On Monday, June 17th, the VICE magazine website published a fashion spread inspired by the suicides of noteworthy female authors. Entitled “Last Words,” the photoessay depicted models dressed in designer clothing reenacting the deaths of writers including Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Iris Chang. Included in the brief description accompanying each photo were not only the name, age of when the author when she died -- and also the designers of the clothing and accessories featured in the photos.
Model dressed as Sylvia Plath, Image from VIBE magazine
The controversy seems like the magazine’s latest example of calculated bad taste. I don’t think the magazine hates women or was purposefully trying to denigrate the legacy of work of these female writers, but I do think they are trying to get the attention of readers who, like me, are increasingly jaded.
“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, 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.
Flavorwire argues that VICE’s statement may signal that the company is finally growing up, which is needed if they want their new HBO program http://hbo.vice.com -- which features harder news than the sophomoric humour found on their website -- to be taken seriously.
But VICE’s apology strikes me as one of those “I’m sorry you’re offended, but I’m not sorry for what I’ve done” kind of apologies. While VICE took down the spread from its website, “Last Words” still appears in the print issue, now on newsstands.
This is not the first time VICE has faced controversy. In fact, controversy is part of what sells the magazine. Founded in Montreal in 1994, and later relocated to New York City, the company expanded from a weekly print paper to a glossy monthly magazine, record label, online video series and publishing company with field offices around the world. In 2011, Forbes reported that the company earned id="mce_marker"00 million in revenues. From their infamous ‘Do’s and Dont's’ column -- which features humiliating pictures of strangers with odd clothing preferences or in embarrassing situations -- to and hipster racist and sexist commentary and questionable photo shoots portraying subjects such as a woman throwing away a used tampon.
VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes, who left the company in 2010, defended the magazine’s treatment of women in the New York Times:
“'No means no' is puritanism,'' Mr. McInnes said, expanding on his view of romance. ''I think Steinem-era feminism did women a lot of injustices, but one of the worst ones was convincing all these indie sorts that women don't want to be dominated.''
But when it comes to “Last Words”, noses were flared for a number of reasons. First, the photos simplify and trivialize the emotional distress that compelled these authors to take their own lives. As Fashionista notes, women and death have been previously used as marketing fodder -- most often in pornogoraphy, musical lyrics and modeling shoots -- the metaphors surrounding the mysteries of death can be useful in terms of ‘uncovering the truth.’ However, writer Tanwi Nandini Islam adds:
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.
Also, since the photos portray only female writers, are they suggesting that women authors are more emotionally fragile than their male counterparts? From Flavorwire:
Is this a comment about the nature of mental illness among writers? Does it say something of the plight of female authors in a male-dominated industry? Or, more likely, is it simply a way to place up-and-coming designers in a fashion spread that is sure to be shared all over the Internet because of the online industry of outrage?
I agree that the photospread was created by thoughtless people. Women, mental illness, and the reality that many artists (male and female) ARE plagued with some sort of emotional imbalance were callously parodied for the sake of clicks. We have seen how people, right or wrong, are going to view a ‘roadkill’ story The Globe & Mail points out that with the accessibility of more online content than ever before, the social responsibility that once existed cannot be regulated:
(T)his isn’t the work of disenfranchised weirdos in their basement – these are powerful corporations (like Facebook with its hate-crime problem) delivering the message, or at least enabling its delivery, and making scads of money at it.
How far will they go? As far as they can.
While the creators of VICE may feign ignorance, I hardly think they were unaware that these photos would generate outrage; rather they are another shock tactic to get people buzzing about the latest issue of their print magazine. And as for the women who participated in the shoot -- stylist Annette Lamothe-Ramos and the photographer Annabel Mehran -- perhaps they should have thought twice about participating, but according to model Paige Morgan, who posed as poet Elise Cowen, while she knew previous to booking the shoot that the unpaid (as she notes, most editorial shoots are) job was centered on women writers who had committed suicide, she was unaware that the models were going to be positioned in the manner of how the authors killed themselves:
If I had known that the focus was going to be primarily on the clothes, and it was going to run as more of a fashion story — no, probably not (would have taken the job). If it had been that same or a similar image accompanying a retrospective of her life, or a discussion of her work — Imight have still done it. The images in a different context might have read a lot better to a lot of people. And been less hurtful to a lot of people. But like I said, unfortunately models aren't given that much context.
In a response to the VICE photoshoot the Tumblr page, Words Right Now was created to highlight women writers who are.....yes, alive! You can post your own image on the site.
Disclaimer: Last year I was interviewed by Noisey, a sister site of VICE for my book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal.
Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture
Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com
More from entertainment