Twenty-four-year-old Brenda Arnoletto couldn't have possibly known that a selfie she snapped in front of her bathroom mirror one day in September 2016 would end up splashed across every major media outlet in Argentina. But then two months later, on November 29, her lifeless and semi-naked body was found abandoned at a construction site. The latest highly publicized victim in a femicide epidemic, Arnoletto had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death in the Argentine province of Córdoba.
News of Arnoletto's death quickly spread, as did her bathroom selfie. In the photo, she puckers her lips into a kiss, her carefully made-up eyes looking straight at the camera. The image was taken from her Facebook page, as were two other selfies often included in the story's coverage, sometimes as slideshows. In one, Arnoletto blows another kiss while holding a heart-shaped pillow in her arms, and in the other, she stares down the viewer, her artfully disheveled hair falling in front of her face. It has the quality of an amateur modeling shot, the kind you rehearse in front of your mirror after an afternoon flipping through Vogue or binging on America's Next Top Model.
That these photos were eventually used to illustrate a horrific crime highlights a particularly painful problem of the social media age. Femicide—the deliberate murder of women because of their gender, often at the hands of a male partner—is nothing new: not in Argentina; not in El Salvador, which has the highest reported rate in the world; not in the US, where gender-based murders are not even categorized as such. But over the last few years, the phenomenon has received greater media attention in Argentina, in large part because of the rise of the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) anti-femicide movement and because of the public's ongoing fascination with the death and rape of young women. Mainstream media meticulously cover murders, and that coverage is often sensationalistic, fraught with victim blaming, and fails to contextualize individual cases within the larger structural issue of gendered violence. Take this macabre countdown of "the femicides that marked 2016": a listicle of the most noteworthy gender-based murders of the year, featuring play-by-play retellings of the deeds. There's also the fact that murders are still somehow referred to as "crimes of passion" ("el crimen pasional").
The consequences of this kind of irresponsible femicide coverage are dire: They perpetuate patriarchal attitudes that directly feed gender violence, which is on the rise. October 2016 was the deadliest month on record in Argentina, with one femicide every 19 hours, up from the historic average of one femicide every 30 hours.
"There's something comfortable and convenient for journalists to know that if you show a bleeding corpse and accompany it with a clickbait title, you're guaranteed to sell papers or get more clicks. Morbidity is part of the show, and the show demands that stories be told a certain way, in a way that's denigrating to women," Liliana Hendel, the coordinator of Argentina's chapter of the International Network of Journalists with a Gender Perspective (RIPVGAR), told Broadly." The language is generally sexist and discriminatory toward victims, and there's a tendency to justify murders through discussions of how the victim was dressed, whether she was alone at night, whatever. No other form of homicide gets this kind of focus on justifying the act."
Morbidity is part of the show, and the show demands that stories be told in a way that's denigrating to women.
Indeed, the coverage of Arnoletto's murder followed the "good girl" trope: Subtle comments were made about how "she was a quiet girl, from a family of Jehovah's Witnesses," as a prosecutor told one outlet; another reported a prosecutor saying, "She comes from a loving, hard-working family, which is why the whole town is so upset." The suggestion is clear: Had Arnoletto come from a disreputable background, her murder could be more easily understood. The town would be a little less upset.
Reports also adopted a telenovela tenor when, a few days after news of the murder broke, they seized on a Facebook post Arnoletto's boyfriend penned to express his grief: "'My heart will always be yours': boyfriend's sad goodbye to Brenda, the young girl murdered in Córdoba," one headline read; "Boyfriend of Brenda, the girl raped and murdered in Córdoba, writes sad farewell," another logged.
The flip side of this "good girl" narrative are the stories about the "bad girl"—the ones who party, who do drugs, and thus, the headlines suggest, who put themselves at risk. Examples of this trope abound: Before Melina Romero's body was even found in September 2014, an article announced her disappearance with the following headline: "A fan of clubs who dropped out of high school." And when Lucía Pérez was raped and murdered in October 2016, inordinate attention was given to the fact that she was on her way to buy weed, as the headline "Condoms, drugs and bullets: the nightmarish scene of Lucía Pérez's murder" indicates.
According to Argentine NGO La Casa del Encuentro, there were 2,094 femicides recorded between 2008 and 2015 in Argentina, leaving 2,518 sons and daughters, including 1,617 minors, motherless. And despite a surge in anti-femicide protests, strikes, and social media campaigns last year, the number of women murdered in Argentina is on the rise. Since the NGO's founding in 2008, the number of reported femicides committed on an annual basis has steadily grown from 208 that year to an all-time high of 295 in 2013 and 286 in 2015.
News coverage of the epidemic has grown proportionally, and social media has made it easier for media organizations to reach wider audiences.
"From a digital strategy point of view, [femicide stories] usually get a lot of traffic," Juan Pablo de Santis, a digital strategist at Clarín, one of Argentina's most widely circulated publications, told Broadly.
"There's a concept you've probably heard of and which we've talked a lot about here: It's called 'missing white woman syndrome.' Readers generally pay much more attention when victims are white, physically attractive, young, and disappeared or dead. The last example was Brenda [Arnoletto]," he continued.
A femicide article's feature image is the first thing to alert readers to the fact that a new victim fits the "missing white woman" mold. These images are almost always taken from the women's Facebook pages and, as in Arnoletto's case, are frequently selfies, especially disturbing because they're not all that different from the celebrity selfies mainstream publications often push to generate clicks. The difference: You're not checking out pictures of Kim Kardashian, but of a woman who has been brutally murdered. Though Santis was adamant that Clarín does not prioritize clicks and instead focuses on "developing a loyal following," the outlet's coverage of the Arnoletto case fell into the same sensationalist traps as most mainstream media: characterizing Arnoletto as "good and respectful," emphasizing her boyfriend's "sad goodbye," and including selfie slideshows in articles on the case.
Feminist journalism must make it clear that each femicide is part of a bigger problem, which is the patriarchal culture.
These media tactics not only have an effect on overall attitudes towards femicides; they also have real repercussions for the families of victims, particularly the use of Facebook pictures. In her most recent documentary, Every 30 Hours (a reference to the oft-repeated statistic that a woman in Argentina is killed, on average, every 30 hours), filmmaker Alejandra Perdomo examines how victims' parents attempt to reclaim their deceased daughters' identities and dignity following media coverage.
"I don't think it's ethical for media organizations to take victims' Facebook photos, especially without their families' consent," Perdomo told Broadly. And having to see intimate images of their daughters pop up again and again in local and national news is just the tip of the iceberg for parents dealing with the deaths of their children. "The mothers of daughters who were murdered in acts of femicide have to deal with the media repeating over and over everything that happened [to their daughters] in great detail. The media reports [mothers'] opinions on the events, but often fail to do so respectfully," Perdomo explained. In other words, not only do parents have to endure the public scrutiny of their daughters' behavior, character, and of dress, but they're also often hounded for comment and background information.
"We already know the parents are in pain. Now what we have to do is harness that pain to make sure other Argentine women aren't subject to the same fate," Perdomo said.
In 2009, the Comprehensive Protection of Women bill became law (Ley 26.485) in Argentina. While the legislation protects against "media violence," defined as the "diffusion of messages and images that directly or indirectly promote women's exploitation, and injure, defame, discriminate, dishonor, humiliate or infringe upon women's dignity," the law is unfortunately difficult to enforce, and it lacks the widespread public awareness that would allow it to be more effective. Hendel told Broadly she conducted an informal survey a few years ago and was shocked to discover that many Argentine women didn't even know the law existed. She concluded that journalists should be doing more to make sure readers are adequately informed of their rights.
"We should include the information necessary for the general population to know which laws protect us [from situations of domestic violence], where can we turn to for help, and what phone numbers we can call," she said.
Hendel's RIPVGAR and the Network of Argentine Journalists for Non-Sexist Communication (Red PAR) are two organizations encouraging journalists to provide more actionable and sensitive coverage of femicides.
"These two organizations work to produce material to improve how these subjects are discussed in the media. They allow journalists to be informed of gender-related issues, cases, and causes that come up," Florencia Alcaraz, a journalist and Ni Una Menos representative, told Broadly.
Alcaraz hopes more publications will begin to use RIPVGAR and Red PAR as references. The most important takeaway, she says, is making sure individual murders are framed within the overarching context of the femicide epidemic.
"No femicide is an isolated case," Alcaraz said. "Feminist journalism must make it clear that each femicide is part of a bigger problem, which is the patriarchal culture."