This article was first published in the small student-led journal Sociological Imagination in 2013 during my time as the Ethel Louise Armstrong Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. I’m republishing it here on my own blog – almost seven years later and in its original form – in response to the BBC’s televising of The Trials of Oscar Pistorius (2020). The docuseries made headlines before even being televised through failing to even name Pistorius’ victim, Reeva Steenkamp, in its ill-fated trailer. Although written some time ago, the analysis below explores the complex intersections of disability, race, gender, colonialism, and class as they materialise in Pistorius’ violence and Steenkamp’s untimely death.
Reeva Steenkamp was a South African model. She grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and began modelling at 14 after she was “spotted” while out shopping. Steenkamp, a law graduate, advocated on “women’s issues” such as rape and violence, as well as bullying. Her Twitter feed shows that she loved popcorn, chocolate mousse and smoothies; and, of course, her family and friends. The Thursday after she died Steenkamp had been scheduled to speak to students in Johannesburg about empowerment. She died on Valentine’s Day 2013 aged 30 at the hands of her partner, Para/Olympic runner Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius.
I anthropomorphize Steenkamp deliberately here, to counter her secondary place in the story of her own death. Despite the fact that she was the one that lost her life, she is not the core of the story; it’s not even her story. The narrative unfolding in the media coverage, perhaps not unexpectedly, is hollow: beautiful young people; a once golden “celeb” couple; glitz, glamour and wealth; a (fallen) sporting hero; and a grisly televised ‘CSI style’ (CNN, 2014) trial with the ‘makings of a riveting movie script’ (Daily Mirror, 14th March 2014), which is sating its audiences since ‘that sensational arrest’ (Daily Mail, 14th February 2013; emphasis added). Typically, Steenkamp has been sexualised in her death, with “racy” modelling photos routinely accompanying related news stories: ‘Reeva …the last pictures of Bladerunner’s girlfriend, days before he shot her’ (The Sun, 25th April 2013). Not allowed to rest in peace, Steenkamp’s embodiment of youth, womanhood, and beauty is rabidly consumed and regurgitated by misogynist newspapers for (amoral) profit in the form of the tantalising but typical ‘never-before-seen pictures’.
In this article, I ask some critical questions about the crime (of whichever nature it is deemed to be); the trial; the wider narrative and its main characters. I suggest that two central characters around which this tragic story revolves are cultural productions: the Supercrip and the imagined (Black) intruder (Orford 2014). Writing from a critical disability studies and feminist perspective, I trace the complex intersections of disability, race, gender, colonialism, and class as they materialise in this case. Throughout the article, I purposefully keep Steenkamp in view as I question the (extra)ordinariness of her death. Quite simply, I conclude by offering an answer to this question.
The “Blade Runner”: A Cultural Production
Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius was, prior to his arrest for murder in early 2013, readily hailed as both an ableist symbol of overcoming and beacon of exceptional hyper-masculine embodiment. Having been born without fibulas and having both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old, Pistorius made history by becoming the only athlete to ever compete in both the Paralympics and Olympics; a notion of overcoming officially sanctioned, then, by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and International Association of Athletics, and celebrated by global media. Not only do his hegemonic masculine heterosexual materiality and extraordinary sporting achievements contradict common understandings of disabled masculinities as asexual, partial, fractured, and lacking masculine power and privilege (Gerschick, 1995; Shakespeare, 1999), but, as a man of remarkable aesthetic beauty, his image has been eagerly commodified through corporate sponsorship and advertising, alongside that of his non-disabled sporting peers. Thus, Pistorius embodies and affirms our dis/ableist culture’s unequivocal propagation of ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’ (McRuer, 2006: 2): an overarching, all-consuming dis/ableist ideology (intertwined with compulsory heterosexuality) which positions bodily normalcy as the exemplary human embodiment. Compulsory able-bodiedness ensures that the absence of normative embodiment be unquestionably endeavoured, regardless of human, economic, cultural and societal cost – hence the routine pathologisation, medicalisation and psychologisation of disabled people’s selves, bodies, and minds.
Moreover, Pistorius’ will, self-discipline, and achievement realise the dehumanising dis/ableist ideal of the ‘supercrip’ – a popular depiction of disability ‘where the disabled person is assigned super human, almost magical, abilities’ (Barnes, 1992: 10; Crow, 2000). Rooted in neoliberal and capitalist ideologies, the ‘supercrip’ valorises individual effort, human resolve, self-control, competition, and success, only celebrating disability and impairment which can be normalized through exceptionalism. Crucially, the supercrip is a discursive construction of disability against which all disabled people are implicitly and explicitly measured, classified, marked, and Othered. This is, in essence, its inherent danger for disabled people. However, the ways in which it defines disability only as bodily, simultaneously masking the environmental, economic, structural, cultural, and political causes, consequences and productions of both disability and impairment make it a construction of disability which is, by all accounts, precarious.
Further, Pistorius’ use of Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetic limbs also offers our ableist cultural imaginary the possibility that we ‘could reconstitute our bodies, both as mechanical and organic’ (Meekosha and Shuttleworth, 2009: 60). His prosthetics are imagined to represent sleek military hardware; which may be rooted in the fact that much of prosthetic technology has emerged from military culture and research (for newly-amputee veterans) (Ott 2005). Thus Pistorius is hybridized, a mix of flesh and machine (see Haraway 1991), or posthuman (Braidotti 2013). Such a hybridized body – a real life “bionic man” – fulfils both our cultural thirst for weird, wondrous, and freaky bodies that can be unveiled, exhibited, examined and our fixation with scientific and medical advancement and their possibilities for the human body. Through a dis/ablest gaze Pistorius has been (re)produced as both a spectacle and an embodiment of freakery all at once (Clare 1999). Where for other disabled people this objectifying fetishisation likely induces feelings of shame, in Pistorius’ case he is revered because of the ways in which his (freaky) body is thought to “transcend” disability (Camporesi 2008). As Time stated when it voted him one of 100 most influential and heroic people of 2008: Pistorius is ‘‘on the cusp of a paradigm shift in which disability becomes ability, disadvantage becomes advantage’’. Thus, Pistorius’ freakdom is sanctioned and celebrated in dis/ableist cultures only because it disassociates him from dominant meanings of disability and impairment.
The (imagined) Intruder: Another Cultural Production
One can’t ignore the racial, colonial, gendered, classed and disability contexts in which Steenkamp’s tragic death is situated, nor their intricate intersections. A white Afrikaner’s only rationalisation for shooting his girlfriend through a locked door is that he thought she was an intruder. Such a defence is steeped in a prominent history of racial and colonial violence and is a product of a racist and neo-colonial contemporary South Africa. As South African novelist Margie Orford (2014) has commented, the third person – the (imagined) intruder – has silently been cast by Pistorius’ defence team as a Black man. Such assumptions rest firmly on historical tropes of the indigenous Black man as savage, violent, and criminal and the white settler as productive (thus wealthy), civilised and heroic (a heroism exacerbated by disability in this case). Tellingly, high-security gated housing developments are common in South Africa as the corporations that produce them deal in a politics of (racist) fear; as much providing separation as security. The swart gevaar (Afrikaans for Black threat) continues despite the fact the official apartheid ended long ago. Swartz (2013) argues that the swart gevaar is intensified by unfounded beliefs that the (majority Black) African National Congress (ANC) government is fuelling violence against White people. Despite South Africa’s readily identified “trigger happy” culture where the majority carry or own guns, and where research shows Black people are more likely to be victims of violent crime than White people (see Swartz 2013), it is only the Black indigenous figure that is both dangerous and a threat. But, as Pistorius’ defence is arguing, it’s important to situate this fear in the context of disability and bodily impairment: the notion that Pistorius was more fearful because he (allegedly) wasn’t wearing his prosthetics at the time (although this is, in reality, impossible to determine). The implicit and explicit swart gevaar carefully weaved into Pistorius’ defence is made all the more precarious (for him) because, in a court system with no jury, his fate rests upon the judgement of Judge Thokozile Masipa, a Black woman. While this has been said to be symbolically positive for black power in South Africa (the Black woman determining the destiny of the White man), this power is somewhat mitigated by the trial being conducted in English (despite the fact that English is not the first language of any of the key experts or witnesses), without even the question of which language needing to be asked (e.g. Arikaan or English) (Groots, Daily Maverick, 17th March 2014).
An (Extra)Ordinary Death
Thus, both the defence and the prosecution are peddling for Steenkamp’s death not to be ‘just another South African femicide’ (Orford 2014). Rather, during the trial her death is being carefully assembled as the exception: a tragic freak accidental shooting in an otherwise non-violent loving relationship; or a calculated and callous “crime of passion” (a misogynistic construction of violence against women if ever there was one). But the story that gets lost in all the inane drama is, actually, the mundanity of Steenkamp’s death; the fact that her death isn’t particularly exceptional, but one of thousands. The cultural violence of South Africa combined with a strong patriarchal context ensures that intimate partner violence and its most extreme consequence, femicide, is prevalent. In longitudinal research over 10 years, Abrahams et al (2012) found that despite significant government intervention and national efforts to prevent gender-based violence, there was only a reduction in female homicide which was consistent with a decline in overall homicides in South Africa. Abrahams et al (2012) found less decline among intimate femicides (where a woman has been killed by her intimate partner) leaving intimate partner violence as the leading cause of death of women homicide victims, with 56% of female homicides being committed by an intimate partner. While consideration of this violent culture is important, explaining Pistorius’ crime only in the context of South African violence has been argued to be yet another way of removing responsibility, denying his agency, and restoring his reputation (Ndopu 2013). It also problematises South African cultures in ways that mask the fact that misogyny and violence are global problems as well as socially, economically, and politically entrenched ones.
The disabled violent man, however, is a relatively unfamiliar notion. While disability and evilness, criminality, and monstrousness are synonymous in television, film and literary portrayals of disability – or as Longmore (2003: 133) states ‘deformity of body symbolizes deformity of soul’ – the combination of disability and violence in the minds of most extends only to the abuse and exploitation of, and violence inflicted towards, a disabled victim. This victim usually has physical, sensory, and/or cognitive impairment; the exception being those deemed mentally ill, who are habitually thought to be (potentially) violent and dangerous. Further, the culturally desexualised minds and bodies of disabled people ensure that intimate partner violence is seldom considered as a factor in disabled people’s lives (Thiara 2011; Liddiard 2013) – an assumption that has been particularly dangerous for disabled women (Liddiard 2012). But the disabled male (regardless of impairment, sexuality, age or class) is (re)produced in a peculiar dis/ableist binary: weak, dependent, non-violent, and safe; and yet bitter, caustic, revengeful and angry (anger positioned as emerging from an assumed resentment of disability). In Pistorius’ case, his well-constructed overcoming and becoming (from impairment to sporting hero) and struggle against (assumed) adversity affirms him as of an inherently good character.
To counter this powerful narrative of disabled people as saintly, the prosecution are purposefully casting Pistorius as reckless, immature, and treacherously uncurbed; a lover of fast cars, guns and beautiful women. But in court, Pistorius’ behaviour is carefully refuting this role: he whimpers, he places his head in hands, he wretches, and he vomits. These actions, which have been markedly amplified in media reporting of the trial, suggest that he is a devastated man who made a costly mistake – for which we must remember that Steenkamp has paid the ultimate price. Such actions whether real, performed, or both, give Pistorius a humility and gentility. In contrast, in ways typical for women when they are victims of violent crimes, Steenkamp has almost completely been written out in court – reduced to a mere corpse around which myriad events has unfolded. Where she is actively written in is via some particularly deplorable media spaces which have routinely interrogated of her moral (and sexual) character. Did she meet with her ex two days before she was killed? Was she making Pistorius jealous by flirting with his close friend, rugby player Francois Hougaard? Was she really the ‘other woman’ with whom Pistorius cheated on his ex-partner? Was she really pregnant with someone else’s child at the time of her death? (Perezhilton.com 2013). Each of these questions are asked in ways which suggest that their answer makes any difference at all, or somehow serve rationalise Pistorius’ violent actions and therefore justify Steenkamp’s untimely death.
The Reappearance of Disability and Impairment: The Court Room
Returning to the media’s fixation with Pistorius’ embodied experiences in court, it is important to consider the meaning of such a preoccupation. Swartz (2013) and other commentators have suggested that, ‘a noteworthy feature of the coverage of the shooting in South African media has been the relative lack of attention to issues of disability’. In dis/ableist cultures where disabled people are customarily ascribed a one-dimensional identity (whereby disability subsumes all other identity markers) and the fact that so much of the Pistorius brand has been about (overcoming) disability, this is curious to say the least. But I suggest that disability – or rather, impairment – is visible. The trial has brought the everyday realities of Pistorius’ impairment into view for the first time. For example, much of the case hangs on the details of whether Pistorius felt more fearful of the imagined intruder because he wasn’t wearing his prosthetics, and how this relates to whether or not he was wearing his prosthetics at the time of both shooting Steenkamp through the door and then beating it open with a cricket bat to save her (as he maintains). Considering that Pistorius’ own lived embodiment incorporates militarily-created technology, one might think of Pistorius as quite literally unarmed without his prosthetics on; hence his need/desire to use a real life weapon. Further, we are witnessing an increasingly sickly, ailing body and broken mind in Pistorius as the trial continues. Pistorius’ post-human masculine self is being presented ultimately, as human, emphasised in the ways in which it is experiencing trauma. While this corporeal expression of trauma isn’t impairment in the strictest sense, its presence certainly disrupts common depictions of Pistorius as both superhuman and infallible. Rather, a new vulnerable, fragile and breakable Pistorius is emerging.
Another locale in which disability is reappearing is in the form of the dis/ableism found in much of the media coverage. For example, some media commentators have relied heavily on common disability tropes of the embittered, maladjusted cripple for most of their analysis – the assumption that, as Longmore (2003: 139) states, ‘disability is primarily a problem of emotional coping, or personal acceptance’. Lisa Vetten of the WITS Institute for Social and Economic Research has notoriously commented: “disabled men and women often struggle with their sense of masculinity or femininity because they are to some degree dependent”. As a disabled person, I wonder how Vetten knows this; or whether she realises it, at best, homogenises disabled people, and at worse, seemingly constructs a dangerous disabled psyche whereby disability – a form of social, economic, political and cultural oppression – is reduced to the level of the individual. Also present (though far less common), has been the equally lazy “he hasn’t got a leg to stand on it court” or “he’s shot himself in the foot there” (BBC News 18/3/2014) type humour from particular corners of the press: the notion that the cultural project of removing or rejecting the (disabled) poster child needs (and avows) raging dis/ableist discrimination and prejudice in the form of mocking a person’s impairment.
Also routine, are the ways in which his violent actions have been positioned as the sum of his disability status. For Pistorius, whose overcoming and casting away of disability is central to his fame, it’s intriguing to see how quickly disability gets drawn back in; how quickly the Supercrip image crumbles once the disabled person becomes deemed unworthy. This reveals the danger of the supercrip not only for the majority of disabled people, but also the supercrip themselves. Its speedy seizure by dis/ableist cultures exposes less how the supercrip is a true celebration of will and achievement, but more a means through which to make disability socially acceptable and palatable for non-disabled publics. Thus, if the supercrip cannot uphold their super-humanness, they succumb and are returned to connotations of monstrousness and experience social death (Longmore 2003; Hevey 1992).
I’m left wondering how to conclude this article. Of course, it inevitably brings about no change to any of the events it has made its subject. My hope is that I have not replicated the spectacle, the drama, or the sensation of Pistorius, Reeva, and the trial, but exposed the banality and triteness of gender-based violence, and the dis/ableism, racism and colonialism, gender inequality, and class which have both produced and contoured it in this case. Despite its sensationalist narrative, and the relative privilege Reeva Steenkamp had as an educated wealthy White woman in a South African context, her death is painfully and tragically ordinary. In South Africa, every one to two women killed are killed by her partner (Abrahams et al 2012), making intimate femicide a routine danger in the lives of South African women – the likelihood of which is increased by race and poverty, and I would add, disability (because this is so often omitted when we talk about multiple forms of gender-based violence) (Thiara 2011). However, it’s important not to reify this social problem as inherent only to a South African context any more than as a consequence of a “damaged” disabled masculinity. Violence against women is a global problem, as is intimate femicide (ACUNS 2013). This, for me, is the real story. Let’s hope Steenkamp’s death shines a light to this, too. It appears there only one thing left to say: Rest in Peace, Reeva.
I would like to thank Dr. Esther Ignagni, School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University and Dr. Jeff Preston, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Western University, Ontario, for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.
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