June 19, 2013

Is there any virtue in Vice’s suicide spread?


One of the images included in Vice’s controversial photo essay of women writers who have committed suicide.

The short answer is no. On Monday, as part of a fiction issue on women writers, Vice published a fashion spread depicting the suicides of well-known authors.

Doppelganger models portray Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Iris Chang, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and others poised to die at their own hands, offering what Guardian writer Helen Lewis calls a graphic “menu” of suicide methods. A brief explanatory note follows each photograph, detailing the name of the author, the cause of death, and the clothes she wears. Knee-deep in the Thames, Woolf sports a Christian Siriano coat over a vintage gown.

Outrage ensued, causing Vice to remove the images from their website on Tuesday morning—an unlikely move given their reputation for promoting clickable controversy. Of course, you can still find the spread in print. And all over the internet.

Most reactions criticized the tasteless use of suicide as a selling tactic, capitalism at work. Michele Filgate wrote:

One might argue that suicide occurs in movies and in songs and in books — so what’s so bad about models doing this? The answer is that in other art forms, suicide is a plot point in an already established story. It isn’t used to sell a product — or to boost a media brand’s reputation for studied cynicism.

Helen Lewis condemned the spread, noting that media depictions of suicide have a documented effect on at-risk young people:

The Samaritans have guidelines covering both journalistic and creative depictions of suicide, and they are very clear: avoid glamorising suicide and avoid giving details of the methods. It is widely accepted that following these rules reduces copycat suicides…The Samaritans quote studies from Vienna and Toronto where voluntary restrictions on reporting subway suicides reduced their occurrence by 75%. Similarly, the inclusion of a particular suicide method in a popular television show or prominent media report has been shown to increase suicide attempts by that method…What will children in that kind of distress see when they look at those Vice pictures? They will see a menu. Using famous women makes it worse, because vulnerable people can fixate on a favourite writer and identify with them.

Others argued that the problem wasn’t the depiction of these suicides, but rather the project’s poor execution and utter lack of depth. Michelle Dean wrote:

The images are not particularly shocking or revealing. Probably the best compliment you can give them is that they don’t “glamorize” anything. They are bland, anesthetized, boring. The clothes in them are equally drab, and appear to be randomly chosen, without connection to the horror the photographer indifferently depicts. It looks like they took all of ten minutes to set and style the entire project…Finding that sort of redemption in the dark does of course require groundbreaking work in the first place…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.

Perhaps the biggest disservice these photographs do is to reduce complex, struggling writers to their dying acts. The spread is titled “Last Words,” as if these suicides were the careful conclusion of a brilliant literary effort.

When English Heritage accorded Sylvia Plath a blue plaque in 2000, the organization intended to place it outside her Fitzroy Road residence, where she lived for eight weeks and then died. Her daughter Frieda Hughes protested. “Blue plaques are issued by English Heritage to celebrate the contribution of a person’s work to the lives of others—and to celebrate their life in the place were they did the living…English Heritage had been led to believe that my mother had done all her best work at that address, when in fact she’d been there for only eight weeks, written thirteen poems, nursed two sick children, been ill herself, furnished and decorated the flat, and killed herself,” Hughes wrote in a forward to Ariel: The Restored Edition.

Eventually, English Heritage agreed to commemorate Plath at her first London residence in Chalcot Square, where she wrote and published both The Bell Jar and The Colossus. Hughes again:

I do not want my mother’s death to be commemorated as if it had won an award. I wanted her life to be celebrated, the fact that she had existed, lived to the fullness of her ability, been happy and sad, tormented and ecstatic, and given birth to my brother and me. I think my mother was extraordinary in her work, and valiant in her efforts to fight the depression that dogged her throughout her life. She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress; she wasted nothing of what she felt, and when in control of those tumultuous feelings she was able to focus and direct her incredible poetic energy to great effect.

That’s not something you get in the Vice photograph of a model staring into a gaping gas oven—and that’s the real sin here.


Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.