Turning Famous Women Writers Who Committed Suicide into a “Lookbook”

VICE Magazine ignited a firestorm a few weeks ago for their controversial photo editorial featuring to the ladies of the literati in their Women in Fiction issue. In addition to stories by Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Gaitskill and an interview with Marilynne Robinson, there is also a spread by photographer Annabel Mehran celebrating the literary legacies of seven women writers—Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Iris Chang, Dorothy Parker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sanmao and Elise Cowen. This tribute, however, showcases a fashion spread with seven models wearing stylish, brand-name labels as they portray the writers at the time of their deaths (or in the case of Dorothy Parker, attempted suicide), their weapon of choice in hand.

Sylvia Plath sits on the floor with her hands in her lap blankly staring into an open gas oven.

Elise Cowen lies motionless on the ground; we see her from an aerial view with her limbs sprawled across the pavement.

Virginia Woolf clutches a heavy rock against her chest as she wanders into the River Ouse.

Sanmao grips a noose made of silk stockings around her neck, preparing to hang herself.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman holds a chloroform handkerchief to her face, surrounded by yellow wallpaper.

Iris Chang sits in a parked car with a revolver pointed at her mouth.

Dorothy Parker stands over a faucet with blood streaming from her slashed wrists.

Each photo is accompanied by fashion credits and a few words detailing the circumstances surrounding each writer’s tragic end: date of birth, date of death, age at time of death, city where they died and cause of death. But lost in the photo spread are any excerpts from their works or mention of their worthy contributions to the literary canon. And the horrible and sadistic irony is not lost in the fashion editorial’s name—“Last Words”—a misnomer, considering how the magazine silences the writer’s words, effectively diminishing their achievements.

These heartbreaking stories, reenacted in the pages of VICE, are harrowing. They gut you. This photo spread strips the writers’ lives of any meaning beyond their method of suicide. It reduces a vibrant life to a despairing end.

One can’t help but feel outraged at the judgment of those responsible for “Last Words.” But as Michelle Dean of New York Magazine’s The Cut pointed out—their indiscretion was not in exploring the theme of women writers and suicide, but rather the negligent and apathetic way they framed each writer’s real struggle with mental illness. VICE is known for being “unconventional” and “edgy,” but there is something deeply distressing about printing a lookbook of conventional fashion photographs to recognize gifted women writers who committed or attempted suicide.

Anne Matchar writes in The Atlantic that “female suicide has long been a titillating subject for artists” and some of the women featured in the photo editorial wrote extensively on themes of self-destruction, pain, depression and suicide. But as Dean aptly alludes to in the title of her piece, there is a right, wrong and VICE way to delve into a discussion on the suicides of famous women—and the right way respects an individual’s dignity and humanity.

As Katy Waldman wrote at Slate,

I just see famous authors turned into beautiful, violated bodies: an exploitative impulse reproduced seven times and wrapped in fancy clothes.

After causing an uproar, VICE decided to yank the photos from their website (they’re still available on Jezebel and in the print issue) and issued a statement apologizing, albeit defending their aesthetic choices.

This is not art nor is it a celebration of these women. Let’s call it what it is: sexist and provocative shock value with a side of fashion and a price tag.

 Photo by Flickr user mike krzeszak under Creative Commons 2.0