio-economic status of the victim, that ignited such outrage.  In another case of the media picking up on the narrative of gender violence, the Italian media coverage of ‘femicide’ – the murder of women usually by former husbands or boyfriends – in light of growing violence against women in Italy, has often emphasised that this violence occurs in all socio-economic strata.  Nonetheless, these events and ‘stories’ become totemic, buzzwords, hot-topics of the week – the chasm between the media reportage and the aim to prevent such violence yawns wide.

Moving beyond the headlines and into the reality of what gender violence is and how it can be addressed in daily life is crucial.  With the next UN session for the Commission on the Status of Women coming up next month, where the topic is ‘Ending Violence Against Women and Girls’, the gulfs between NGO-speak, media commentary and lived realities remain evident, that discordance in tone and texture between the lacquered language of women’s rights campaigns and the bruises, hospital visits and anguish of gender violence in un-photoshopped life.  The relative weakness of international legal mechanisms on gender violence compared to other global crises is already an obstacle; it faces the further problem that this is the type of violence defended in the name of various excuses, notably ‘culture’.  Media coverage of gender violence reinforces this when it is limited to celebrities, lurid cases reported for sensationalism, and the occasional ‘event’ like One Billion Rising.

In the hope of bridging this gulf between the problematic media depiction evident in the Steenkamp case and the aim of genuinely addressing gender violence, perhaps the most interesting global media stories in recent weeks have not been about incidents, or ‘phenomena’ such as ‘sexual assaults in Tahrir Square’ or ‘femicide in Italy’, but about space.  That space is gendered sounds like obscure post-modernism, but two recent mainstream media stories have linked gender violence and public space, sidestepping the usual press coverage of graphic (and perhaps problematically commodified) depictions of assaults and shorthand, broad-brush stroked ‘phenomena’.  The first is the coverage of Harassmap, the Egyptian social initiative that uses text messages and social media to map and therefore warn against sexual assault in urban areas, a tool which has gained coverage in both Egyptian and international media.  The second story has been the media coverage of the ActionAid report released this week that poor urban services increase the risk of violence against women.  The report, based on a study of six cities, outlined how poor infrastructure from street lighting to sanitation leaves women almost universally in a state of perpetual precarity, facing constant harassment, intimidation and violence.

The two stories are significant in how – without using the word – they highlight the nature of patriarchy to the reader: the structural, spatial and daily experience of gender violence, which the ActionAid article highlights and HarassMap attempts to resist through its work.  While it may be more ‘abstract’ than a tabloid description of a violent assault on a woman, it touches on a wider reality – how gender violence is built into our lives.   After all the tabloid sensationalism, it’s time the media made the structure the headline, and the headline is ‘patriarchy’.

This article was published in March, and is republished here as part of 50.50's series during 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 

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