First thing's first. I’m a woman, I’m a writer. That said: Let’s talk about Vice, its Women in Fiction issue, and the shocking “fashion” spread of women writers committing suicide. At first glance, the issue features short fiction by a talented, fresh writer, A.L. Major, and famous storytellers like Marilynne Robinson, Mary Gaitskill, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Then there’s this spread*, entitled “Last Words”—a photographic essay of sorts—of women writers before they meet death.
The beautification of females and death is nothing new--forms of pornography are devoted to it. Most gargantuan billboards in Times Square show dead-eyed models, lounging like corpses à la Tom Petty’s "Last Dance with Mary Jane" music video. What the French call petit mort, or “little death”, is an evocative euphemism for climax. My initial instinct is to attribute any work of art with layers of metaphor and meaning, contextualize it in a way that uncovers some truth I hadn’t seen.
I can’t do that with “Last Words.” These writers are completely stripped of their words. Sylvia Plath, contemplating her oven. Virginia Woolf, clutching a boulder to drown herself in the river. Sanmao, eyes wide open, stockings round her neck. They are all women, though there have been famous male writers who have committed suicide—Ernest Hemingway, Yukio Mishima, David Foster Wallace—confirming that sexuality, death and gender are in a tasteless interplay in this spread.
What is listed in the captions is telling. We have the writers’ names, birth and death dates, their cause of death. Designers are pointed out, just in case the photograph gives you the urge to buy Chloë Sevigny for Opening Ceremony or Bass shoes.
Where are mentions of their great works? Excerpts? Where exactly are their "last words"?
When we put forth work that is always too something, it has been, and continues to be a source of despair. Too dark. Too simple. Too childish. Too emotional. Too florid. Too bland.
Suicide, for those of us who have lost someone to its gnawing, awful and permanent grasp--is nothing to aestheticize without weighty discourse. It not only affects the one who dies, but reverberates for the family, friends and community of the deceased. It is a sensitive matter for fuck’s sake. I keep thinking of the title, “Last Words”—but all I see are beautiful women, sublime and ready to die. They are stripped not only of their words, but their despair, their overwhelming sadness and unknowable last moments. Jenna Sauers, in Jezebel real talk, writes “these women weren’t fictional characters, these were real women, who lived and struggled and died, and to treat their lowest moments as fodder for a silly fashion spread is shameful and sad.”
What I realize is that the suicides of these writers is not what shocks me. What shocks me is the reckless, oblivious, editorial sleight of hand that marks Vice’s work. We’re supposed to see them as harbingers of culture, masters of snark, irreverent bastards who don’t give a shit what the haters think. We are just drones, racking up page hits, ad views, click throughs and other advertising bullshit we all really hate.
Just scroll below the photography, and you’ll see mortified, horrified Vice readers repeat the refrain: Shame on You. [Ed. note: Vice has pulled the spread as well as the comments.]
Annette Lamothe-Ramos, Style Director at Vice, has a razor-sharp (mmhmm) aesthetic and zero politics. She’s comfortable with wearing a burqa all day (And not even being Muslim! Scaring tourists! It “suckkkkked.”). Annabel Mehran, is a talented photographer and the editor-at-large of Purple Magazine—I wonder if in the course of the shoot, they forgot the larger message/image/impact.
Sad, considering Lamothe-Ramos and the whole Vice squad belong to a youthful, so-called “enlightening” media behemoth that’s positioning itself to take over the world--hello, HBO and Viacom--with its Dennis Rodman North Korea trips and Syria: Snipers from Aleppo videos. There’s a chance here, for a media power to create progress and enlightened imagery about women, queer people, people living in war, people being systematically brainwashed and impoverished by the whims of a dictator. Real investigative journalism might just light a spark under their readers to start asking questions, and take action.
Any way to make that stuff funny?
But then, we remember: Vice glorifies the suicides of women writers; feminine and sexy counterparts to their world of wartime Jackass. To become the next MTV, right?
They’ve got a long way to go.
*As we were producing this piece, Vice decided to take down the fashion spread.
Vice's official statement:
“Last Words” is a fashion spread featuring models reenacting the suicides of female authors who tragically ended their own lives. It is part of our 2013 Fiction Issue (http://www.vice.com/magazine/20/6), one that is entirely dedicated to female writers, photographers, illustrators, painters, and other contributors.
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.
“Last Words” was created in this tradition and focused on the demise of a set of writers whose lives we very much wish weren’t cut tragically short, especially at their own hands. We will no longer display “Last Words” on our website and apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel is forthcoming by Viking Penguin. Follower her on @tanwinandini.