Vice's June fiction issue does what the magazine does best (or worst, depending on your taste): combine culture and controversy. Alongside an interview with Marilynne Robinson and short stories by Mary Gaitskill and Joyce Carol Oates, there’s a fashion spread, “Last Words,” featuring photos of models recreating the suicides of famous women writers. Once posted online, it elicited outrage from the usual corners. Jezebel called it “sick, sick stuff” and “shameful and sad,” while Salon proclaimed the spread to be “maximum trolling.”
If indeed that’s true, then I’m not sure what this post will be accused of being. Supreme trolling? Peak trolling?
Michele Filgate, of Salon, notes that “many famous male writers have committed suicide—David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, just to name a few. So why is this spread women only?” On this, I agree. Vice should have portrayed these writers, too—not necessarily to avoid charges of sexism, but because it would have made the spread doubly interesting. The Wallace model could have worn a $100 Paul Smith bandana, the Thompson model a $150 Barbisio bucket hat, and the Hemingway model a $200 “beautiful pointillist floral guayabera” from H.W. Carter.
Otherwise, I’m failing to feel outraged. Let’s consider the two main criticisms:
1. “Last Words” does not make me want to buy these clothes.
“I really don't feel like shopping at all after this,” Sara McCorquodale laments at MyDaily, while Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers writes, “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?”
And here I was under the impression that readers do not actually buy the clothes in these artsy fashion spreads—perhaps because they are expensive, and not terribly easy to find. It seems I was mistaken. Apparently, putting these clothes on faux-suicidal models simply ruins them for the consumer market.
2. Suicide is no laughing matter, ever.
“If we glorify suicide, we’re contributing to the problem. We’re also making light of an incredibly painful subject—one that many people are way too familiar with,” Filgate writes. The Guardian’s Helen Lewis asks,” “What will children in that kind of distress see when they look at those Vice pictures? They will see a menu.” And McCorquodale calls the spread “pretty devastating in the real world.”
This probably overstates Vice’s influence in the real world. Lewis cites a number of statistics and studies in making her case that the magazine is being irresponsible by giving vulnerable people a “menu” of suicidal options, but are Romeo and Juliet, The Awakening, The Virgin Suicides not guilty of the same? Somehow The Hours is acceptable, but a photo re-creating Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning isn’t? There seems to be an implicit distinction being drawn here between real art and what Sauers calls a “silly fashion spread”; only Filgate, of the writers I’ve cited, allows that it could be considered art. Perhaps Vice’s mistake was not calling it a “photo essay.”
But Vice wouldn’t do that—be less provocative—because, as its critics note, “this is what Vice does” (The Guardian). The magazine prides itself on its “poor taste” (Salon) and “capacity to épater le bourgeois” (Jezebel), and is “getting the attention it wanted” (MyDaily). And yet, here these writers are, working themselves into a lather and giving Vice all of the attention that they accuse Vice of shamelessly seeking. Yes, the spread may be an “editorial decision to get more pageviews,” as Filgate writes, but isn’t her column, too? And mine?
All of us have now drawn attention to “Last Words”—which, if Lewis is to believed, could result in more suicides than if we had all left it alone. But Vice, somewhat surprisingly, has bowed to the media-crit mob and removed the suicide spread from its website. The critics will claim victory, but Vice has won again: “Last Words” got all the pageviews it was going to get, and now the company can appear to care about giving offense. Meanwhile, readers are rushing out to get their hands on a print copy. I hope it doesn’t inspire anyone to hurt themselves, but if it does, I won’t blame Vice.
Ryan Kearney is a story editor at The New Republic.