This week, Vice Magazine unveiled a fashion spread featuring images based on famous women writers who killed themselves. To call it merely tasteless would be to understate how calculated it was as well as how revolting it was — it literally created an image based on a real writer who really hung herself with a pair of stockings, and then it told you where to buy the stockings.
And because it was awful, a lot of people wrote about how awful it was, and Vice eventually took it down from the online magazine while (of course) leaving it in the print edition, and they apologized, sort of, in that “sorry if you’re mad about the fashion model we posed with a gun to her mouth” way that’s so very common and dispiriting.
If I had to guess, I’d guess whoever thought of it will get a promotion.
Yesterday, my Twitter feed filled up with people who were horrified by the spread, but also with some folks arguing that it was the duty of all of us to ignore it and stop talking about it. The magazine, this thinking went, was obviously only were doing it to make people angry, to attract the attention that comes with horror, to get eyeballs that showed up expecting to be disgusted and were not disappointed.
If I had to guess, I’d guess it’s probably true. The magazine’s semi-apology claiming that this all stems from their attempt to be editorial isn’t remotely persuasive; nobody puts a gun in a model’s mouth and doesn’t know that’s going to be a storm. You only do it if you want the storm. They wanted the storm, they got it, they probably counted the clicks and are perfectly happy.
This particular line of thought, the settle-down line, holds that when you know something is bait, when you know it’s there to make you angry, you simply ignore it. You see a fashion spread, for instance, where women killing themselves is used as fashion and commerce and smarmy provocation, and you know that if you say anything, they win. So you say nothing. You stay quiet.
There are times when this approach has some appeal to me. When I see on Twitter that someone with an egg avatar and two followers has gotten a writer I know to spend ages arguing back and forth about nothing, there is part of me that thinks, “Why bother? The world is full of awfulness; you will never beat back all of it.” We all ignore things all day long; if we didn’t, we’d never get anything done.
But Vice asks for credibility. It’s trying to position itself as a force in a kind of gonzo journalism for bros. They have a series on HBO. They don’t have an egg avatar. They get — and want — attention for the things they do that are serious. This isn’t scouring the internet for obscure horrible people doing horrible things in tiny corners and exhausting yourself howling at the moon over it. This is seeing a powerful media brand selling degrading images of violence in an issue they’re claiming is all about women in fiction.
It’s insidious and frustrating, the idea that the more blatant an effort to offend for attention, the more the offended are to blame if they react. It imposes a sort of duty of measured inertness, as if you owe it to the greater good not to challenge something if the people who dumped it out into the world don’t really believe in it but only want a reaction. It rewards anything you believe to be craven exploitation by suggesting that the more you believe it’s just craven exploitation, the more you owe it to the world to sit silently, roll your eyes, and be quiet. It makes craven exploitation bulletproof.
It’s insidious and frustrating, but (or maybe because) it’s true. It’s true, I suspect, that Vice probably got what they wanted from this when Jezebel wrote about it. It’s true that we may all be following the intended script, including me. It’s not that I don’t get it; we all get it. And I can’t speak for anybody else, but as a writer, I feel sort of bullied either way when things like this happen — bullied into responding as I know I’m expected to, or bullied into sitting quietly while somebody flicks me on the ear. Neither feels good; in fact, both feel awful.
But both feel awful because both are responses to something that feels awful already, which is seeing real and serious issues (I’ve seen it with race and sexuality and faith; in this case, it’s the gross ways in which degradation, violence and fashion are mixed) exploited for attention. And that’s still bad, even if it works.
When this happens, when I believe or half-believe that something is only there to make me angry, it feels less like simple click bait and more like taunting. What are you going to do about it? Go ahead. Get mad. You’re only going to make it seem important.
Well, so be it. Perhaps there isn’t a good way to call out quests for attention without rewarding them in the short term. But in the long term, this spread still happened, and Vicewill always be the magazine that published it. And I will always be a writer who predictably wrote about how gross it was. I suppose we’ll both have to live with it.