Colleen McCullough died on January 29, 2015. A best-selling Australian author, she was primarily known for The Thorn Birds. But upon the occasion of her death, her obituary would have her known for something else. Her obituary reminds us that this incredibly accomplished woman was also plain-looking and fat.
The Thorn Birds was published the year I was born (1977) and so, being but a late-in-the-year-arriving infant, I did not pay any attention to it. My appreciation for the highest-selling Australian book of all time did not develop until quite a lot later, when I realized that my parents didn't want me to watch the mini-series on television because there were sexy parts in it.
Honestly, they should have known I was going to go straight for the book. It's a pretty sprawling epic, covering 50-plus years of one family's drama. In hindsight, I have no idea how I got through it and I'm not sure I'd have the patience for it now (my tastes have changed).
It never once occurred to me to look Colleen McCullough up to find out whether she was plain or glamorous, whether she was interested in fashion or not. What I knew about her was that her book was on television and that seemed like quite a serious accomplishment to me.
In fact, it still seems like quite an accomplishment. Because publishing is a hard game and selling enough copies to have something like that go down is a big awesome deal. Nor was The Thorn Birds her only notable success. As this response article in the Guardian calls out, she had a long list of accomplishments that could have been noted (which is why that article counts, to me, as a much better obituary).
There is something so exhausting about this. When I first saw the obituary popping up online, I didn't have words for my response to it. When Emily sent it around to the xoJane writers, I told her all I had was a glaring face in response.
We joked a little bit about it, laughed because what can you do when you've talked and talked and talked about this? Women are consistently reduced to the sum of their appearance and their appeal to straight men regardless of their accomplishments. Women are constantly described only by the value of their bodies according to an arbitrary metric of mainstream attractiveness.
Colleen McCullough was a charmer, we're told, before we're told anything else. She wasn't much to look at but she was smart and funny so we guess, maybe, possibly, we like her anyway.
That's harsh. I know it is. Somewhere there's a person who wrote that obituary who was probably trying to express how human and relatable this literary figure was. Maybe that person knew her, maybe they didn't. Maybe they just felt like they knew her and wrote an obituary the way they would for a much-loved family member.
But the sad reality is that women, no matter their cultural stature, are often defined by what they did or did not accomplish in the home. The existence of women is still being bound by whether or not they were mothers, whether or not they supported their husbands at the cost of their own careers, whether or not their success got in the way of the family they did or did not have.
In some ways, I really do just want to start a gallery of people making cranky faces so that we have images to use every time this happens. We're in a moment where the response GIF is superior to just about anything else, right? Maybe it's time to try a new rhetorical strategy.
I'm mostly kidding. Mostly. Because I do think continuing to write about these occurrences is important. The more we sit back and silently shake our heads about it, the more it goes unremarked. And I'd rather a conversation than silent acceptance any day of the week.
But the hashtag #fatladyobit on Twitter is also a fantastic rhetorical strategy.
One day I will die. That is an immutable fact for all of us, no matter how much I like to joke about cryogenics. Hopefully I'll have family or friends (or family and friends both) around to write an obituary for me. And maybe it'll talk about how I was fat — but since I'm kind of professionally fat (at least semi-pro, as much as I have talked about it), that will be appropriate. It'll be, hopefully, listed as one of my accomplishments.
I won't want my family and relationships ignored. I'd love for there to be mention of what a giant pain in the ass I was but also how a lot of people loved me anyway. (And that I knew how fortunate I was in that regard.)
Obituaries tell the story of a life in scant column inches and often only the broadest of strokes. I imagine celebrity obits can be very hard to write — an exercise in summation that is more rigorous than any other kind of writing. But my sympathy only extends so far, only extends to the line where women are objectified rather than characterized. And then my sympathy stops.
When I was a kid, all of those sexy parts in The Thorn Birds were such an illicit thrill. When I found out about Colleen McCullough's death, I flashed back to that early experience and everything I learned about her between then and now. She was such an interesting woman. I wish her obituary had reminded me of and introduced me to more of that.