Pistorius and Holy Cows

This week two controversial pieces of writing caught my eye, and then stayed in my mind because, despite inhabiting different ends of the publicity spectrum (one being local and domestic, the other international and celebrity-driven), they actually had a lot of common ground. In certain respects the second of these two articles almost perfectly answered the question posed by the first. The first article was in the Birmingham Mail, it was written by Maureen Messent and it was entitled ‘Our ‘holy cows’ are own worst enemies’. The second article was in the Guardian, it was written by David Smith and was entitled ‘Oscar Pistorius’s emotional apology to Reeva Steenkamp’s unmoved mother’.

The Birmingham Mail piece was the most unapologetic piece of victim-blaming that I have read in a long time, based on the premise that women who are victims of domestic violence ‘allow themselves to be used as punchbags’ and are ultimately responsible for their own fates. Even the ones who have died as a result of domestic assault are not let off the hook, as we are ‘never told how many of the dead refused police advice to leave their attackers once and for all’. It might seem extreme to blame a murder victim for their own fate, but it is a surprisingly common reaction to domestic abuse: ‘Why didn’t she just leave him?’ There are many reasons of course, and most of them are practical and physical, like how to escape, how to look after any children involved, where to go, how to survive financially and how to stop him following you. Women who report violent partners only do so after an average of thirty five assaults. Most deaths from domestic assaults occur during or after the act of leaving.

However, before you even get to the practical difficulties, you have the emotional and psychological barriers to surmount, and these can be just as difficult as the physical ones, if not more so. Perpetrators of domestic violence usually have form: violent men are often controlling men, and will have displayed traits such as anger, jealousy and manipulative behaviour even before the first physical assault. Then, after the assault there will often be remorse and regret, declarations of love and promises not to do it again. This is a common pattern, and the reason it is so difficult to disentangle yourself from these abusers, is that they are emotionally believable; and who doesn’t want to believe they are loved rather than hated? Manipulative behaviour is just that: it manipulates. It makes you believe that remorse is genuine, it makes you believe you have a relationship worth fighting for, it can even make you believe the perpetrator deserves sympathy. And if somebody can evoke your sympathy they also by default evoke your guilt: how could you have been so over-sensitive/lacking in understanding/mistrustful/demanding/selfish (delete where not applicable) as to believe he really meant you harm? He REALLY didn’t mean it! Enough treatment like this (and it usually is repeated) leaves the victim with a lack of trust in her own perceptions and a corresponding lack of confidence in her own feelings and her own agency.

This is where the Oscar Pistorius article comes in. This is a man who has killed his girlfriend: that is an indisputable fact. His trial is attempting to determine the extent of his culpability: whether it was murder or an accident; but the identity of the victim is clear: it is Reeva Steenkamp, and by extension her family: her mother. So why, in this Guardian article, does the victim appear to be Oscar Pistorius? The emotive language used is one factor. The reporter says that Pistorius’s voice ‘quivered, cracked and trailed off…’ the voice is described as ‘tremulous, almost boyish’ and he is said to be ‘fighting back tears, jaw trembling and tissue in hand’. There is obviously a degree of sympathy in this choice of language, sympathy which is not shown to the ‘impassive’ mother of the victim. She is portrayed as emotionless, ‘unmoved’; there is no flowery language used to describe her grief: all the creative language is reserved for him. The reporter shows himself to be fully immersed in the drama of Oscar Pistorius, you might almost say identified with him: seeing things from his point of view. The BBC’s reporter, Andrew Harding, on the News at Ten, was similarly overwhelmed by this man’s tragedy, telling us that, whatever we thought about the emoting of Pistorius in court, it would be difficult for anyone to say this was ‘playacting’.

Well, I’m sorry, but I thought it was playacting.

And here’s the answer to Maureen Messent in the Birmingham Mail: a big reason women don’t leave abusive partners is because EVERYONE believes in their partner’s playacting. Friends, family and strangers see the side which is projected, and the victim is often the only one who sees the other side. If women are to be seen as weak, and culpable in their own abuse for not leaving, then you should look at the effect Oscar Pistorius has had on two men: David Smith and Andrew Harding. These journalists, who are not dependent on Pistorius for anything: housing, financial support or childcare, and have not invested their future in him or have a sometimes-loving relationship with him, are still reluctant to see any blame in him, or to call him out for what he is.  They believe in him. If they can be so gullible and easily seduced by this over-emoting in a man who, let’s not forget, has KILLED HIS GIRLFRIEND, then what chance does a woman stand, within a relationship, with all its complications, when faced with the same kind of emotional manipulation?

For all those people who, when hearing of another death through domestic violence, have the knee jerk reaction of ‘Why didn’t she just leave him?’ I urge you to look at the reporting of the Oscar Pistorius trial. The answer to your question is being played out in the Pretoria courthouse in South Africa right now, in the full glare of the spotlight, for everyone to see.

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10 thoughts on “Pistorius and Holy Cows

  1. ybawife April 11, 2014 / 7:17 pm

    This whole trial is a charade all about him and his suffering and his remorse and his deluded play acting that us grasped at by male reporters who use not a shred of analysis or refer to the fact that this vile mans version is alleged not fact . The person who knows the truth Reeva is silenced and not a single word is mentioned about that fact! Because if this this poor excuse for a male can say what ever he likes to get his sorry ass off the hook.
    Not an ounce of compassion has been shown to her distraught family but we have been invited to look at the offenders family and observe their shock and horror at what he is being asked to relate in evidence.
    Reeva’s family are brave womon sitting there listening and seeing what was done to their beloved daughter while the killer gets to manipulate and control the courtroom with his false claims and hysteria.
    If justice means anything in South Africa , known as the domestic violence and rape capital of the world, Reeva and her family will GET justice out of this appalling display of male hegemony.

  2. Samantha April 11, 2014 / 11:32 pm

    It is very easy to act as judge over Oscar Pistorius, everyone spouts off there opinions that he must be a murder as if they were flies on the wall.
    The whole thing is tragic, a woman lost her life that is the bottom line, does not mean it was murder. It’s wrong to judge his emotions as play acting like he’s not supposed to be emotional?
    The court judge will be the one to determine his fate.
    He has to live with this for the rest of his life, it’s not a good life to have in itself.

    • Helen Dewdney (@ComplainingCow) April 13, 2014 / 8:17 pm

      The author didn’t say he “was play acting” she gave her opinion that is all. I quote “I… but I thought it was playacting”. You appear to have missed all the points of her post, all of which are valid. Take out Pistorius as an individual in the piece and focus only on the reporting which the author of this post discusses, those are the points. If you think the author shouldn’t be writing her opinion at least she has the good grace to say it was what she thinks about his behaviour in court. The journalists reporting are also not objective but it is far more dangerous what they are doing because of the language they are using which shows what they believe. That is not objective reporting. It is subjective, emotive at best and at worst suggestive and subliminal like advertising. A blog post gives opinion a piece of “news” should not. I believe that is what this piece is about and explains that quite adequately.

      • Samantha April 14, 2014 / 12:56 pm

        So the author didn’t say he was play acting ? but clearly said “well, I’m sorry, but I thought it was playacting”. Makes no sense.
        Journalists say what they see, Oscar is cut up and emotional, mrs steenkamp is holding her own. That is what is seen so that is what’s reported. The author of this piece relating to Oscar is not at all objective past line 4, instead it is yet another attack on how false he is, and “over emoting” and not only that ,she seems to in a response suggest as if the relationship was an abusive one and Oscar is some kind of award winning manipulater.
        The author is also, wrongly, “suggestive” that his case is a result of ongoing domestic violence.
        How is this tragedy in any way a case of domestic abuse, either physical or emotional?

    • sotoadmin May 19, 2014 / 11:26 pm

      There was a murder. The second, third and fourth bullets make it a murder. Whether he thought he was shooting Ms Steenkamp, or a burglar, that was a deliberate and unnecessary killing.

    • mottyl July 4, 2015 / 10:32 pm

      I have a lifetime of experience with abusive men. My father was and is an abusive man and so have been many of the men I’ve grown up with and the men I’ve dated. What I do know is this, as women we are conditioned to care more about others than for ourselves. This is one of the unseen reasons that women relentlessly forgive abusive behavior in men, we forgive because we don’t wish to see the other person feeling hurt. We do this as individual women as well as a society and it is readily supported by chauvinistic society. We also are conditioned not to undermine men’s sense of manhood or be too harsh towards the male ego. This means that individual women as well as society, subconsciously refrains from pulling the rug out from under the male ego when it is abusive by pointing out how pathetic that behavior is. In effect, we feel sorry for the fragile male ego and hesitate to shatter it. This too, is supported and allowed to slide by. The truth is, all men are chauvinistic and therefore, on some level, abusive towards women. This means, that on some level, all men, therefore all of society, supports abusive behavior towards women, rather than own up to the shame underneath the fragile and overglorified male ego. Feeling sympathy for abusive behavior in men is a promoted behavior, a supported behavior, and women’s conditioning to care more for others than themselves, is violently exploited in the name of it.

  3. tinylittlehippo April 12, 2014 / 10:08 am

    Reblogged this on kisses in the clouds and commented:
    This doesn’t quite cover my relationship – although I was physically abused, I was never “beaten” – but a lot of the section about why women struggle to leave was very true to me.

  4. J.J. April 12, 2014 / 5:23 pm

    You are too focused on the male reporters here, so maybe your vision is flawed. Follow the doyenne of S.A.reporters Debora Patta (also on Channel 4 News among others) ‘No fear no favour’ her twitter announces,and she has been fierce in her reports re O.P. And to my mind unmissable…..

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