This week, North American culture magazine Vice caused a shitstorm with its 2013 Fiction Issue.
It included a fashion spread entitled “Last Words,” which depicted famous female writers, who have committed suicide, at the time of their deaths. Think Sylvia Plath kneeling at the oven; Virginia Woolf standing in a river, clutching a stone. Dark, twisted stuff.
Pop culture / feminist blog Jezebel called it “… almost breathtakingly tasteless. Suicide is not a fashion statement.” (Yet Jez still ran the offending photos.)
My initial reaction to the spread was not outrage. My reaction to the MEDIUM was outrage. I’m not defending Vice — while I think many of its pieces have value, editorially and artistically, I routinely have ALL KINDS OF PROBLEMS with its shock-for-the-sake-of-shocking brand of journalism, which often smacks of white male privilege. (For the uninitiated, running content like “Last Words” is kind of Vice’s THING.)
As a fashion spread, “Last Words” is, indeed, breathtakingly tasteless. I don’t want to know where to GET THE FUCKING STOCKINGS that the model depicting Taiwanese author Sanmao is in the process of HANGING HERSELF WITH. As a fashion spread, it’s a failure. Using something as tragic and complex as suicide to sell clothing is morally fucked. I think we can all safely agree on that.
But as a photography spread?
It’s STUNNING. Some of the photos are, well, downright breathtaking. There’s a darkness, a sadness — and yes, a beauty — about these images. I lingered on many of the shots. They’re provocative and uncomfortable. They’re striking in their literalness. And they’re powerful; these are women who exercised an ultimate choice by taking their own lives. If these same shots could be hung in an art gallery — alongside excerpts of these extraordinary women’s works — perhaps it would feel less like a Top 10 Sexiest Suicides Spread and more like a rumination on suicide, a topic that’s still very taboo.
The biggest criticism of the spread came from people worrying that it might inspire copycat behaviour among impressionable young teens. Fair enough. The world probably doesn’t need more beauty shots of people offing themselves. But, as a friend of mine said on Facebook: “as for suicide, well, sorry, you know, it exists.” You can’t protect impressionable, vulnerable, depressed kids by making Vice take down a photo set that didn’t really work.
Writes Helen Lewis in The Guardian:
What will children in that kind of distress see when they look at those Vice pictures? They will see a menu. Using famous women makes it worse, because vulnerable people can fixate on a favourite writer and identify with them.
Hate to break it to you, Helen, but kids are going to do that anyway. Maybe even from actually reading and relating to these women’s works. We’d better hide all the books. And we’d better take Nirvana’s discography off the shelves while we’re at it.
Then again, Vice’s spread wasn’t meant to foster healthy dialogue about mental illness, depression and suicide. Because it wasn’t about suicide, not really.
No, it was about beautiful, tormented women — and if there’s anything society loves, it’s beautiful tormented women. Fuck, it’s why we STILL make movies about Marilyn Monroe whose suicide was the sexiest of all!
It’s not exactly edgy to glamourize already-glamourized literary suicides. Literature itself has done a pretty decent job of glamourizing suicide itself, as pointed out by this excellent piece in The Globe and Mail. (Ophelia, anyone?)
It’s a cultural obsession that’s way bigger than Vice. And it’s a cultural obsession that relates specifically to women; I sincerely doubt Vice would run the same spread about famous literary men who have committed suicide starring hot male models. I can only think it’s because with men, we glamourize violence/death. With women, we not only glamourize it, we sexualize it. What is it about tragic women that we find so sexy? Their vulnerability? Their beauty? The most popular lament when a woman, famous or not, meets an untimely death is “She was so beautiful.” Are we mourning the loss of a woman or are we mourning the loss of another woman to fetishize?
To quote the Globe:
Vice magazine is offensive and tasteless and crass and in this case possibly even dangerous, but it is us.
But Vice wasn’t offensive and tasteless and crass for depicting suicide. It was offensive and tasteless and crass for using it to sell clothing.