Think About Your Choices, Internet: On VICE, Suicide, and Sensitivity

[Trigger warning.]

You know what is sooooo sexy? Mental illness, AM I RIGHT?

At first angry glance, that’s what it appeared the VICE photo shoot that made the Internet all astir this week was meant to portray. For those who missed it, it was a series of pictures featuring very pretty women in very expensive clothes imitating the suicides of famous female writers. You know, your stones in rivers, your guns, your ovens. The last shot of a woman sprawled across the concrete, taken from the top of a building, her hair sprawled around her face just so, was a particular kick in the ass. VICE has since taken the photos off the Internet after being hit by the funnel cloud of rage, but they still exist in their print fiction issue.

My initial reaction was to say, “What the WHA?” over and over, with some extra adjectives thrown in now and then. To think about how even when women accomplish great things, particularly accomplished women in the literary and art world, they’re still relegated to either their CRAAAAZY EMOTIONS (also known as mental illness) or their lovely girly clothes. Or in this instance, BOTH! Yay! There were a lot of feels, on feminist levels, on violence triggering levels, on decent humanity levels.

But the thing is, I don’t think VICE–or the woman who was responsible for posting these photos on the site–thinks suicide is sexy. I don’t think any sane human being thinks suicide is sexy. Or rather, in reality there are, but those people are typically not generating ad revenue but actually contemplating ending their lives, and they are the exact reason why pieces like this should never run. What I do think VICE thought is that it would be EDGY. It would be CONTROVERSIAL and drive lots of traffic. It’s not ART unless it offends someone, RIGHT? And of course, in some of this, they were right. Maybe, in some deluded parts of their brains, they even thought the photo shoot would in some way pay tribute to these important women.

They in fact could have done a photo shoot paying tribute to female authors, in a very different way. In LOTS of different ways. I’m actually a fan of fashion, and believe it can be innovative and powerful, and not necessarily demeaning to women at all. But it was the EDGE factor that gutted it.

Their apology issued on Tuesday only served to confirm my suspicions. “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. ‘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.” No admission of saying, “This idea was vile,” but instead, “Sorry that our unconventionality offended you.”

Listen. I just want you to sit back and think about the world for a moment and the different ways we live.

In one corner of the world, there are people who dedicate their lives to being EDGY. To PUSHING THE ENVELOPE. To doing whatever they can to drive lots of traffic to their websites, to inspire lots of discussion about their privileged art and ideas. Because in our ADD culture, you better have something snappy and different before we all move on to the next BuzzFeed article of baby animals doing the darndest things.

In another corner of the world, there are generations of young women who are angry. They are sad and they feel alone. It is hard for them to see how “it gets better,” because better still seems very far away. A lot of the time, these young women will turn to words, either to scrawling their own frantic poetry or novella length diary entries into journals that become their life line, or to books, to other people who have said it all better. Maybe sometimes people around them will look at them with concern, ask if they’re depressed, or wonder why they’re interested in things that are “too dark for their age,” which will only make them feel like more of a freak. And maybe they will read Sylvia Plath, maybe they will read Virginia Woolf, maybe they will read Sanmao, and they will relate. And when they see people glorifying not their words but their suicides, they will think, well, it’s inevitable, then. Guess that’ll be me. At least maybe one day I’ll be famous for it.

And VICE, this part of the world is too important for your bullshit.

So listen, young people, middle aged people, old people who contemplate suicide, who are triggered by obnoxious people on the Internet trying to push the envelope: I am sorry. It is not inevitable. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep having crazy emotions, even when it hurts to feel them. We will get there together.


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