Has one double standard replaced another in a 2011 National Book Award finalist?
By Janice Harayda
For generations Marie Curie was the scientist who had no first name. The world knew her as “Madame Curie” and her male counterparts – men like Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr – by their full names.
That double standard has eased. But a potential new one emerges in Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love & Fallout, an illustrated biography of the couple who won a Nobel prize for physics for their work with radioactivity. A half dozen of its images sexualize Marie Curie by showing her fully or partly nude — in one case, frolicking as naked as a wood nymph with the married man who became her lover after her husband’s death.
Is anything wrong with this? In several respects, no. No one could object to nude pictures as tasteful as Redniss’s in a book intended for adults. And highlighting the romantic aspects of a life falls within the bounds of legitimate artistic interpretation. Pierre and his successor in his widow’s affections appear naked along with her in some of the pictures.
But Radioactive is at heart a book about Marie Curie: That’s why she appears on the cover. And it’s hard to imagine an illustrated biography of a male scientist of her stature that dealt with its subject’s sex life in the same way. As Redniss notes, Einstein had an illegitimate daughter with a former student and, while married, had an affair with his cousin. When have you seen a book that showed him cavorting as naked as Bacchus with a lover?
You can look at all of this in either of two ways. You can say: Radioactive acknowledges fairly that female Nobel laureates have lives beyond their work whether or not books treat their male counterparts differently. Or you can say: Radioactive is a throwback to an era that tended to view even the most brilliant women in the context of their sexuality and their relations with men. Redniss works hard to show the importance of the Curies’ scientific achievements. But she tips her hand with her subtitle and its double meaning, A Tale of Love & Fallout. You can only imagine the reaction the book might have inspired in Marie Curie, who said, “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”
A review of Radioactive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 26, 2011. The book was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. You can see one of its nude images on the site for the New York Public Library: Click on the head of Paul Langevin (the man with the moustache), then then on the red arrow on the cover of the book. On the third click after the arrow you’ll see a spread that represents Marie and Pierre Curie on their honeymoon.
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© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.