L'Wren Scott, and the awful truth about women's obituaries
When news broke that respected fashion designer L'Wren Scott had passed away on Monday, The New York Times noted her suicide with the regrettable headline "Mick Jagger's Girlfriend Found Dead."
The Times wasn't alone in its faux pas; the Associated Press dutifully tweeted, "BREAKING: Law enforcement: Mick Jagger' [sic] girlfriend, L'Wren Scott, found dead in NYC of possible suicide." Though the AP managed to slip Scott's name in the headline of the report, both news organizations seemed to agree: Scott's death was newsworthy only because of her romantic association with a legendary rock and roller. Editors at neither The New York Times nor the Associated Press seemed to grasp that Scott's untimely death was newsworthy because of her professional accomplishments.
One would think that after the stroganoff incident, the Gray Lady in particular would have found a better way to note the passing of accomplished women, but it clearly hasn't. The poor handling of Scott's death speaks more broadly to the difficulty of recounting a woman's life — namely the determination of a hierarchy of facts, a project that should seem gender neutral but rarely is. It often seems natural enough to define women by their relationships — wife, mother, girlfriend, etc. — and let famous men be memorialized for their accomplishments, their family lives taking a backseat. This was certainly the case with the aforementioned stroganoff incident, in which the Times' obituary writers downgraded Yvette Brill from rocket scientist to pretty good cook.
The deaths of both Scott and Brill are the most egregious examples of bad obituary writing, but there's a laundry list that precedes them. The historic examples are somewhat expected; a 1954 obituary of Frida Kahlo headlined, "Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera's Wife" tells us first that Rivera was a "noted painter" and that Kahlo was "also a painter." But the expected gender labels of a 1950s obituary seem questionably fluid even today. Slate helpfully rewrote the AP's stereotype-laden obituary of media executive Jennifer Rosoff; recasting her death outside of the AP's gender framing. And a 2011 obituary of political activist, artist, and writer Suze Rotolo spent most of its space waxing poetic about Rotolo's short-lived romance with Bob Dylan — a relationship that ended in 1964 — implying that her life ended around the same time as her breakup with Dylan.
In the case of Scott, the Times seems to have repeated the same mistake, emphasizing the importance of her relationships over her talents. Perhaps editors were so enamored with Jagger's fame or the potential click-bait of his name that Scott's erasure seemed easy enough. The irony is that Scott, an "entirely self-made" businesswoman, shied away from questions about her famous partner, preferring instead to talk about her work.
This isn't to say that women's familial relationships should be blocked off entirely; certainly women's domestic lives have an immense impact on both their identities and their work. But the Times, or any other news organization, would never rush to report the death of an average housewife nor bother to publish her obituary. We seem to agree that the deaths of everyday people don't merit space in the tight pages of major newspapers; that space is reserved for exceptional people. Why gender would somehow invalidate that is perplexing.
And Scott — a former model and Hollywood stylist turned designer whose fanciful Victorian-inspired clothes were loved by A-list celebrities — was exceptional. Yes, of course, it's interesting that she was in a long-term relationship with Mick Jagger, and their collaboration on costume design is interesting, too. But over the course of his longer career, Jagger has had many girlfriends, and not all of them are noteworthy enough to merit breaking news or obituaries in numerous media outlets.
If Scott's life is worth writing about (and it is), then her professional success shouldn't be relegated to an endnote in her death.