Shame on Vice: There is nothing glamorous about being in so much pain you want to die

The Samaritans do great work offering guidance on depictions of suicide in the media and creative arts. I took them very seriously when writing my debut novel. Vice's glamorous depiction of women writers' last moments was depressingly irresponsible.

Hats off to Vice magazine. It’s rare for a fashion shoot to manage to be grotesque in such a variety of ways. But their ‘Last Words’ piece, in which seven female writers are depicted in an array of charmingly vintage outfits at the moment of their suicide by young models, is staggeringly nasty. We have a waif-like, blonde-haired Virginia Woolf wading into a river in a flowing white gown; a glossy haired Sylvia Plath kneeling in front of an oven; and, perhaps my personal favourite, the Taiwanese author Sanmao hanging herself (according to the caption, the model wears a Vivienne Tam dress and Erickson Beamon necklace.).

Below each photograph is a scattering of crucial details: name; date of birth; age at death; and, of course, method used to kill themselves. (Here, I have to say, Dorothy Parker seems to have been a bit of a disappointment to Vice, with the article reluctantly admitting that she died of “natural causes”; but, it hastily adds, this was “despite several unsuccessful suicide attempts, the first in January 1923, at age 23, by slitting her wrists”. Phew, well done, Dorothy. You just about squeaked in.)

Where do we even start? With the reduction of seven clever, influential women to one final, desperate act? The article makes no mention, obviously, of any of their work. Or with the blithe way Vice exploits this kind of suffering for a fashion shoot? With the lack of insight into the anguish of depression? Or even with the sheer absurdity of the whole thing? It’s reassuring to see, for instance, that Iris Chang found time to apply her pillar box red lipstick perfectly the morning she shot herself in the head, and that Elise Cowen’s lovely Jenni Kayne shoes weren’t scattered too far when she jumped to her death out of a window.

Surprisingly – and once again, congratulations to Vice on this – I’m not sure these things are the most shocking aspects of the shoot. The worst thing is that it is dangerous. Glamourising suicide is deeply irresponsible. As the Samaritans’ website states, “certain types of suicide reporting are particularly harmful and can act as a catalyst to influence the behaviour of people who are already vulnerable”. It points out that over 60 research papers have noted this link between the depiction of suicide in the media and imitative behaviour.

This is something I was anxious about myself whilst writing my first novel, which deals with suicide. It is an issue that anyone tackling the subject must consider. A person may study a beautifully rendered image of a woman wading into a river, and find that suicide begins to seem rather appealing – a graceful, poetic act. But there was nothing graceful or poetic about Virginia Woolf’s death: no one who has read her heartbreaking final letter to her husband Leonard could view it as anything other than frightening and desolate. There is nothing glamorous about being in so much pain you want to die.

It may sound extreme, but romanticising suicide can and does lead to deaths. And these deaths are not stylised and glitzy in the manner of Vice magazine, but ugly and desperate and lonely. That’s what real suicide looks like.

Rebecca Wait’s debut novel, The View on the Way Down, is out now (Picador, £14.99)

Update: Vice.com has removed the shoot from their website

If any of the content of this story affects you, Samaritans are available to talk 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Virginia Woolf with her father Leslie Stephen in 1902. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder