Women as Bodies: The Vice Spread

Vice Magazine has now taken down its fashion photography spread featuring reenactments of women writers‘ suicides. In their statement, they suggest that they were trying to do something creative, something that pushed the boundaries, and that in attempting to do so, they made a misjudgment:

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.

Anne Sexton, leaning back on a chair, in front of a desk with a typewriter and many books.

Anne Sexton

I won’t get into the issue of defining art or “art” vs. “photo-editorial”. What I will say is that if this spread is art, then it is bad art. There is nothing unconventional it. There is nothing unique or unusual in focusing on the suicides of women writers, even to the detriment of a consideration of their work. Michelle Dean writes of the photographs Vice published:

The images are not particularly shocking or revealing. Probably the best compliment you can give them is that they don’t “glamorize” anything. They are bland, anesthetized, boring. The clothes in them are equally drab, and appear to be randomly chosen, without connection to the horror the photographer indifferently depicts.

What these images in fact do is to combine two modes of limiting women to the role of “bodies”. In focusing upon their suicides, without any consideration of the experiences that led them there and how they expressed their sufferings, the photographs emphasize women’s bodies becoming corpses. Wordless. Literally. The unspeaking body of the dead woman is combined with the silenced body of the fashion model. Models can, of course, speak, but they are not thought of as speaking subjects.

Vice turned these women writers into wordless objects by combining two very common ways of focusing on women as bodies instead of as thinkers and speakers. What would have been unconventional would have been to find a way to combine these depictions of women as bodies with women as creators of and with language. What would have been original would have been to find a way to show these women writers as both remarkable artists and embodied, instead of participating in the long tradition in which women’s bodies and the ends of those bodies are used to distract from their writing.

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