‘Vice’ Removes Controversial Female Writer Suicide Spread: Is the Sophomoric Publication Finally Growing Up?

An editorial fashion spread tells a story using images, not words. It’s the photographer’s job to tell that story: what she intended, what she hoped to convey. In Vice’s latest spread, female writers like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Dorothy Parker stare down their own pending demise at their own hands. The story is pretty clear: the editors of Vice were more interested in getting attention at any cost than paying respectful tribute to women writers who committed suicide, and editorial taste came second to the lazy grab for page views. Following an overwhelmingly negative response across the Internet, the editors of Vice removed the feature.

The editors of the magazine offered a statement to The New York Observer when contacted about the piece:

“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 (http://www.vice.com/magazine/20/6), 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.

—The Editors

It’s a surprising response from the perennial provocateurs at Vice, who have typically responded to any previous controversy with cynical shrugs. It’s that mentality that perhaps was at fault for the shoddy execution of the spread itself. It is not a typical fashion editorial, for sure; it lacks cohesion or a narrative, offers sophomoric composition and styling, and features a Wikipedia-style collection of dates of birth and death for each doomed literary figure. Rather than a fashion editorial, “Last Words” reads more like a lazy listicle (“7 Most Glamorous Lady-Writer Suicides”) — one that features an author that died from a heart attack, not one of her infamous suicide attempts. (Apparently there’s nothing glamorous, fashionable, or artistic about a 73-year-old Dorothy Parker dying of natural causes).

I suppose the images of these women could have worked in the context of an art project. The most striking photograph is that of journalist Iris Chang. It’s a close portrait of the model, who sits in the driver’s seat of an SUV with a pistol pointed at her face. It might be the most surprising shot because it’s much more modern than the others, with an effectively blunt prop — it has a more serious tone than the images of models playing dress-up as Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in front of decorated backdrops. But within the context of the spread, the image — as well as the collection as a whole — says nothing. 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? There’s little on display that gives any insight into what the photographer was thinking here (Flavorwire’s email to Mehran inquiring about her intentions with the spread went unanswered).

But what made the editorial team at Vice pull the feature and turn their backs on both their reputation for unapologetic provocation and their self-professed unconventional editorial vision? For one, the motives behind the spread — to incite outrage by capitalizing on the notion that the suicides of beloved literary figures were glamorous acts (take a look at Dorothy Parker’s blouse by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s line, The Row!) — are stunningly obvious. But more importantly, the feature only reflects poorly on Vice at the exact moment when it’s making a grab for credibility and legitimacy as a news organization, a season into its well-received reporting series on HBO. Can this be a sign that Vice is growing up and ditching the adolescent cynicism of its recent past? After all, original reportage on topics such as the aftermath of Arab Spring, the Chinese housing bust, and post-war Iraq’s environmental crisis are much more respectable than pretty pictures of beautiful women committing suicide, even if the latter are delivered in Vice’s trademark inflammatory style.