The cover of the Vice Women in Fiction edition.
Much has been written about the fashion industry's fondness for bad taste and offensive fashion spreads, look at how they just won't let black face go. The latest fashion scandal is Vice's Last Words fashion editorial, part of its women in fiction issue. Published in print and online this week, the spread featured famous, and somewhat less famous, literary women, such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, in the midst of committing their individual suicides (never mind that of two of the women featured, Iris Chang wrote non-fiction and Dorothy Parker didn't kill herself, whoops, oh well, farshun). It included neat little stockist details where you could buy the clothes worn by the models re-enacting these famous suicides, like "Sylvia Plath's" sweet sundress, or "Virginia Woolf's" dramatic Christian Suriano coat.
It's tasteless, yes. Shockingly so. But how dangerous is it to be tasteless? And does Vice (which is, as the Globe and Mail points out, hardly some little upstart anymore) care? Surely a controversy is exactly what they'd be panting for anyway.
Well, they've since taken down the spread and issued an apology, which is really a non-apology. Or a, sorry you were offended, you deeply average person.
“The fashion spreads in VICE magazine are always unconventional and approached with an art editorial point-of-view rather than a typical fashion photo-editorial one. Our main goal is to create artful images, with the fashion message following, rather than leading,” the statement read. You can read the rest here.
You can still see the images on Jezebel, who were among those on the internet to condemn the spread (yet re-published the images, which is the tricky part of condemning something). Experts have been called in to comment on the stories. Michael Peck, an American forensic psychologist who has worked in suicide prevention, told ABCNews.com that the” glamorisation of suicide” can "make the vulnerable more vulnerable". And as Helen Lewis pointed out in the Guardian, there are journalistic and creative guidelines to covering suicides.
As Lewis says, these guidelines say that the media must “avoid glamorising suicide and avoid giving details of the methods. It is widely accepted that following these rules reduces copycat suicides.” Suicides are often not reported for this reason.
While yes, it was the women-in-fiction edition, in a broader sense it's difficult to imagine that a similar concept, fashion or otherwise, would happen with the famous literary men that have committed suicide. Which makes you think that this is just a vaguely but not really "literary", "smart" or "feminist" way of depicting women in powerless, violent and degrading ways- ways that dismiss their work and cheapen their legacy. Basically it's just another depressing example that violence against women still sells.
This seems a far more insidiously dangerous thing than the Vice spread in itself, and says a lot about the way we view women writers. It's hard to imagine Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson or David Foster Wallace being depicted in such a way.
Yet, considering the legacy of writers like Plath and Woolf without contemplating their too-early and too tragic deaths is nearly impossible. What woman doesn't relate to Woolf's insistence that women must have a room of their own, or hasn't read Plath's Bell Jar in the throes of adolescent angst and felt as though she was speaking to her? Jeffrey Eugenides' book The Virgin Suicides, later made into a Sofia Coppola film starring Kirsten Dunst, addressed this "specialness" and suicide in a thoughtful and uncomfortable way.
But cheap takes on extraordinary and troubled women destined to get clicks and create a twitterstorm is not in the same category.
As Michelle Dean wrote in an interesting article for New York Magazine's The Cut, one problem with the Vice spread was that it was simply not very good. Rather than shocking or glamorous, the images, wrote Dean, were instead “bland” and “without connection to the horror the photographer indifferently depicts”. A disconnect from the tragedy and waste of suicide is indeed more upsetting than tasteless riffing on it.
We can find truth in art, and we found it in the writing that these female writers, who have been so crassly repurposed, produced. It can be in the depth of our very worst fears and feelings that we can find a universal humanity.
As Dean writes, “Finding that sort of redemption in the dark does of course require groundbreaking work in the first place, though. So try a bit harder, will you, next time, Vice? Suicide is fair game for commentary – regardless how many others on the internet cry otherwise when seeing this spread – but slouching indifference and sloppiness do not a real sensation make. To address these women's life and pain, the work should at least be as smart as those featured.”
So, it had better be very smart then.
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