Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Vice Shouldn't Have Pulled the Suicide Poets Photos

Yesterday Jezebel got really upset about something on the internet.

I'll give you a moment to recover from the shock.

I can't help but love Jezebel. They throw such amazing sassy no-nonsense fuck you Feminism right in the faces of the assholes who most deserve it.  ....aaaaand occasionally people who don't.....

Like, perhaps, debatably...

 this Vice piece; a simple spread of photos, by a woman, depicting the suicides of female poets.

It wasn't just Jez. The entire Left side of the Internet Press Core immediately picked up the cause - they did what they always do lately - oh, people are upset by something?  Good, let's re-enforce their emotional fervor so we can get hits on our website!
"Should we wait a minute? Maybe contact the artist? Fact-check?"
"Nah, let's just think of some colorful sarcastic remarks to hurl, show images from the piece out of context, & move on."

The thing is, the piece IS upsetting - it is SUPPOSE to be upsetting.  It's GOOD that people are getting upset.  Suicide is bad.  

but you don't shoot the messenger, or the artist.  Shutting down art that depicts suicide isn't going to make suicide go away.

It's sad that so many very talented women chose to end their lives like that.  It's something we should think about, do something about. & that's what art like this can inspire us to do.

but why was the focus on FEMALE suicide?  Isn't that misogynist?

Well, no.  It was part of a Feminist issue of Vice that focused on female writers.

Acknowledging that female poets have committed suicide isn't anti-woman.  If anything it is actually helpful to women to bring such a phenomenon to the attention of the public.

But isn't this exploitation for commercial purposes?

Again, no.  Vice is free, in print or online, with very few ads - sure, they need & try to get money, but that's obviously not their first priority.  The piece was modeled as part of a fashion shoot, which I did not personally see when I visited the site - & that is problematic, but it's also a common motif in a magazine known for embracing the dark side...

 isn't the combination of the fashion world with a dark, thought-provoking essay also a form of artistic commentary?

& what was Vice's response to the Internet Outrage Machine? Did they wave their dicks in Jezebele's face & scream "suck it!"
Nope, they apologized, explained the piece, and pulled the spread. This is the statement that was released:

“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.

If this statement is true, there's no reason to pull it - some viewers misunderstood it, but the intent of the piece was good, & anyway those people have already seen it & reprinted it elsewhere.  Even if Vice really did fuck up & agrees that they fucked up, they shouldn't have done that - they should have allowed people to see the images as they were originally presented.  If they felt they did the wrong thing, erasing their mistake is not a truly honest & contrite way to go about it - a good journalist doesn't destroy evidence, she exposes it further, comments on it, & allows it to be viewed & commented on.  You don't pull an article, you print a retraction.  Which, to be fair, is hard to do & doesn't always please everyone...

Vice has long been one of my favorite publications.  They are edgy, daring, and have a sensibility and a voice that is unique and exciting.  They have a lot of integrity. They are masters at exposing the ugliness of the world, and not judging it, just displaying it & letting the reader come to their own conclusions. & that's great, we need that.

Jezebel is ALSO one of my favorites, which is why I'm picking on them. ;) I want Jezebel to do their thing, too.  There's nothing wrong with them saying they didn't like the piece of art. That's OK, hell, it's awesome, it's why we love them.

-  but that doesn't mean that piece of art has to disappear.  There is plenty of room in the internet for both Jezebel & Vice to do their thing.

Everyone doesn't have to love everything.  I  HATE depictions of hangings, because I lost two loved one to suicide by hanging - you'd be surprised how many movies (ie the Island of Dr. Moreau, Sin City, The omen, Sixth Sense, Family Guy...)  have scenes in them that freak me the fuck out.  but I'm glad that I have that reaction - & I'm not sorry the art gives me it.

It would have been smart for Vice to remove the fashion side from the photos or something, sure. They could have been more tactful. but I'm glad magazines like Vice takes risks - & glad Jezebel takes risks - & if they get it wrong sometimes, that's OK.

So calm down, internet. art is in the eye of the beholder.  If you don't like it, that's OK. Sometimes it's unpleasant to look at ugly things. Just because the world is ugly doesn't mean you should claw out your eyes - instead do something to make the world more beautiful.


  1. Great points made here. Within the context of the magazine's theme, the photos are not unfounded. Might they be triggering for some people? Of course. But that doesn't mean that Vice needed to take down the photos. I think the underlying message of the photos is more troubling to many feminists. The widespread belief that being a "Woman Writer" somehow makes you more susceptible to mental illness or suicide. I'm reminded of one of my favorite columns from Dear Sugar: http://therumpus.net/2010/08/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-48-write-like-a-motherfucker/

    In it, Cheryl Strayed says: "It’s not true that to be “a woman writer means to suffer mercilessly and eventually collapse in a heap of ‘I could have been better than this,’” nor is it true that a “unifying theme is many of their careers ended in suicide” and I strongly encourage you to let go of these beliefs. They are inaccurate and melodramatic and they do not serve you. People of all professions suffer and kill themselves. In spite of various mythologies regarding artists and how psychologically fragile we are, the fact is that occupation is not a top predictor for suicide. Yes, we can rattle off a list of women writers who’ve killed themselves and yes, we may conjecture that their status as women in the societies in which they lived contributed to the depressive and desperate state that caused them to do so. But it isn’t the unifying theme.

    You know what is?

    How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig."

    And THAT is what is wrong with the Vice photo spread. It perpetuates the myth of the tortured female writer. And it doesn't show us that we can be anything else.

    1. Hi Katie,
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughtful response. It's always nice to meet another Dickinson fan. =)
      I would still disagree with your conclusion. I don't think the photo spread was wrong.
      It's interesting to bring up this idea of a broader trope making the piece more problematic - if the artist & some of her audience (me, a female poetry major no less!) have never or rarely heard of this trope, they of course will have a different interpretation of the work than an audience who IS familiar with the trope & looks at the piece in that context.
      In focusing on female suicides, the photographer is not saying that male suicides don't happen or aren't equivalent. When I tell one child I'm baby-sitting "beautiful picture!" the other might say "you think my picture is ugly!" but she is incorrect - paying attention to one child in one moment does not mean I can't appreciate the other child. In the same way, saying "some female poets have killed themselves" does not mean that some have not, or that some male poets don't kill themselves.
      The choice to focus on female subjects was partly due to the magazine having an all-female issue - a feminist theme. The photographer was a woman.
      I don't think people who kill themselves are weak. I think they were hurting & made what to them seemed the only choice - the decision to end their pain, because they perhaps weren't thinking rationally & could not see that there may be other ways.... I don't think that that final poor decision invalidates the strength they lived their lives with. I don't think that portraying Sylvia Plath at the moment of death takes away from the power of "daddy".
      I think that your comments illustrate how this piece might have been improved - perhaps, for example, including a poem excerpt from each writer, to illustrate the power of her work?
      It also inspires one to think of art pieces that would be better than the Vice piece was - one portraying female artists whose lives were not tragic, as your comment suggests, might connect with the audience in a more positive way.
      That's what's great about art - it evolves...
      but there is a place for the Vice piece as it is, even if you think it's bad art, in addition to whatever other artwork or statements people might make in response to it. The Vice piece wasn't about showing the positive - it was about the tragic. & that exists, we can't just paint over it, we have to confront it sometimes.
      However that's just my point of view. it's up to each individual to decide whether or not a piece of art is good. To you, it stunk, & you're absolutely entitled to that opinion & to express it & to not read Vice. You have very good reasons for feeling the way you do, & you may be right.
      My main point was that I don't think Vice should have taken down the photo spread in response to those criticisms, but to let people have that conversation.
      Thanks for reading & for your comment, have a good one! =)