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American Horror Story: Oscar Pistorius and Misogynist Myth-Making | The Nation

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Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti

Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.

American Horror Story: Oscar Pistorius and Misogynist Myth-Making


Oscar Pistorius is led from the Boschkop police station east of Pretoria en route to court for his bail hearing as a suspect in the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. (AP Photo)

Here we go again. Another woman shot dead by her partner, another round of media coverage fawning over the killer. Just over two months ago, it was Jovan Belcher—he was called a “family man” after shooting and killing Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and mother of his newborn daughter. Today its South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, who has been charged with the murder of his 29-year-old girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Just one day after shooting Steenkamp four times, Pistorius has been called “calm and positive” and “inspirational.” (Steenkamp? She’s been called “a leggy blonde.”)

One reporter at The New York Times who spent a week with the double-amputee athlete, wrote that Pistorius was “not as cautious as he always should be…but I didn’t see anger in him.” The headline is “The Adrenaline-Fueled Life of Oscar Pistorius.” He was just an impulsive guy!

Give me a break.

Early media reports speculated that Pistorius shot Steenkamp mistakenly, believing she was a burglar. But prosecutors don't share that view. After all, the police had been called to his home multiple times in the past for domestic altercations. We’ve seen this happen before—many, many times before—yet still we insist on lying to ourselves. This murder may have happened in South Africa, but the misogynist response to the crime has become a familiar theme here in the United States.

The national conversation around domestic violence murders is not a discourse as much as it is a fairy tale—a narrative we create to make sense of the madness. After all, it’s more comforting to believe that Belcher had brain damage than it is to admit that someone people so admired was a controlling, violent abuser. It’s easier to think that Pistorius accidentally shot Steenkamp than realize the murder is a foreseeable end to a violent relationship.

It’s why we blame dead women for the unthinkable violence done against them—mostly because of misogyny, but also because it provides a false sense of safety. In the days after her murder, Perkins was criticized for staying out late (the nerve!), accused of trying to leave him and “take his money.” Given the sexualized descriptions of Steenkamp, I’m sure it won’t be long before someone suggests she somehow brought this on herself—she was making him jealous or flirted too much. We need to believe that these women did something to cause the violence, because then it means the same thing would never happen to us. (We’re not like “those girls!”)

Our culture is so attached to this myth making that some are willing to forgo all logic and ignore all facts. In the wake of Perkins’ murder, and now after Steenkamp’s, conservatives and gun enthusiasts insist that if these women were armed, they would still be alive. Never mind that both women lived in a house where guns were available, and yet they still died.

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When I was a volunteer emergency room advocate for victims of rape and domestic violence, the first question we were trained to ask women who had been abused by their partners was whether or not there was a gun in the home. Because we knew that women whose partners had access to a gun were seven times more likely to be killed. In fact, women who are killed by their partners are more likely to be murdered by a gun than all other means combined.

Despite this tower of evidence, people will continue to insist that these women could have somehow stopped the violence. (Inaccuracies aside, the idea that women have a responsibility to keep someone from killing them rather than an abuser not to commit murder is baffling.)

The more we tell ourselves and others these lies, the more cover we give to those would do violence against women. We create a narrative where victims are to blame and abusers heroized. And perhaps worst of all, we create a culture where we fool ourselves into thinking these murders are something that just happens—unforeseeable tragedies rather than preventable violence.

The reality of domestic violence murders is stark and scary—but it is still the reality. And no amount of story-telling will stop the killings. Only the truth can do that.

A global movement to end violence against women, One Billion Rising, is taking off. Read Laura Flanders’s primer

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Pistorius claimed he had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar. In fact, early media reports speculated that, not Pistorius himself. The story has been corrected. 

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