This week, the shock-mongers at Vice are in trouble over a fashion spread depicting famous female writers who have committed suicide, in the act of committing suicide. There's Sylvia Plath kneeling before the oven, historian Iris Chang with a gun in her mouth, Charlotte Perkins Gilman clutching a chloroform-soaked rag to her face. All wearing kicky retro blouses and drapey, romantic gowns, of course.
The spread created so much controversy—"ghoulish," wrote the New York Observer; "shameful," said Jezebel; "a new low," said Salon—that Vice took the pictures off the website, posting a standard semi-apology ("[we] apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended").
But Vice is hardly the first to aestheticize the suicides of famous women, to make death by one's own hand look glamorous, even sexy. 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.
So what is it about dead young women that artists find so romantic?
Some of the fascination is obvious. Early suicide means staying young and beautiful forever. Female suicide is also associated with certain supposedly feminine attributes: sensitivity, being swept away by emotion, submission to forces larger than oneself. But more significantly, the suicide fixation is part of a general cultural obsession with beautiful dead or dying women, in fiction and in life. 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.
Using images of gorgeous dead women to sell consumer products isn't new either. You only need to flip through a glossy magazine to see images of apparently deceased women selling sunglasses and headphones and stiletto heels. A French Wrangler jeans ad shows a mud-splattered corpse half submerged in a pond. A series of Lanvin ads feature stiff, pale women splayed on couches as if in rigor mortis, cats surrounding their bodies. The platinum blonde in a Versace ad lies sprawled at the bottom of a marble staircase in a sparkly purple gown, blank eyes gazing heavenward. To judge by fashion shoots, you'd think necrophilia was as hip as skinny jeans.
Like these ads, the Vice spread uses passive dead or near-dead female bodies to sell clothes. Which is gross enough. But the fact that THIS is the way Vice chooses to portray such brilliant and accomplished female authors—mad, tragic, broken, silenced—is doubly sexist and offensive.
In my imaginary photo shoot, Dorothy Parker is mid-joke at the Algonquin Round Table. Virginia Woolf is squeezing Vita Sackville-West's ass at a picnic. Sylvia Plath is typing, baby on her lap. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is handing out pamphlets on evolution at a Darwinist meeting.
They're active, they're in their element. They're doing the things that made them who they were, not the one thing that ended their lives.
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