In April 2013, the New York Times notoriously memorialized rocket scientist Yvonne Brill by mentioning her “mean beef stroganoff” and position as the “world’s best mom” in the opening paragraph, before “surprising” readers with her scientific accomplishments: “But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”
The hullaballoo that followed that obituary was not unlike what has happened in the last 24 hours, after The Australian — a right-wing newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch — introduced its obituary of Colleen McCullough, author of the beloved Thorn Birds saga, with a comment about her weight:
COLLEEN McCullough, Australia’s best-selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”
Since this sexist and rather cruel lede appeared, Twitter has responded with the hashtag #MyOzObituary, with people summing up their own lives in a similar fashion, foibles and physical defects before accomplishments.
I loved Jennifer Weiner’s take on herself:
And Julia Baird’s summation of Norman Mailer’s career:
Joel Meares rewrote the obituatires of male literary luminaries in the style of this, calling Tolkien orc-like and Mark Twain unkempt.
If it’s not enough that McCullough’s “certain” heft is mentioned before, say, The Thorn Birds, the sentence seems to suggest that those who are “plain” and “overweight” aren’t typically warm and witty, that these are qualities that need to be overcome to be a decent writer. And then there’s the question of gender: how often do we see men eulogised in ways that begin with their physical features, Andre the Giant aside? And – major gak – who but women are ever described in that most awful of ways, “plain”?
Some people got a bit more imaginative:
It is heartening to see how much righteous indignation was stirred up by The Australian‘s obituary. Yet it remains both a symptom and cause of sexism that the public lives of women are continually reduced to both their relationships with men and with the male gaze. After reading more about McCullough’s life this morning, I began to feel as though the lede of the Australian article was almost a purposeful or subconscious act of vengeance, a desire to bring the successful writer down a peg or two even in death.
And the New York Times obituary, which is incredibly evocative of McCullough’s work, life, attitude and personality, reveals something even more tragic. The comments from The Australian‘s obituary echo the borderline-abusive talk she received growing up.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Ms. McCullough’s memoir quotes her father’s telling her. “Get out and get a job as a mangle hand in a laundry. That’s all you’re good for — you’ll never get a husband, you’re too big and fat and ugly.”
It’s fortunate that McCullough grew up to be not only a remarkably successful writer, but a clear adherent of the IDGAF school of female success.
“I think in their heart of hearts all these people know that I’m more secure than they are, more confident than they are and smarter than they are,” she said of her critics in a 2007 interview on Australian television. In her nearly four decades in the limelight, it was one of her few printable replies on the subject.
As delightful as McCullough’s ripostes are, it would be so lovely to live in a world where women didn’t have to be as brilliantly dismissive as she became, in order to merely live comfortably with major success.
There’s something so telling about all the women writers and thinkers on Twitter, myself included, who are gleefully participating in the #MyOzObituary hashtag. Women are so easily able to spit out a summation of how the world might view our so-called physical flaws or lack of ladylike qualities. We live in a world where we’re never fully able to forget those transgressions against prescribed gender roles.
And we understand that all the bestselling books, all the professional victories, in the universe will never eclipse those flaws in the eyes of some.