That must have been quite the brainstorming session at Vice, tossing out ideas for their latest photo-gallery shocker. When you’ve already covered, “Donkey Sex: the Most Bizarre Tradition,” the bar just keeps getting higher.
The results: a new set of pictures inspired by famous female writers who died by suicide, with beautifully framed models posing in their final moments. There’s Sylvia Plath, kneeling at the stove. And Tawainese author Sanmao holding the nylons tightening around her neck. Each picture also includes a list of where to buy the fashion each model is wearing – the nylons included.
It is loathsome, on so many levels – misogynistic and dangerous, not least because Vice caters to young people, who have the highest rates of suicide. But don’t blame those Vice editors. It’s hard work to stay edgy, these days, when the line you’re trying to be the first to cross keeps leaping ahead of you, and your Internet-travelling audience has seen it all before.
Even discussing this photo gallery is a quandary: After all, though you won’t find a link here, you won’t need to look far. Jezebel, a website that looks at news from a feminist perspective, did a piece on the photo gallery – which, aside from some brief words of outrage, just ran their own lineup of the pictures. The Telegraph took the better path: raising the issue of where this will all end – and the risk of glamourizing suicide, also without including a link. And Twitter was full of similar tweets, people voicing outrage, but refusing to link to the pics, which likely only prompted their followers to hunt them down.
At The Globe and Mail, we write about suicide with care, and although most experts believe discussing the issue openly is the best way to prevent it, we avoid explicitly depicting the manner of death. Of course, Vice, the purveyor of previous fine reads such “80s Coke Sluts” has no such constraints.
But for all its punker aspirations, as a recent New Yorker magazine details, Vice is not a little upstart any more – it is an international, multimedia corporation with dozens of office around the world, more than one million followers on YouTube, and a TV show on HBO. In 2011, it was valued at $200-million (U.S.). It grew up from a little periodical in Montreal by not growing up – priding itself on being a potty-mouthed teenager. Now that it’s of mainstream proportions, does it have a greater responsibility? And shouldn’t the mainstream investors and partners, by virtue of their profit-making corporate ties, be also held to account?
Perhaps surprisingly, something finally gave: On Tuesday afternoon, Vice took down the fashion spread and replaced it with a statement. “ ‘Last Words’ … 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,” it reads. “We will no longer display ‘Last Words’ on our website and apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended.” Whether the apology was morally or corporately motivated is up for debate.
It used to be that fringe magazines existed on the fringes – now photo galleries of suicidal women are posted online, where anyone can see them, and the controversy they generate, even if the content is eventually retracted, serves to draw more clicks. That puts those who want to challenge the notion that these editorial choices are harmless – that they’re just “overreacting,” or “can’t take a joke”– in a tough spot. But pretending it’s not there didn’t work for suicide prevention, and it won’t work here.
Standards around social responsibility have fallen while content has become more accessible. And this isn’t the work of disenfranchised weirdos in their basement – these are powerful corporations (like Facebook with its hate-crime problem) delivering the message, or at least enabling its delivery, and making scads of money at it.
How far will they go? As far as they can. After all, if there are consequences, the loss is ours to bear.