As you may know, the ever-edgy Vice Magazine* put a “controversial” fashion spread in its newly released “Women In Fiction” issue, perhaps to balance out all the tasteful content from writers like Mary Gaitskill and Joyce Carol Oates. In said spread, beautiful, well-dressed models portray various female writers who ended their lives by suicide, alongside helpful notes about the clothing and accessories they are wearing. (If you are looking for some stockings to hang yourself with, check out these super sturdy ones made by Prada!)
I think most of us can agree that this spread was in pretty bad taste, especially considering some of the writers died fairly recently and still have living family members—Iris Chang killed herself in 2004, and her son is now 11—but par for the course for a magazine that has always gone out of its way to be provocative. (Never mind the fact that violence against sexualized female bodies is the fetishized norm in fashion, and not some kind of countercultural statement). And, as expected, the spread garnered many angry blog posts and comments, blah, blah, etc.
The remarkable thing, and the reason I am writing about this at all, is that while the magazine generally responds to such criticisms with a terse, bratty “LOL U MAD” or similar refusal to engage, this time they actually removed the offending spread and all of the angry comments along with it, replacing it with a statement of apology:
“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, 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.
While this might read to some as a weak, “sorry you got mad” type of apology, it’s a pretty unprecedented action for Vice to take. As a magazine that has always championed artistic freedom above all else, and balked at the idea that words and images have real power in the world, especially when churned out by such a cultural juggernaut (or maybe accepted this, but thought “freedom to say whatever shitty thing you want” was the more important value), Vice doesn’t tend to back down on things like this.
What happened here? Did the highbrow literary women in this issue decide they didn’t want to be associated with a spread like this and force the editors’ hands? Or have the higher-ups finally decided that the brand’s increasing sense of social responsibility is directly at odds with that willfully asinine, naively individualistic, right-wing libertarian, “I don’t give a fuck” attitude that’s still left over from the days of Vice co-founder/professional troll Gavin McInnes?
I doubt they are ever going to tell us, but future issues should hold some clues as to whether the lifestyle mega-brand is, in fact, “growing up,” or if this was merely a one-off incident due to pressure from outside forces.
*Full disclosure: I used to contribute to Vice.