Dispatches | June 20, 2013

For Vice’s Fiction issue of 2013, the editors decided to focus on the female writer. There’s the heavy hitters, of course. Stories by Mary Gaitskill and Joyce Carol Oates, an interview with the venerable Marilynne Robinson, and a fashion spread from Annette Lamothe-Ramos and Annabel Mehran, depicting the suicides of famous women writers suicides at the very last moment.

The fashion editorial, Last Words, is some kind of interpretation of the last words of, in what Vice themselves eventually apologized for (in that sorry-not-sorry you were offended way so many publications and politicians quack back when they realize the ratings are plummeting), the “demise of a set of writers whose lives we very much wish weren’t cut tragically short, especially at their own hands.” Perhaps it’s supposed to be a nod that a picture contains a thousand words, but the actual words accompanied by the images are how much the clothes cost, and wouldn’t you also like to own the pair of stockings Sanmao used?

I admit, I know very little about fashion. I am the worst dressed person in the room almost always, and this example photo of Katy Perry on a farm is nice, I guess, but I’m spending way too much time trying to figure out why anyone would wear such a dress with a bunch of chickens doing their thing at your feet. So no, I don’t understand fashion, but I do understand the consequences of images.

Last Words could raise a multitude of concerns on what categorizes art: should it not shock, get people talking, confuse and make us question the stakes of our reality? Of course it should, that’s what good art does. But shock is not enough, and shock with a price tag continuously makes us pay more than we can afford.

If this was meant to shock, and most assuredly it was, then it is meant to shock us into desiring dresses and shoes, not to contemplate the tragedy of genius lost too soon. Here are the lives of these women reduced to an image, at the precipice of their careers and the love, anger and sadness of their bodies a second away from no longer moving. Yet what concern is raised here, except one to rush the bile from our bodies into the toilet?

If there is a commentary to be made here, it is that someone will always make money off of you, especially in your death.

It’s too much the madwoman locked in the attic; if a woman is a writer, and if she writes something serious,  even her death cannot escape her from the labels of her gender. Here are the women who wrote oddly-sane works, yet must have been just a tad bit crazy, because only those off-kilter go to such extremes. Here she is, in a pretty frock, kneeling before the oven, and soon she’ll be sprawled out in front of it: notice the dress, it got a brand name tag.

And yet, after the initial anger at these images had faded, after the apology had been read and digested and over Iris Chang is placed a quickie bandaid, I realize how large the wound is. This photo essay did not happen in a vacuum. Here is the VIDA count all over again; we’re not being published and we’re not being reviewed at nearly the same rate as men, and if we are then the moment that is worth being preserved in glossy print is our last one. All the moments up to that point are only what made your name worth appearing in the spread. There is the Numero fashion spread, “African Queen”, which has a white, sixteen year old woman in black-face selling cultural mash-ups; black is okay, but only when a white figure portrays it. There is Patton Oswalt’s lovely, moving piece about realizing that rape culture exists after he spoke to women and realized that the rape-joke cycle is not a one-off bad taste moment; this is our constant experience, one that he was blissfully ignorant of until he no longer could be. There are the sweatshops in Bangladesh that fall on the heads of their workers, and the realization that when we stop buying unethical clothes, we’re putting underpaid women out of a job.

Numero Fashion Spread. Blackface. But look, earrings!

It is amazing we are not always bleeding out.

If I was more idealistic, I might say something about how this awful moment has done some good. When better to raise awareness then the moment when the great moral outcry of disgust is at a fever pitch? But no matter how many listicles and tumblrs there are to show that there are living women writers right now creating extraordinary art, that will not be enough; the people who will look at those images are the ones who are already cognizant of the wound. The ones who do the wounding do not lose their power to do so, they bide their time and wait.

Disapproving of the system that allows these images is not enough. These images are a part of a larger narrative, one that individuals can lash out against, write against, make art in opposition to it, but the structures in place that had a glamorous Virginia Woolf grasping the stone (was it too for sale?) are shaken, but their foundations remain. The way in which those systems shaped these women’s bodies can do so again and again, and in turn shape ours into whatever it is they like. And worse, they will make us desire that they do so.

Acknowledging that it exists is, perhaps, a good first step. Raising enough of a disgust that the photos are taken down online (though not in the newsstands, and certainly they will not be erased from the internet entirely – we’ll always know where Barbara Streisand lives) is good, but what stops anyone with the access and means from publishing, again and again, these same kind of images, the same tired words, that we’ve read and felt so many times before, and made their name from the suffering of others?

This is not to say that art should shy away from such subjects as painful as suicide, never that. But we should be aware that writing, art, all of this, is a process of opening those sores and scratching at scabs, and the context of the lives of the people who bear similar wounds reopen when we package them in such a way. There is no convalescence or beauty here, there is only a price tag.