Monday 18 November 2019

You may be a best-selling writer, but never forget that you're still fat and ugly

Australian author Colleen McCullough, best known for her novel ' The Thorn Birds', has died at the age of 77.
Australian author Colleen McCullough, best known for her novel ' The Thorn Birds', has died at the age of 77.
Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney

IMAGINE, for a second, that you are a best-selling novelist, a household name whose work has been translated into countless languages and adapted into a global TV hit.

You've also somehow managed to combine this stellar writing career with a job as a respected neurophysicist, even teaching at America's most prestigious Ivy League university along the way.

When you die, the newspapers, of course, publish your obituary. And how do they mark your passing? Do they remark on how beloved you were to your millions of readers?

Or how extraordinary that you managed to combine such contrasting intellectual pursuits in two parallel high-flying careers?

Or do they put you back in your box with a neat summation: yes, you sold lots of books, but, really you were a fat, ugly woman whose biggest achievement was overcoming these hurdles and managing to land a man?

That was the depressing fate that befell Australian author Colleen McCullough, who died this week at the age of 77.

McCullough left behind an enormous literary legacy, which included 'The Thorn Birds' - which was adapted for TV in 1983 and became a worldwide hit - and the historical seven-novel series 'Masters of Rome'.

Yet, when faced with the task of writing her obituary, widely-respected broadsheet 'The Australian' chose to give top billing to her weight, her appearance, and her surprising success with men.

"Colleen McCullough, Australia's best-selling author, was a charmer," the obituary began. "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."

Obituary writing is not easy. It's a real art to capture someone's personality and achievements in 800-odd words.

But it's also a feat of extraordinarily grim misogyny to praise a writer that Australians viewed as a national treasure for the triumph of having an attractive personality which, mercifully, outshone her physical shortcomings and ensured she could bag a man.

What about the books, for God's sake? What about the science?

In 2013, the 'New York Times' published a now notorious obituary of the rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, a woman who invented a complex propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

The intro? "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said."

It is absolutely unimaginable that the obituary of a successful male scientist would begin with the line: "He made a mean vegetarian lasagne," followed by a cutesy tribute from his adoring daughter to his amazing parenting skills.

Brill's obituary went on to list her scientific achievements, but the damage was already done.

She had been firmly established in the mind of the reader as first and foremost, a great cook and a great mom.

And criminally, for those of us not steeped in scientific history, this great scientist will forever be the beef stroganoff woman, rather than being the satellite propulsion system woman.

When a successful man dies, there is a fairly standard obituary format: rows of column inches detailing their achievements in their professional fields, a little bit of colour about their backgrounds thrown into the mix, and then, usually, a final line acknowledging wives and children.

I once sat through the funeral eulogy of a leading businessman which lasted a full 60 minutes. We heard painstaking detail of his triumphs in the world of commerce, his skill in boardroom negotiations, his flair for networking.

Not once did his wife of 40 years and his adored three children merit a mention. Of course they didn't. Men are celebrated for their public achievements, for their role on the main stage. Their family lives are a footnote, even when in reality, they were far more than that.

But women, even when they've battled to make their mark on the world, rarely make that final leap into the space where their private lives are gloriously irrelevant to the jobs they excel at.

You know, probably, how many children Miriam O'Callaghan has. You know, probably, all about Claire Byrne's Irish twins.

But do you have any idea how many kids Sean O'Rourke has? How about Bill O'Herlihy? I have no idea. It doesn't seem remotely important.

For the record, I don't think men are to blame for all this. Viewing the world through the prism of the 'male gaze', as academics like to call it, is such a deeply entrenched habit that women do it too.

The readership of magazines which specialise in bodyshaming is overwhelmingly female. And if we're honest, most of us - with the exception of the saintly ones - are adept at razor-sharp critical appraisals of the sex appeal of our friends and colleagues.

We're furiously curious about other women's private lives; who they're sleeping with, who their friends are, do they have children, where do they live? Nevertheless, we should know better.

The one positive to come from this is that in future, it will take a brave obituary writer to take a similar tack when writing a tribute to a wonderful woman.

Yesterday, thousands took to Twitter to mock 'The Australian's obituary, using the hashtag #myozobituary.

"Although she grew a disappointing arse, she nonetheless got laid & won awards,' tweeted feminist writer Caitlin Moran.

Neil Gaiman pitched in: "Although his beard looked like someone had glued it on & his hair would have been unconvincing as a wig, he married a rockstar."

So what would your #Ozobituary be? I think I'm going to choose: "Although she was a woman, and therefore prone to remarking on other people's size and appearance, she resolved not to do so. For the sake of the sisters."

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss