What’s a dead woman, anyway? Reeva Steenkamp and the stories of men

To be a woman is to be penetrable, there to take whatever men wish to ram inside you. It can be anything, from words to ideas to body parts, just as long as there is no reciprocity. Nothing of your own reality – your words, your ideas, your body – can make an impression on anyone else. You raise your voice but you might as well still be gagged. You say the same words, again and again, but until they’ve been uttered by someone male, they might as well not have been said at all.

At times this is a joke, as in this Fast Show sketch. Ha! Men! They never listen to women! At other times, our penetrability, set against men’s refusal to absorb in return, can be lethal. Reeva Steenkamp took what Oscar Pistorius chose to force inside her: bullets. Now what remains are his words, his ideas, his living, breathing body. As women we’re meant to suck it up because what’s the alternative? His story is the only one on offer; if we tried to tell another, who would listen?

In The Guardian Simon Jenkins argues that it is “pointless” to jail Pistorius:

Men such as Pistorius have had their lives ruined, their failings exposed and chance enough to reflect on their crimes and what they can do to atone for them. No one will be more or less “deterred” by the length of his jail sentence. Finding why he behaved as he did, and working to prevent others doing likewise, would be the most useful outcome of his crime. That is unlikely to happen in a prison.

By “no one,” Jenkins means “men”. By “others,” Jenkins means “men”. By “lives ruined,” Jenkins quite explicitly means “men’s lives.” “Failings” and “crimes” are the closest we get to any reference to women at all. “Finding out why he behaved as he did, and working to prevent others doing likewise” is presented as a task for Pistorius himself, an individual work of atonement. The entire world revolves around Oscar Pistorius and men just like him, by which I mean all men: the people with the words, the ideas, the bodies. There will never be a “useful outcome” for Reeva Steenkamp for she is just flesh with holes. As De Beauvoir noted, man is the One, woman is the Other. No space for anything else.

Of course, millions of people the world over already devote their entire lives to working out why people like Oscar Pistorius behave as they do. Simon Jenkins doesn’t notice because these people are, by and large, just the women, the potential “failings” and “crimes.” These lesser people confront male violence and help to support victims day in, day out. Moreover, they have ideas, lots of them, as to why this happens, and they’re not the kind of ideas one gets just by mooching around being Oscar Pistorius (the man took Steenkamp’s life, so Jenkins, his fellow man, grants him the right to own her death).

But what if, for one moment, men did listen to women’s analysis of the problem? The root cause, of course, is masculinity: hard, impenetrable masculinity, the sort that feels entitled to own all the words, all the ideas, all the bodies without even noticing it’s doing it. It notices other things, of course. If 52% of boys compared to 69% of girls are said to be achieving “a good level of development” at primary school, the Daily Mail is up in arms about this incredible gender gap. Mention that 90% of all violent crime is committed by men and not one word is spoken. Why are we so blasé about women’s underperformance in the field of beating, raping and killing? I think it is because while we are content to attack the achievements of women – anything that makes them seem more capable of making an impression, less available for penetration and appropriation – the very idea of attacking masculinity is anathema to us (and when I say “us,” I mean “men,” but I might as well mean everyone, given the inevitable fate of a woman’s own words and thoughts).

We simply don’t listen to women. We don’t believe in them. We don’t consider them worthy of any subjectivity of their own. It’s an incredible thing to say about half the human race but it is true. It’s hard to imagine a world in which women’s experiences and beliefs were considered to carry the same weight as men’s. We are seen as empty, surface-only, vessels for whatever men want to fill us with: words, theories, cocks, sperm, fists, convoluted musings on gender and what a woman really is. The idea that we should not only have the right to deflect these intrusions, but to produce works of our own is seen as aberrant and often obscene, far too “erasing” of the realities of the male.

So our work goes ignored. Our ideas hang around in the air, waiting, in the hope that some passing male might wish to appropriate them one day and at least grant them some validity. Our bodies are exploited (I do not know a single woman who, if the topic is raised, has not described being subjected to some form of sexual assault). Simon Jenkins wonders why it’s happening. Oscar Pistorius has another cry about his “ruined” life. And sometimes, we dare to think “fuck you, men, all of you.” But of course, you wouldn’t hear us.

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