Art & Culture

Good job, guys: 'The Thorn Birds' author remembered for her weight

Australian writer Colleen McCullough at home in Norfolk Island, Australia in 1990
Patrick Riviere | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Colleen McCullough, author of "The Thorn Birds," is likely Australia's best-known writer. But upon her death, major daily The Australian's obituary led with comments about her weight, bolstering the country's reputation for sexism.

"Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth," The Australian said in the lead of its obituary. The writer couldn't resist piling it on in the third paragraph: "Colleen was the supreme egotist," because she often spoke with the press.

Accomplished by anyone's standards, McCullough was a neurophysiological researcher at Yale University when she embarked on her writing career that spanned more than 20 novels. Indeed, she started writing to earn money on the side after discovering her male colleagues at Yale were receiving higher pay than she did.

In 1977, her second novel, "The Thorn Birds," was published. The paperback rights sold for what was at the time a record $1.9 million. More than 30 million copies have been sold world-wide, and it remains frequently assigned reading at U.S. schools.

She died this week at the age of 77.

Symbol of rising sexism?

The Australian's obituary follows rising criticism of sexism in Australia.

Last year, Plan International, a global children's rights organization, published a study showing that nearly half of the girls and women surveyed believed sexist attitudes in Australia are on the rise.

In addition, 49 percent said sexism affected their choice of career: fewer than 1 percent were considering roles in politics and more than three-quarters said they were subjected to sexist comments, the study found.

"That fewer than one percent of them dream of a life in politics does not bode well for a future in which women can take their places in the corridors of power," Plan International Australia CEO Ian Wishart said in a statement when the study was released.

"Our perception in this country is that girls in the developing world are subject to sexism and injustice. It is sobering to discover that girls and young women in Australia can often feel equally limited and constrained," he said.

Many also blame sexism for the downfall of Julia Gillard, the country's first female prime minister, who was ousted in 2013 after around three years in office.

At a protest outside Parliament House, Tony Abbott, then opposition party leader and now current prime minister, appeared with protestors waving a "ditch the witch" sign. His party was also noted for hosting a fundraising dinner that included a menu describing Gillard in "crude sexual terms," according to an article in The Independent.

Video of a 15-minute off-the-cuff speech by Gillard accusing him of misogyny was widely seen as an expression of the frustrations felt by many Australian women.

Australian media have reported the writer of The Australian's obituary has himself died, without naming him.

For their part, Twitter commenters tweeted their outrage at The Australian's treatment of national icon McCullough:

Remember ladies, it doesn't matter what you do unless you do it pretty. Nothing but rage over this Colleen McCullough obit business...

If I sold 30 million books why would I expect my paltry achievements to stack up against my WEIGHT & PLAIN FEATURES?

'Australian' obit for Colleen McCullough starts: 'Plain of feature and certainly overweight'. Pick a male writer who wd get that. Try hard.

A serial cheat who stabbed one of his six wives, and certainly short, Norman Mailer was nevertheless a writer of many books. #ozobituary.

Today's Oz, paraphrased: "Despite being ugly, she was surprisingly intelligent for a woman."

McCullough was a successful writer & neurophysiologist, but "she didn't let being fat & ugly get her down" was the best they had.

Everyone at @australian who had anything to do with the Colleen McCullough obit should apologize, at minimum. Maybe resign.

—By CNBC's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1