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A self-portrait by Sylvia Plath (via wnsr.parsons.edu) and a painting of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry (via Wikipedia)

Let’s start at the beginning. Vice magazine recently published a fashion spread from its new Women in Fiction issue. Titled “Last Words,” it features seven models posed as female writers who committed suicide (or in one case, attempted to) at the moment of their deaths. So, you know, you have a model playing Virginia Woolf wearing a Christian Siriano coat and standing in a river, or another model posed as Sylvia Plath, sporting a Suno dress and kneeling before an oven. (The others are Dorothy Parker, Elise Cowen, Sanmao, Iris Chang, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.) Each photo is accompanied by the name of the writer and some biographical details — dates of birth and death, cities of birth and death, etc. — plus, of course, information about the clothes the models are wearing. Classy.

Predictably (and thankfully), there was an outcry over the photos once the spread was posted online — reaction pieces of all kinds. Helen Lewis at the Guardian and Michele Filgate at Salon both worried about the images glamorizing and encouraging suicide; Michelle Dean, at New York magazine’s The Cut, faulted the photos not for their subject matter but for their lackluster approach. You could pretty much hear Jenna Sauers’s rage over at Jezebel, which caused her to pen one of my favorite reaction lines: “The Taiwanese author Sanmao committed suicide by hanging herself with a pair of stockings. Vice includes a fashion credit for the tights. Just in case you want to go buy the same ones, I guess?”

So Vice did something somewhat surprising: they took “Last Words” down (online; the spread still exists in print) and issued an apology. They offered this explanation in their post:

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.

Dorothy Parker attempted suicide but didn’t succeed, and died at the age of 73. She’s included in the Vice spread.

OK, so the point is to be unconventional and different (which, yes, we all know that’s Vice’s goal, to say the least). But you have to wonder, based on that language, what was meant to be the “leading” message in this spread, since the fashion one was only “following.” Is it that suicide is bad? Or maybe suicide is good? The women do, after all, look pretty sexy. They wear striking red lipstick and have perfect hair. Maybe the message is, don’t worry, you can look good when you die! Or that if you’re a woman writer, suicide is natural. The pictures are so generic and cliche-ridden, you can attach pretty much whatever message you want to them — which is why people have managed to be angry for a number of different reasons.

But that last idea is what gets me the most. It is 2013, and we are still, still having to deal with this broadly accepted notion that women create art from life, that their life and work are inextricably bound, that who they are inevitably frames what they produce. I daresay a magazine, even Vice, would never do the same photo shoot based on male writers. Male writers struggle with depression and suicide, but we give them the benefit of not pinning their entire identities and careers on it. For female writers, it’s a milestone — and it works as a fashion statement!

The photos are less a glorification of the act of suicide than they are a glorification of these women as suicides, which is one of the oldest forms of sexism in the book. It’s more than a little ironic that taking one’s own life, the ultimate act of agency, has become such a neat vehicle for women’s objectification.

But Vice took the photos down, so it’s not much of an issue anymore, right? Oops, except, this is the internet, where nothing goes away for good. In fact, you can still see the photos — all seven of them — over at Jezebel. Despite blasting the spread as “almost breathtakingly tasteless,” the site has gone ahead and reproduced it, only without the caption info or fashion details. Do words make that much of a difference? Does this mean that Jezebel is now getting all the page views that Vice has lost? If Jezebel wants Vice to “update the post to remove the images,” perhaps they should do the same?

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

4 replies on “Female Suicide as Fashion, Courtesy Vice Magazine”

  1. I want to respond to Jillian Steinhauer’s recent piece on the Vice magazine fashion spread for its “Women In Fiction” issue and the subsequent fallout.

    I look forward to reading much of what Hyperallergic presents to its audience because of the thoughtfully formed and carefully supported opinions and insights of many of its writers. For me, John Yau’s work sets the pace in this regard. Perhaps Steinhauer’s deadline constraints or word limit had some influence, but I don’t feel that she contributed a new or articulate take on this matter and the issues raised by it.

    Her disappointment with Vice, its contributors and their choices, are clear and understandable, as is her indictment of Jezebel for reproducing (thus, reinforcing) the images under scrutiny.

    Steinhauer’s explanation of why the choices were poor and offensive is less clear and not convincing to me. She zeroes in on the idea that “if you’re a woman writer, suicide is natural,” one possible take-away posed by the photographs and in her view the most troubling. Things proceed shakily from that point as she seeks to further explain this idea as a “broadly accepted notion that women create art from life, that their life and work are inextricably bound, that who they are inevitably frames what they produce.” Huh? There are many ghetto-izing and offensive views out there about “women artists” and “women’s art,” but the views that Steinhauer complains about, that “women create art from life” and that “who they are inevitably frames what they produce” are too general to speak about the almost reflexive pigeon-holing that female artists and their work are regularly subjected to. Artists of all genders participate in life and the plots, details and ideas that arise from it. Life affects art for everyone who makes it, but certainly in an amazingly wide array of ways. Perhaps she intends to say something about assumptions or expectations that women artists are entrenched in the more narrowly autobiographical, and that this is why the spread’s focus is on the grizzly, self-constructed deaths of these artists, rather than the works they produced. I don’t think this is quite right. The intimate, juicy details of celebrities as a whole (writers, artists, musicians, actors) often completely eclipse the work they create, or maybe at the very least become an unshakable ball-and-chain that weighs down subsequent views of those figures and their work; it doesn’t matter if they are female or male.

    Steinhauer posits that “the photos are less a glorification of the act of suicide than they are a glorification of these women as suicides….” I think that Steinhauer is a bit closer here to something useful, but doesn’t deliver. In my view, the photos do not seek to glorify these women, as suicides or anything else. Reduction is what is at work. Initially, I saw these images as a presentation of Women As Failure, which was disappointing. As I looked more carefully, the images have a different intent. They seek to obliterate these women, to fully defang them and stand by while they evaporate into the insipid but polished atmosphere of a fashion shoot, and, more broadly, of our popular culture. I can understand how viewers immediately jump to “female objectification” conclusions from the pictures, and I did, too, for a time. After longer consideration, I feel that what the images really do is worse. The women, both the writers and their surrogate models, disappear as all of the inanimate details are selected, designed, then carefully arranged and lit. The lipstick, tastefully placed jewelry, the sheen and drape of the fabric are the stars here. The faces of these women, if they can even be seen to any full degree, are smooth, expressionless. The bodies are posed carefully so that they do not interfere with the way the cut of the clothing is best presented. The objects are the stars here and the women invisible armatures for these elements of style. We don’t so much wonder, “where is the blood of the woman who has jumped from her window,” as we think, “wow, what great stripes!” or even, “I really like how the red geometry of the bricks is juxtaposed against the green foliage in this rectangle.” The haircut, for example, is the real “leading lady” of the “Dorothy Parker” shot. This all seems different than female objectification. It is not the women who are the visually or physically desired entities. These bodies, these faces are at best incidental here. And these beings and what they produced as works of art are most certainly nowhere in sight.

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