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VICE Got All Necrophilic on Female Writer Suicides

By Harriet Staff


Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers was on it last night [1.5k reading her post as of this one] when she wrote about VICE’s newest “fashion spread,” since redacted, which attempted to shock us all with romantic/brutal reimaginings of some female writers at the exact moments of their stylish suicides. Captions for “Last Words” included designer notes for stockings mock-hanging Taiwanese author Sanmao, for instance [that’s her, taken when alive, above]. Yep.

The images from the shoot can still be seen, if you’re up for it, on Jezebel, but Vice did take down the post upon waking to hundreds of furious comments, some of which noted Jezebel’s perpetuating of the distasteful spread and others calling the original snuff porn. The Vice staff wrote an apology note:

“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.


It’s too bad, in a way, that they couldn’t own it, especially if a) “this is art,” as writ above and b) Vice intended to implicate its audience’s desires/tendencies to glamourize such subjects. Which is, of course, just marketing, bringing us to the yard. And seems like the image is supposed to propel us to the work, since no notes about their writing or background do. Prob the most abhorrent aspect is the excuse that the spread is redeemable by the fact of its being published in the most-honorable “Women in Fiction” issue. But we have so many women friends!

More from Sauers:

Vice’s Women in Fiction issue is an interesting package. There’s a short story by Mary Gaitskill here, an interview with Marilynne Robinson there, and a short story by Joyce Carol Oates over yonder. And then…there’s the fashion spread. Featuring models styled and posed as famous female writers who have killed themselves. At their times of death.


It’s almost breathtakingly tasteless. Suicide is not a fashion statement.

Each photo in the spread is captioned with the name of the author depicted, her dates of birth and death, and cause of death. And the fashion credits for what the model is wearing (“Issa dress, Morgenthal Frederics glasses, Jenni Kayne shoes”), obviously. Conspicuously absent is any information about these authors’ actual works.

The featured authors are: Virginia Woolf, the historian Iris Chang, Dorothy Parker (who actually didn’t die by suicide, but attempted to end her life several times), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath, novelist Sanmao, and Beat poet Elise Cowen.


Another example of Vice’s subtle wit? The spread is called “Last Words.” Making light of suicide and underlying mental health problems — or treating those topics as an opportunity to establish your so-edgy-it’s-Viacom-and-HBO-affiliated magazine’s continued capacity to épater le bourgeois — is sick, sick stuff.

None of it is that surprising, actually. Women know the commodity fetish object grind. More interestingly–and we’re not sure how she feels about this one–but we’re reminded of Ariana Reines’s potent writing on Francesca Woodman for the Los Angeles Review of Books not too long ago:

…[S]he is a problem because she is a suicide, and suicides are seductive because we all want to die sometimes, and dead young women artists and dead women artists of any age are a problem because it has always been easier for this culture to love their artworks when they, the women, are not alive to interfere with our relations with them, and her precocity was and remains a problem because of its completeness and because precocity is also always resented and dismissed, and she is a problem because it has historically been too easy to praise what is dead and too difficult to nurture what lives, and she is a problem because she is a martyr and ours is a culture addicted to martyrs and martyrology and powered by competition and self-loathing, which leads to the wrong kind of death. . . .

Some good questions: Where are the tantalizing male suicides? Would it be hot? And how would this spread go over if these were female artists? If that were a model playing Ana Mendiata on the ground? Then there’s the POV that these might be slightly more transgressive/less offensive if installed in a gallery. I shall not care.

Doris Lessing wrote of suicide as possibly a most banal, unglamorous, premeditated choice. Something thought of for so many years for those who follow through that it’s divested of any hierarchy of importance, much less glam. Sarah Teasdale wrote her “I Shall Not Care” 18 years before her suicide.

When I am dead and over me bright April
      Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho' you should lean above me broken-hearted,
      I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
      When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
      Than you are now.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, June 18th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.