Like Snow White’s mom

The Kellers, those big name media people who punched down at a woman with cancer, are never going to live it down. I have been entertained by many take-downs on the internet (none of which will perturb the Kellers in their little bubble of arrogance), but one I particularly liked was Christie Aschwanden’s dissection of their errors. She hit on several major problems that I initially missed.

It’s Bill Keller’s complete failure to see the woman he saw fit to criticize that has ignited rage and charges of sexism. ("Whiny woman making a big fuss about cancer. Shush! Go pet your therapy dog!" tweeted Susan Orlean.) His grand (though by no means novel) ideas about death and dying blinded him to the human being he sought to exploit for his argument’s sake. He violated the journalists’ ethical obligation to treat the ill people they write about with respect and sensitivity. As a result, he didn’t open the discussion about dying that he’d intended, but instead provided the internet with one more example of female invisibility in the face of a powerful man with a big idea.

I wonder if we’ve been conditioned by that familiar Disney trope of the dead mother as a generic symbol of privation, with no specific consequences and no details about the individual. Women are supposed to die offstage so the hero can get on with his or her journey!

One thing I also found striking is that we talked about these same themes in my cancer class last semester — the problems with the ‘war’ model of cancer research, the ethics of dealing with death, etc. — and my students showed more awareness, sensitivity, and intelligence on these subjects than Bill Keller.


  1. martincohen says

    The mini-series “To serve them all my days” (from the book of the same name) also has the protagonist’s first wife dying tragically (rather than, I guess, humorously as in “Dead like me”).

  2. Tigger_the_Wing, Back home =^_^= says

    Is it not because of history? Until as recently as 80 years ago, childbirth killed otherwise healthy young women in huge numbers, unimaginable to today’s young mothers. Women really did just ‘disappear’ from families – often to be replaced by that other archetype, the stepmother (wicked or otherwise), who may, if she weren’t very lucky, follow the fate of her predecessor.

    A combination of better obstetric care, better standards of cleanliness, the discovery of antibiotics, followed shortly afterwards by hormonal contraceptives, very suddenly reduced the death rate from childbirth.

    As these papers show, the annual death rate hovered around 6-10 women per 1000 births right up until the 1930s – then suddenly plumetted by two orders of magnitude so that by the 1970s it was around 8 per 100,000.

    Add in vaccines, and their babies started to survive in much larger numbers too.

    People of my (and PZ’s) age grew up surrounded by references in literature and popular culture to the ‘trope of the dead mother’ because that is what our parents’ and grandparents’ generations had as their reality. Far too many young people could identify with the young hero setting out without a mother’s support.

    The last century has been a series of culture shocks in the West; each generation has had a very different childhood, and very different expectations, to the one before it.

    I agree that the trope no longer applies*; at least in First World countries (sadly, it is still everyday reality in Third World ones). Women can now follow our own heroic journey without having to birth a string of babies until one kills us, and it is about time that popular culture catches up to this fact and stops ‘disappearing’ women.

    *Although I possibly wouldn’t have survived my second childbirth, and definitely would have died with my third, had I had the same circumstances as my grandmother, instead of modern hospital care.

  3. oursally says

    Yupp, Tigger, my first would have finished me and herself off if she could. She’s still trouble 24 years later! That’s my girl!

    I rather think having 8 kids one after another is what finished my paternal grandma off. Not just the worn-out-ness, but the lack of hospitals and an insanely unhealthy diet, and being a farmer at the same time.