Obits Gone Awry
On Rocket Science And Stroganoff- by Alaia Howell
Last week, The New York Times published an obituary on influential rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which sparked controversy and a whirlwind of Twitter backlash for highlighting Brill’s role as a wife and homemaker in the lede, as opposed to her groundbreaking advancements in satellite technology. Douglas Martin, the Times staff writer who wrote the column, said he “wouldn’t do anything differently” and explained that he was simply trying to put Brill into the context of her time.
Though the article has since been edited, the conversation is still going over how women in the sciences are discussed.
Earlier today, Lara Bell at Jezebel applauded the change and took issue with Douglas Martin’s word choice stating:
It's easy for Martin to say he was simply highlighting the difference between culturally assumed women's roles and the life of a rocket scientist — but it's no longer an "interesting" choice. It's tired, it's predictable, and it's regressive. Are we still supposed to be shocked that a mother, wife, and maker of a mean beef stroganoff could also be a rocket scientist? As long as we keep perpetuating these "would you believe!?" assumptions about women, we'll be repeating this same shit into the next century.
Meanwhile, back at the Times, public editor Margaret Sullivan agreed that Martin had taken the wrong tack:
The emphasis on her domesticity — and, more important, the obituary’s overall framing as a story about gender — had the effect of undervaluing what really landed Mrs. Brill on the Times obituaries page: her groundbreaking scientific work.
Amy Davidson of The New Yorker addressed the outrage over Martin’s original “beef Stroganoff” reference:
Some defenders of the beef Stroganoff lead have said that one ought not to be silent about the demands placed on women in that era to fill certain roles. And one shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean simply repeating the stories they needed to tell to succeed in a workplace that would otherwise have wasted their talents. “ ‘You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted,’ she once said,” the Times tells us. But now, from the distance of years, can’t we be a little insulted on her behalf? She might not have let on that she was insulted—but it is clear that, at every stage, she pushed back. (Leaned in, one might say.) Perhaps, in that sense, we could admire some of the optical illusions she herself engineered, rather than just setting them to music.
Katie Roiphe kind of liked the Stroganoff aside, and said so on Slate:
To begin the obituary on Brill with her domestic life is clearly absurd, but to include it somewhere? Maybe the idea of personal detail, of family life, of mean beef stronganoffs and blueberry pancakes, of years off for children, or outlandish love affairs are not out of place in an obituary or an obituary-like appreciation of a life on earth. We are focused on work, as the sole acceptable measure of a woman, but maybe if we are honest, that’s a bit of a narrow view.
And Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post thought that the whole hoopla boiled down to “irony gone awry”:
Martin’s perceived offense was irony gone awry, not a literal exaltation of stroganoff over science. But as the great Mary McGrory once told me, “Nuance is overrated; clarity is the thing.”
She was right, too. Which is why, when I originally headlined an earlier, online version of this column ‘Douglas Martin must die,’ an editor questioned whether some might take that literally, as well. Not without reason, I guess, because if you scroll down through the comments, you’ll see that more than one reader did think I, too, was enraged by Martin’s mention of home cooking in his opening paragraph.
So let me spell it out: I wasn’t. What’s more, I’d love to live in a world in which obits reflected the high value we place on parenting, or probity, or unrequited kindness. (“Sadie Smith, 104, rarely gave in to pique.”) We don’t live in such a world, though, and I doubt Martin — who I tried to reach but could not—was striking a blow for a truly feminist appreciation of the complexity of women’s lives and choices.