VICE, an online magazine that also offers a print issue in some cities, recently published a summer fiction issue focusing on women writers. Featured authors included Joyce Carol Oates, Marilynne Robinson and Mary Gaitskill. So far, so feminist.
It followed up with a fashion shoot based on tableaux of well-known women writers. Good.
Women writers who killed themselves. Um, less good.
Women writers who killed themselves pictured at the moments of their deaths. Bad. Oh, so bad.
Internet reaction was immediate and intense. It seemed clear to everyone except Vice's editors that this click-bait layout was grossly insensitive to the terrible pain of people who end their own lives and to the devastation experienced by their families and friends. In the case of journalist and historian Iris Chang, who died only nine years ago and left a young child, it seemed especially callous.
Vice's half-hearted defence cited artistic freedom, though it's hard to see what, exactly, they did with this freedom, besides producing a flat-toned fashion layout with a hipster-ish lack of affect and some wildly overpriced clothes.
In the pictorial feature, we have Sylvia Plath staring into her gas oven, Virginia Woolf walking into the water and Dorothy Parker preparing to slit her wrists. (Parker made several suicide attempts but lived on to die -- in what Vice presumably views as a less picturesque way -- of heart disease at age 73.)
It's not really surprising that Vice pulled another of its shock-the-bourgeoisie stunts. The publication alternates between shrewdly effective millennial-style gonzo journalism and the "look-at-me, look-at-me" antics of an attention-starved toddler. Past outrages include getting all whimsical about totalitarian nightmare state North Korea in The Vice Travel Guide ("Vice founder Shane Smith romps around the Hermit Kingdom").
It's also not surprising that a fashion layout would trivialize suicide with a thin veneer of Prada and Vivienne Tam. Couture culture is constantly eating its own tail, irony swallowing irony in a futile search for edginess.
Past outrages include Vogue's recent tone-deaf hurricane Sandy shoot, which proceeds from the dubious premise that real-life first responders and relief workers need more help from models in $1,800 shoes. And Vogue Italia's environmental disaster-themed spread, with a model in a feathered gown looking like a seabird covered in BP-spewed sludge. And Interview magazine's high-fashion hoarding layout. "She lives in her own world, surrounded by the comfort of her possessions, a dark nostalgia, and romantic layers that cover the skin," reads the breathless text. Yes, I guess "dark nostalgia" is one way to refer to rotting food and dead cats.
Vice magazine's take on lady writers as the ultimate fashion victims is profoundly cynical. But, as several commentators have pointed out, while Vice may be emotionally immature and desperate for Internet traffic, it didn't invent these tropes. Vice is merely drawing from a tainted cultural well.
The Vice layout is just a recent -- and flagrant -- expression of our culture's hopelessly fuzzy thinking about suicide, which ignores the phenomenon of real-life suicide while glamorizing its artistic manifestations.
There's a dark current that runs through post-Romantic literature, painting and music, pinned to the sloshy notion that creative genius is aligned with self-destruction. When beautiful women are involved, it descends even more into death-cult creepiness. Take the case of Plath, and the way the poet's profoundly sad end often overshadows her work, which is so crackling, angry and alive.
Vice has atoned, sort of. It has withdrawn the photos from the Internet, though they persist in the print edition. The editors have also offered a statement, though it comes off as one of those quasi-apologies -- as in, we're not sorry for what we did, but we're sorry you feel bad. (And really, reading between the lines, mostly they're sorry that we lard-assed, literal-minded Midwesterners don't "get" them.)
The Vice case is regretful in all sorts of ways. It's too bad that an issue that's about women's writing is so mesmerized by the final silence of death. And it's too bad a layout about suicide is an exercise in photo-styling excess -- and not much of one at that. As a leading cause of death that is buried in denial and evasion, suicide needs to be made visible. But not this way.