So after a day of massive international outrage, Vice magazine took down their suicide-themed fashion spread from their website and replaced it with an apology. News media, including The Globe and Mail, had accused the famously provocative magazine of encouraging suicide by portraying beautiful and famous women about to kill themselves while wearing the newest fashions, and for once the moral pressure had an effect.
The series of photographs was originally a part of the magazine’s fiction issue, which contained, this time, stories by women only. The fiction is usually pretty good in Vice, and this special issue is no exception, with a mix of vibrant newcomers and famous names such as Joyce Carol Oates. It’s too bad for those writers that the controversy about the fashion section – the least important part of the issue, really – overshadowed an exciting and significant new set of stories.
But the fashion shoot was nominally literary as well. Each picture showed a young model posing as a famous female author in the act of suicide. The authors represented are the most famous suicides in modern literature – Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, of course – and some more recent tragedies, including Iris Chang, the historian who died in 2004, leaving behind a young son (who might have actually seen this dramatization of his mother’s death in the service of fashion). Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper) was shown giving herself chloroform; Taiwanese novelist Sanmao was shown hanging herself with a pair of tights .
The main objection to the spread was from medical organizations concerned with the risk of copycat behaviour among young people, who certainly don’t need any glamorous portrayals of suicide or details about exactly how to accomplish it.
True, certainly. But it isn’t really Vice magazine’s original idea to glamorize literary suicides, or to associate them with sartorial fashion. We’ve been doing that for about 300 years.
Literature itself has glamorized suicide. Suicide has been a great theme, from Goethe’s Werther to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In fact, those two famous fictitious suicides are also the most glamorous, and both are linked to fashion. After The Sorrows Of Young Werther appeared in 1774, a generation of privileged young men began to dress in yellow trousers and blue jackets, as their troubled hero was described. The imagined clothes of Anna Karenina inspire runway shows and photo shoots to this day. (It is often said that Young Werther inspired a wave of copycat suicides across Europe, which is why suicide clusters are sometimes called the Werther Effect, but there is no hard evidence about any deaths linked to that novel.)
Shakespeare used suicide as a plot solution in Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet. Many of his suicides are sympathetic ones: they are, like Ophelia, tragic and wronged.
And one of the most copied, reinterpreted and reproduced paintings in the world is the John Everett Millais pre-Raphaelite fantasy of the beautiful Ophelia dying so beautifully in her luxury gown in a beautiful brook.
As for authors, of course if they end their own lives they are going to gain notoriety and a certain noble, martyred stature by it, and their works are going to be be seen through this filter of tragedy thereafter. That may be stupid. But it’s still always titillating. The list of famous male writers who did it – Gerard de Nerval, Hart Crane, Stefan Zweig, Jerzy Kozinski, Yukio Mishima, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace – is also long, and these guys also added to the literary suicide mystique. But they are not quite as inviting of sympathy. One can’t really imagine anyone doing a beautiful fashion spread about their manner of death.
It wasn’t Vice magazine that created the deep societal obsession with Plath’s suicide and the way she looked. The poet is popularly known as much for her tragic life story as for her writing. That life and its gruesome end has been dramatized by many other artists, and was even made into a Hollywood film with Gwyneth Paltrow(!) as Plath. There has been an industry created around this death – an industry that relies on the image of a young and beautiful woman for its éclat, a woman sensitive and wronged, not unlike Ophelia.
Vice magazine is offensive and tasteless and crass and in this case possibly even dangerous, but it is us.
The online feminist magazine Jezebel published an outraged response to the Vice shoot, making all the important points about the danger of heroicizing self-harm. But they reprinted several of the racy photos. And at the bottom of the article was an alluring link that said, in capital letters, “MORE SUICIDE STORIES”.