For a publication that’s been walking that fine line between good and bad taste for years, Vice Magazine managed to piss off a whole bunch of people at once with the photo spread in its recent Fiction Issue. Titled “Last Words,” it staged a series of models portraying female writers who had famously committed suicide—or, in the case of Dorothy Parker, who had tried but never made it into the club—on the brink of the act. And, being a fashion shoot, it also offered the appropriate information in case you wanted to track down that fetching frock whose pockets Virginia Woolf filled with rocks, or the stockings Taiwanese author Sanmao used to hang herself.
It must have sounded edgy to someone. Vice has been trying to reposition itself as Real Journalism for a few years now, and they’ve had some success. And this issue, with its all-female roster that included Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, and an interview with Marilynne Robinson, would have been a great little fuck-you to all those other journals that still can’t nudge their VIDA pie charts past the one-third mark. It’s tempting to think they were close, if only they’d quit while they were ahead… But the sidebar of their online edition still carries such classy gems as “The Westminster Dog Show… On Acid!” and “VICE Meets the Biggest Ass in Brazil.” (Really? I don’t think they were looking very hard). Classy it ain’t, quite.
Nor was “Last Words” even edgy. It was offensive. And I say this as someone who doesn’t offend easily, at least not when it comes to humor. I grew up on National Lampoon, in its filthy and irreverent heyday during the 1970s, and humor doesn’t get much ruder than that—there’s a reason their 1977 comedy album was called That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick. It was gross, druggy, often sexist, made fun of any and all sacred cows, and was wildly inappropriate for my tender years. I have fond memories of buying the X-Rated 3-D Issue, the one with Stevie Wonder on the cover wearing 3-D glasses, when it hit the newsstands in the summer of 1975. Which would have made me all of 12. And no, I have no idea where my parents were—luckily for my sense of humor, which was irrevocably darkened and twisted by everything I could get my hands on, and did.
I do remember, though, the time the National Lampoon had to apologize. The 1976 “Diamond Jubilee” issue, notable mainly for its preview of the fabulous 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, featured, toward the front, a few pages of truly stupid fake anniversary congratulations. One, purportedly from Lenny Bruce, read “I woulda LOVED you if I hadn’t O.D.ed on the crapper!” And another, which bore Liza Minnelli’s name, expressed the identical sentiment in the name of her mother.
Minnelli sued. And while the outcome of the settlement is off the record, a year later publisher Matty Simmons printed a public apology in the front of the book. It was, frankly, a crappy apology, of the “we’re sorry you were offended” variety, ending with the sentiment
There will always be a conflict between freedom of speech and personal feelings, and Ms. Minnelli is, we suspect, not alone in her views.
But what’s interesting is that they then gave Liza equal column space beside Simmons, and let her have her say:
Despite his apology, I’m afraid he missed the point. I was not defending what people might think of me. It was the gross, inaccurate and vile things you inferred about my mother that really upset me. I know it’s chic to be irreverent. Even trendy. But good taste still counts. I am her daughter. I am proud to be. How can I let you assault her memory in this fashion and find humor in it?
Mr. Simmons then says that I obviously do not hold the National Lampoon in high regard. Wrong again. I’m all for a good laugh. But never at so high a price.
Vice also issued a public apology for the “Last Words” piece, and pulled it offline (it can still be found in their print magazine). And I think that was the right thing to do. It’s hard to say where the division between funny and sick lies, but suicide is a dicey one. All feminist implications aside, it’s not really all right to make light of mental illness. And while the deaths of Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf may have reached trope status at this point, Iris Chang’s son is 11 years old. Remember all the talk after 9/11 about how soon was too soon—not to joke about it, but to joke at all? Too soon, Vice. It may want to be taken seriously, but a journal’s general zeitgeist involves more than reporting on important topics or hiring respected writers. (Honestly, pace everyone who’s ever claimed to read Playboy for the interviews, I think Vice’s exuberantly sophomoric “DOs and DON’Ts” fashion takedown is still the best thing about it.) In these days of all-pervasive irony, when Jon Stewart is cited as one of the most trusted names in news, that elusive edge is getting harder and harder to find. It’s good to see people taking chances. But it’s also good to be reminded, every once in a while, what it looks like when the line is crossed.