Oscar Pistorius is a Murderer, Not a Tragic Hero
But that’s how he’s portrayed in a BBC trailer.
The BBC Press Office tweeted Tuesday afternoon (27th October) a trailer for a documentary, The Trials of Oscar Pistorius. That title by itself suggests to me that it may not be an unbiased account of the life and crimes of the notorious athlete-turned-killer. But, hoooooo boy, wait until you see the trailer. And the webpage.
The tweet was deleted, and the BBC withdrew the trailer, while insisting that the series is more complex than portrayed within these two minutes of film. And I damn well hope so. But those hopes aren’t particularly high, given what I’ve seen and read so far.
If it is a very different portrayal in the actual series, then either the film-makers knew the trailer was misleading but went with it anyway (casually erasing a murder victim and deifying the murderer, for cheap clicks), or they didn’t see the trailer before it went to air. Or it might just be that the whole thing is a load of biased trash. British viewers get to find out on 7th November! Yay!
But it can’t be that bad, can it? Alas, yes it can, and it is. Let’s start with the tweet:
As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to screenshot it — because there was no way that tweet wasn’t getting deleted. The red smear on Pistorius’s (theatrically sad) face is from my clumsiness in my phone’s photo editor, and I can’t retake it because the tweet was rightfully taken down. By the way, did you know that October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month?
Pretty much every comment underneath was asking where Reeva Steenkamp’s name was in all this, and the answer (spoilers!) is nowhere at all. She appears for about 1 second in total amongst the tale of poor Oscar’s tough childhood and his rise to stardom. She’s not even a plot device. And just to underscore that, take a look at the top Google search result for “the trials of oscar pistorius”:
The metadata reads:
“The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius tells the story of the ‘Blade Runner’ — an international hero who inspired millions with his determination and dedication until Valentine’s Day 2013, when he suddenly found himself at the centre of a murder investigation.”
Wow, he “suddenly found himself at the centre of a murder investigation”. This determined and dedicated international hero must have just fallen out of the sky and landed there; what other explanation could there possibly be? Sounds like a terrible tragedy, the poor guy, right? And on Valentine’s Day, too — how romantic.
Kate Manne coined the term ‘himpathy’ to mean “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior.” And I couldn’t think of a better description of whatever the hell this abomination is.
Apparently it’s a remarkable and complex story, but guess what? All murderers have lives outside of the murder-sphere. Some have done extraordinary things with their lives, some of them even legal. And you know what else? Plenty of them had a difficult, even complex, life as well. But we don’t have to throw them a fucking parade to sanitise their public image.
And yet, when the victim is a woman, and the perpetrator is a powerful man, that’s exactly what we do. Whether we intend to or not, we mitigate the seriousness of their crimes by running off a list of all their achievements and the promising future they would have had if only they’d not b̶e̶e̶n̶ ̶c̶a̶u̶g̶h̶t̶ committed a horrific crime.
The BBC updated the copy on the series webpage to read:
“The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius tells the story of the ‘Blade Runner’ — who went from being an international hero, who inspired millions with his determination and dedication, to being charged with murder when he killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013.”
That’s right, BBC, he killed his girlfriend. At least the BBC managed to uphold its standards of impartiality and truth-telling in the end, I guess.
The original trailer is still available at the time of writing (didn’t anyone tell the BBC’s Press Office that the internet is forever?), although not hosted by the BBC — which does mean that those outside of the UK should be able to see it:
The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius - trailer
The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius tells the story of the 'Blade Runner' - an international hero who inspired millions with…
Unfortunately I expect the BBC to undergo a damage-limitation exercise to purge all traces of it from the web, so I have transcribed and described the two-minute trailer below (I told you, the internet is permanent). I don’t know the identities of most of the people in the video, so I’ve just described them as I could see and hear them.
Scene descriptions are in italics, my observations are in bold text.
The video opens with a press shot of Pistorius’s face with his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, next to him, but mostly obscured from view. Hmmm, seems there’s some sort of parallel can be drawn here.
(Woman’s voice) “He is where he is through his own actions.”
[Scene cuts to Pistorius on a running track, then an image of him looking wistful in training gear.] Complex.
“And whilst he may have been a remarkable human being, later on in life I think it all caught up with him.” What? He overcame adversity, so that’s an explanation/excuse for domestic violence and murder? I’m sure I’ve heard this trope, oh, a billion times before.
[Video clip of athletics event]
(Male sports commentator) “Oscar Pistorius is really flying here. It’s going to be very quick!”
[childhood home video] Heartwarming stuff. Look at ickle Oscar!
(Woman’s voice) “There were some doctors who said that Oscar would never walk.”
[More training, and a vintage bit of film from when Pistorius was a young athlete] Wow, he sure has worked hard to get to where he did. Bloke sounds like a total legend.
(Male sports commentator) “The remarkable figure of Oscar Pistorius of South Africa.” Remarkable!
[Series of stills of Pistorius claiming glory]
(Man’s voice) “His breakthrough was our breakthrough, he was our international icon.”
[Clips of him smiling and shaking hands, kissing an old lady (his mum? I dunno), and with his arm around Nelson Mandela] Wow, this guy is practically Mother Theresa! (although she wasn’t as saintly as she’s portrayed, either).
(Sports commentator Clare Balding) “And to top all that talent, he’s a really nice guy too.” Such a nice guy that he murdered his partner.
[Cuts to slow-motion footage of athletes running on a track (legs and feet only)]
(Male voice) “He was going to be on the same track as able-bodied athletes.” Overcoming adversity, etc, etc.
(American Male voice) “He achieved that impossible dream.” Aspirational stuff!
[Footage of Pistorius celebrating after a race, cuts to black screen with eerie bad-stuff-on-the-way noise]
(Female newsreader, merging into the voice of possibly a witness) “And recapping on that, our breaking news story, that Oscar Pistorius has killed his girlfriend, he thought she was a burglar”
[Aerial footage of Cape Town, police helicopter]
(Male voice) “And he kept saying, I didn’t mean to do that, I didn’t mean to do it.” Oh, maybe we should just give him the benefit of the doubt.
[Sad-looking still of Pistorius] Awwwwwwwwwwww the feels!
(Male voice) “Everyone has an image of Oscar Pistorius, this athlete, taking gold at the Paralympics. And then we’ve got this view of this quite pathetic, sobbing person.” Not sure we’re learning anything new here, but hey.
[Track images contrasted with Pistorius crying in court] Here comes the Himpathy Card.
(Male voice) “It becomes more and more real that, that’s probably it for him.” Yes, this is what happens when you commit murder. You don’t get brownie points for running prowess. Although you’d think otherwise from what you see in the media.
(Female voice) “Why would a man kill a woman that he loves?” Power and control, usually.
[Images of press photographers, Pistorius on the front page, a photo of him and Steenkamp, CCTV images of Pistorius, a newspaper stand reading ‘golden boy loses shine’] Golden boy loses shine — is that all?
“Oscar became a symbol for a lot that’s wrong in South Africa.” Genuinely not sure about this bit.
[Video and audio of a women’s rights protest] Finally, 0.75 seconds of balance.
(Black woman, on-screen) “He absolutely, positively knew she was in the bathroom.”
(White woman, on-screen) “I have always believed it was an accident.” Oh, this is going to be up for debate, is it? Good-o.
[Images of newspaper front pages, Pistorius entering courtroom, followed by press]
(Male voice) Thrown to the wolves, everybody wants a piece. If by ‘wolves’ you mean ‘a jury of his peers’, then this stands up. And why shouldn’t the papers write about a court case with international interest? Maybe this is something for world-class athletes to ponder if they feel like doing a murder.
(Male newsreader) “The OJ Simpson of South Africa.” Not liking the ‘wronged man’ narrative going on here. Are they implying it was a justified killing? They’re both convicted criminals, I guess.
(Male voice) “He was ours, we owned him.”
[Footage of Pistorius running on blades]
(Male voice, Pistorius?) “This is my inspiration.”
(Male voice) “He killed his girlfriend.”
[many voices overlapping]
(Judge) “Please raise your right hand and say, ‘So help me, God’”
(Pistorius) “So help me, God.” (tearful, echoing) Well if you’re not on his side by now, then you probably have no soul.
Splash screen — The trials of Oscar Pistorius | BBC iPlayer Ta-daaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!
I want to say that if Pistorius had been just an ordinary person, not a world-famous athlete, we wouldn’t be hearing about his life in the international media. But in reality, men who kill their partners are portrayed sympathetically in the media in virtually every nation — and we hear about it over here not just because we can search for it on the internet, but because the mainstream media also reports on human interest stories from all over the world in our national papers — the kind of thing that wouldn’t have made it into our news before newspapers went online.
This also creates an inflated perception of lawlessness, because we hear about all the violent crime that’s going on everywhere, rather than just the comparatively low levels of violent crime that happen in our country.
It might turn out that the trailer is just bait to get us to hate-watch this tribute to Pistorius and it turns out to actually be a nuanced look at Steenkamp and Pistorius’s relationship, or that it does actually tell her story, or that it actually makes the point that Pistorius lost his status because of his own actions that he must take responsibility for.
But that approach still trivialises the victim’s life and death, and implies that we have to be drawn into the story by her more notable partner. And it’s just another form of clickbait. And I bet it doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of the dynamics of domestic abuse.
Often, trailers will leave out important details so as not to ruin a plot twist or revelation, but this isn’t fiction. There are loads of ways to describe this, or any, documentary series in exciting and intriguing terms that don’t downplay the seriousness of murder, or relegate victims to a footnote. This is meant to be factual, and while there is plenty of artistic license in journalistic storytelling, there are certain narratives being used here that aren’t just harmful, but are also boring cliches.
The tragic hero is a literary device in which the protagonist is tripped up by fate and a flaw in their character. To consider Pistorius as the protagonist of the story is to elevate him to the status of hero, tragic or otherwise. And that frames his victim as merely a stumbling block in his personal adventure.
This could have been done so much better, and I hope that whatever replaces this monstrosity is an actual improvement. The words we use, the information we include and omit, and the tone we adopt can lead us to produce wildly different accounts of the same events. And both can still end up being true. The problem with taking a side is when the viewpoint taken reinforces harms or prejudices. And glorifying the successful past of a murderer does just that.
We don’t need to hear about Brock Turner’s swimming achievements, Harvey Weinstein’s film-making, or Jimmy Savile’s charity work. We already know these men were high-flyers with a solid track record and the potential to achieve even more. We don’t need a reminder of that, but what we do need to know is that they fucked their own lives up by destroying the lives of others. We need to know that these supposed good men, these heroes, even, committed terrible crimes against women, and thankfully, they faced justice and the consequences of their own actions (except for Savile, who died thinking he’d got away with it).
We don’t need to trot out a This Is Your Life every time a famous man is caught abusing, raping, or killing women. We don’t need to make biopics of serial killers with no thought given to the lives of their victims. And we don’t need to romanticise these horrific crimes, or imply that they were invited, or a mere indiscretion. We need to focus on those affected by the crimes and what they, and we, as a society, have lost.
Even if The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius reveals something new and intriguing about his life or his situation, the title itself tells us all we need to know. It’s still all about him. Even from behind bars, he knows the public still love him, and probably still would even if they personally caught him in the act. Because we all love a brute. The Kray twins, Jack the Ripper, Raoul Moat, all thugs, and all painted as heroes by the British media.
But who knows Reeva Steenkamp’s story? Who knows her name? Instead of focusing on her life, that was stolen, we are distracted by tales of how awesome her killer was. But then, it was only a woman, wasn’t it? If only she’d not gotten in the way of his ‘promising future’ we wouldn’t hear anything about her at all.
The media have a lot to answer for in our distorted beliefs about crimes committed by men against women. Things are getting better, and there are guidelines for reporting on domestic violence murders. But they are not always followed, and there is little sanction for not doing so. As a result we, and the institutions meant to uphold standards on our behalf, treat domestic abuse and murder as a fairytale with the roles of perpetrator and victim reversed. And there is no-one we can complain to if we don’t like the ending.
This is a cultural problem shaped by the media, which is run by powerful men, who protect other powerful men, and tell stories from the perspective of powerful men. We need a cultural change, not a legislative one, to reverse the trends in both the media and in real life.
In spite of a successful murder conviction, the BBC aired a trailer that gives the impression the verdict is up for challenge, or that there was a justifiable reason for the killing. We’re encouraged to sympathise with a murderer, and to ponder how “remarkable” and “complex” his life was, without a single word devoted to the victim. He might have been a hero once, but Pistorius isn’t anymore. And we don’t need a puff piece about his sporting career to understand his fall from grace.
This trailer was a massive insult to Reeva Steenkamp’s memory, and to all women. It is yet another reductive and forgiving portrayal of male violence feeding the narrative that a successful man must have been ‘driven to it’ by circumstances beyond his control, or (more usually) by the victim herself. One day we’ll get a decent documentary about the ‘trials’ of an abused and murdered woman*, that treats the subject with care and truthfulness. But I doubt they’ll show it on the BBC.
*Obviously, it would be better if there were no more murders of women by their partners, but until that day arrives the least we can do is educate; and respect the memory of those women we have lost.