L’Wren Scott was 49 years-old when she died yesterday, but from the headlines you read yesterday, you would have thought that the past decade plus she spent with Mick Jagger were the only years that mattered. I was surprised at the consistency with which so many major news outlets identified her as a girlfriend in the headline: CNN, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, USA Today, Fox News. Even her Wikipedia entry began with her relationship with Mick Jagger. Reuters was one of the few news outlets to simply mention her career as a designer in the headline.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I knew her name without the mention of Jagger. L’Wren Scott is a designer whose dresses have appeared on Nicole Kidman, Naomi Campbell Michelle Obama and Uma Thurman, to name a few. She was a towering woman with an interesting past. She grew up Mormon and left Utah for Paris following high school.
She doesn’t need Mick Jagger to make her interesting.
But this isn’t a problem that begins and ends with L’Wren Scott. The media has a problem covering women’s careers when they’re alive, and unfortunately, those problems carry over to reporting their deaths. Women continue to be identified by the men they are linked to, whether through marriage or a long partnership.
A recent example is New York Times Magazine’s cover featuring a picture Wendy Davis, asking, “Can Wendy Davis Have it All?” The question, which wouldn’t exist had the magazine covered a male politician, also served to accuse her of being selfish. It could also be substituted for any prominent woman in the media.
We also have the example of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief spokeswoman Lis Smith, whose dating life quickly became bigger news than her work with the mayor. Smith had to leave her position after the New York Post viciously attacked her for dating Eliot Spitzer.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when the media highlights a woman’s dating life above her accomplishments once she has passed. If we brought more attention to the absurdity of this practice when women are alive, I’m sure it would be far less common once a woman’s entire life story must be written.
We saw it most glaringly in the case of Yvonne Brill. The New York Times obituary chose to highlight her cooking before mentioning what she did for a living, which isn’t customary for an obituary. The way the obituary was written, with the word “but” leading the next sentence, the writer made it appear as if Brill’s wonderful mothering and cooking skills were surprising once you realize she was a brilliant rocket scientist.
Perhaps the outcry over L’Wren Scott’s lack of recognition will convince editors to look inward and consider why they choose the headlines they do, and what informs their point of view when they do. Our attitudes become especially clear in the case of a tragic death like this, in which news outlets race to report the information as quickly as possible. It’s when we’re running to the finish line, acting almost on instinct, that our prejudices are most exposed.
Originally written 3/18/14