My Twitter feed is filled with outrage over a New York Times obituary. Science writer extraordinaire Ed Yong (whose excellent National Geographic blog happens to be called Not Exactly Rocket Science) started it off by tweeting:
Rocket scientist dies. NYT obit leads with her cooking skills, husband and kids. Oh just [f@!*] off.
That tweet has, as of this writing, earned 732 retweets (and an additional 140 favorites). In case Yong’s objection wasn’t clear from his tweet (or from the obit itself), here’s another version, from someone else responding to Yong:
Lesson to women scientists: even when you’re totally badass, you will be remembered for "following your husband from job to job"
Later, co-science writer extraordinaire Steve Silberman (who tipped Yong off to the obit in question) tweeted to Yong:
Notice we’re in the middle of a social science experiment? People enraged about [Yong’s tweet critiquing the obit]: male. People who got it: female.
In an effort to distinguish myself from my soon-to-be-90-year-old father-in-law, I try to spend as little time reading NYT obits as possible. So I hadn’t seen it. But after reading these and many, many similar tweets in my feed, I pointed my browser on over there, prepared to be outraged, too.
But you know what? I’m not.
For the fairest test of your own reaction, I was going to advise reading the obit first. But as I was writing this, the Times edited the lede (without indicating that it did so), presumably in response to the Twitter backlash. I provide the new lede and the link to the obit below. But first, let's focus on what, until a short time ago, the obit used to say and why people are so worked up about it.
The offending obit read, in its opening sentences, as follows:
Yvonne Brill, a Pioneering Rocket Scientist, Dies at 88
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.
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 help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.
To my mind, the most offensive thing about this is the absence of an Oxford comma in the opening sentence. Yes, I get that one way to interpret the lede is to see the writer as privileging Brill’s husband’s career and her own domestic achievements over her scientific accomplishments, by leading with the former. That would be an extremely odd choice of emphasis by the writer, since the Times could scarcely care less about the millions of women who can be described by the first two sentences but not by the third. And it strikes me as a pretty uncharitable reading.
It seems clear to me that the point the writer is making — which stretches beyond the first two sentences to include the third — is that Brill became a brilliant scientist despite also facing traditional demands we place on women, and managing to excel at them, too. If the obit is to be believed, here is a woman, from an older generation no less, who truly did “have it all.” She did what society of her time (and to a significant extent, our time, too) told her to do: move multiple times to accommodate her husand's career and spend years devoting herself full-time to raising their children. And yet despite being saddled with those expectations — and meeting them — she also managed a brilliant career of her own.
So if you want to be outraged, I think you have to be outraged at the decision to give extra credit where it’s due by pointing out that, like Ginger Rogers, Brill had a career that rivaled her male peers, but did it backwards and in heels. So is that problematic to point out? If it is, as far as I can tell, it’s problematic for one of two reasons — neither of which sound in sexism or merit the kind of outrage and snark the obit is receiving on Twitter.
It might be said that the piece somehow glosses over the inevitable sacrifices she must have made in career, personal life, or both, and thereby gives false hope to young women who continue to look for ways to “have it all,” or shame those older women who feel they have failed in one or both domains. For instance, pointing out that she was able to have a brilliant career while also moving multiple times for her husband’s career and abandonning her career completely for eight years in order to raise their children, it might be said, dubiously suggests that most women can make these same sacrifices for their children and their partners and still rise to the very top of their chosen profession — and if they don't, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Or it might be said that, even if emphasizing the fact that she was a woman living in a man’s world admirably amounts to recognizing her for dancing backwards in heels, it has the unfortunate side effect of overshadowing her professional accomplishments by framing her life in the context of women’s liberation and the mommy wars. If that’s the problem, then maybe it’s equally problematic to point out, as the obit does later, that Brill is “believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s.” Why not just say that Brill was a rocket scientist? As the adage attests, that’s usually accolade enough.
As I said above, just before I went to post this, the Times edited the lede to read as follows:
She was a brilliant rocket scientist who 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.”
No more beef stroganoff. [UPDATE 3/31/13 3:40pm: see the before and after versions here, which include a few alterations beyond the stroganoff.] Some on Twitter are declaring victory, but others are still unsatisfied. Writes one:
But, the obit lede is STILL sexist. The lede should have nothing to do with being a woman.
I'm afraid they made it worse, frankly.
Oddly enough, I'm with the continued malcontents on this one, in a way. The original obit didn't offend me (and neither does this one), but I'm having a hard time articulating a principle that made the beef stroganoff offensive but not everything else that remains in the revised obit.
What say you, Lounge readers?
UPDATE: Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan tweets that she "sure agree[s]" with the criticism of the Brill obit. She also points to this thoughtful piece about why "it doesn’t help when journalists treat every female scientist they profile as an archetype of perseverance," which describes a seven-part test for avoiding this pitfall.
There's a lot to admire and agree with in that piece, and the idea of a profile of a female scientist (or other professional) that does not so much as mention the subject's gender is appealing in many ways. On the other hand, being a woman in the particular kind of society we live in is, for better or worse, very much a part of most women's lives. And as I understand them, obituaries — even when they appear in the Times and so necessarily emphasize the individual's professional accomplishments, as Brill's obit does — are about the fullness of people's lives, and not only about their professional accomplishments. Might we lose something important — both about their individual lives and about the times they lived in — through a rule that forbids mention of these aspects of people's lives?
By way of analogy, is it racist to tell Jackie Robinson's story by framing him as the first African American to play in the major leagues, rather than just a really, really good baseball player? Does deliberately avoiding mention of the race-based barriers he faced help us move towards a more racially just society, or does it just discount the additional struggles he had to endure and paint an falsely pristine picture of that time period?
And does it matter how Brill or her suriving family want her to be viewed and remembered? Her son, for instance, offered that Brill preferred to be called "Mrs. Brill." Does her preference, and his memory, count? Even if it's to some extent the writer's story to tell and to some extent society's to hear, doesn't an obituary remain at least partly the decedent's and survivors' story, too? One Twitter commenter thinks not:
“Even if she wanted to be remembered this way [for her family accomplishments], irresponsible for NYT to reinforce such a common stereotype w/ lede.”
Just to be clear, I think the extent to which a profile or obit should mention the subject's race, gender, etc. is a difficult question. And it's good that journalists are having these kinds of conversations. But I think the questions are difficult, the circumstances are varied, and the answers aren't obvious. And so, as much as I love Twitter, I'm skeptical that the most thoughtful and balanced solutions will come from shaming writers and editors into covert rewrites through viral charges of sexism.