Vice provoked the ire of denizens of decency around the web when they ran a fashion spread depicting photos of famous female authors in the act of doing themselves in. It has since been removed. But was it really in poor taste, or just poorly done? How should we talk about and show the complex tragedy of suicide?
With respect. Suicide is a terrible, often misunderstood thing, and we are right to guard its victims and their families protectively. But in a country where the numbers of suicides are now double that of homicides, when some 1 million people attempt to end their lives annually, when suicide and the mental illness that causes it are both highly stigmatized, when the very subject is taboo, we find ourselves in a conundrum. Instinctively rushing to cover up what we should be shouting about from the rooftops.
Female suicides in particular may hold a certain fascination because they are, well, female. Suicide, like all violence, is thought of as the domain of men. Though men may be more likely to pull it off, women attempt to end their lives three times more often. And though women often use less violent means (poison, pills), their desire to die is still viewed as antithetical to femaleness, a final circuitous grab at the kind of aggressive power granted to men but absent from women's lives.
Sad or angry young men commit suicide. These are not the feelings we assign to women. Women talk out their feelings, admit vulnerability, seek help, listen to others, care what people think, are more social, so we assume.
For women who feel disconnected, mad at the world, mad at themselves, and unable to make or sustain the bonds that buffer against wanting to self-harm, this is doubly problematic. All of this means we are less likely to see our "sweet girls" or "lovely young women" as raging beneath that placid exterior, to intercept those impulses.
Perhaps this is why we are so drawn tales of women who kill themselves — it is a bullhorn shout from the gender we insist speak with a whisper. It's the ultimate final word. It upends all of our deeply held ideas, no matter how stereotypical or misguided. Because traditionally speaking, when the gender gifted with the capacity for making life ends it, especially her own, it breaks all the rules.
The women depicted in Vice's fashion spread were brilliant thinkers and writers who struggled with mental health, cultural assumptions, personal demons. I do not think Vice was wrong to find this fascinating. It is fascinating. I don't know a woman who loves reading who wasn't at some point or another enamored of all the great writers, particularly those who died by their own hands, particularly women. But this is something you tend to grow out of. To quote Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer in Annie Hall: "Sylvia Plath — interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality."
Interestingly, Plath has been rediscovered by a young generation of college women and men who are not so interested in the way her life ended — perhaps a sign of progress. A professor who created a college course at Bennington called "The Problem of Plath," notes “What she does is give them permission to express a particular kind of rage that is not self-annihilating and is not simply bitchy. It’s something deeper and more significant and more important.”
If only that sort of understanding was part of Vice's take. In the hands of a more mature publication with a greater sensitivity and commitment to the context in which those women lived, worked and suffered, that spread might have been really moving. I looked at it with interest, and wanted to be engaged in some meaningful way by it, but instead I was hit with a dull thud. It felt cheap and trollish. Provocative? Sure. But for all the wrong reasons.
But Vice isn't the only entity to take a turn at the voyeurism inherent in photographing depictions of dead or dying women. Culturally, we kind of have a thing for it. A terrific piece at the Atlantic that asks "Why Do So Many People Like Looking at Images of Women Committing Suicide?" looks at the numerous depictions of the sort in history:
From Lucretia piercing her bare breast with a dagger, to Cleopatra clutching the asp to her milky bosom, to Ophelia floating weightlessly in a flower-filled stream, female suicide has long been a titillating subject for artists.Even un-famous suicides have inspired art and fashion. There's L'Inconnue de la Seine, the unknown teenage suicide fished from the river with an impossibly peaceful look on her lovely face. Her death mask, taken by a smitten morgue worker, has been inspiration for dozens of works of literature and music, as well as the basis for the Resusci Anne CPR doll, the "most kissed face" of all time. There's Evelyn McHale, who jumped off the Empire State Building in 1947, leaving a strangely serene-looking corpse lying on top of a crushed limo. The Life magazine photo of her Sleeping Beauty-like corpse became an Andy Warhol print.
Author Emily Matchar theorizes as to why: A woman who kills herself at a young age remains young forever (not to mention beautiful). There's an inherently romantic (not to mention submissive) notion in the idea of giving into the greater, more sweeping forces of Death. As a culture, we are fixated on dead, dying beautiful women. They are in art, they are in tons of fashion ads, they are in books, and, we do seem to love them in films.
From Beth in Little Women to Satine in Moulin Rouge! to Winona Ryder/Charlize Theron in Autumn in New York/Sweet November, the rosy-cheeked, glassy-eyed consumptive, the ethereally pale cancer patient, are alluring. They're thin. They're passive. Their needs are few.
Need more examples in pop culture? This site, "Stop Female Death in Advertising" ought to cover it. Matchar notes that the Vice photos could have shown these fascinating women depicted in all manner of playful poses, or even just creating. But they chose instead to show the one thing that undid these women instead of all the things that made them.
It could have been different. It could have been better. In another great analysis of the Vice spread at New York Magazine, Michelle Dean points out that it isn't so much that they explored suicide, it's that it was done so very badly. She found the shots to be "bland, anesthetized, boring," the clothes drab, random, and nothing about the project well-considered. But one thing she wants very much to make clear is that nothing about the Vice photos (to her) made suicide look cool or glamorous. More importantly, though, nothing about the self-destructive impulses in art will ever be easy to look at:
Much of the best feminist art asks questions about self-destruction and might not survive this test. The truth is that feelings of self-destructiveness are messy and disturbing. Take a look at the work of someone like Ana Mendieta, who often involved blood and gore directly. “She wants to feel the spray of blood on her skin,” a critic remarked of her retrospective. Or the imagery of Francesca Woodman, who would commit suicide at just 22 after creating these startling, haunting images of herself fading into wallpaper, the floor, the window. Taste had no dominion there, and perhaps it shouldn’t, since taste for a long time has meant that women should be quiet, demure, and obedient.
But an important distinction here is that those are artists who controlled their own message, their own vision, who were active agents exploring the messiness of their illness or destructive impulses. It's important to those of us still in the land of the living to tread carefully in this ground, to honor the complexity of those lives, to not glamorize their choice, but to tell the truth about it.
As a leading psychiatrist on suicide and depression research, Charles F. Reynolds III, notes in a recent story about the growing numbers of suicides in the U.S., "Unless we shine the light on it, it's going to continue to be a real issue. ... Rather than recognizing mental illness as a complex brain disorder we continue to stigmatize it as a failure of character."
And as much of a misstep as Vice's photo spread was, here we are, using it to talk about suicide, about art, and about complicated questions in both those things. What would be an even greater failure is to shy away from talking about it at all.
Photo Credit: Robert Wiles, LIFE