Offensive Photo Spreads and Insincere Apologies

Throughout its existence, Vice magazine has attempted to cultivate an image of edgy rebelliousness, with provocative covers and journalism that runs less to "Here are stories you need to know about" and more to "Check out this crazy shit that's happening somewhere!" Which is fine, but it has a definitely male perspective, which is one of the reasons people were shocked when the latest issue of the magazine featured a photo spread of models re-enacting the suicides of famous female writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. The caption below each photo described their method of suicide, along with credit for the clothes the models were wearing. The most disturbing shot was probably that of a model posing as Iris Chang with a gun pointed at her head, but the most tasteless had to be that of the one portraying Taiwanese author Sanmao, who hanged herself with a pair of stockings. They included a fashion credit for the stockings wrapped around the model's neck.

After what one might have thought would be entirely predictable criticism, Vice pulled the photo spread off their web site and issued a brief apology, which was itself a rather un-Vice-like thing to do. (The photos, along with a lengthier description of the controversy, can be seen here at Jezebel.) So did they do the right thing by pulling the photos? And should they have apologized? I'm a little conflicted, but since we seem to be seeing a lot of these kinds of mini-controversies lately—someone says something others find offensive, then we debate whether they should have said it, whether they should apologize, and where the boundaries between provocative art/entertainment and just being a jerk are (see here on the question of rape jokes in standup comedy)—let me give this a shot.

I'm sure there are some who would characterize Vice removing the photos from their site as caving to the pressure of the PC police. But sometimes, caving to the pressure is just the right thing to do. When somebody says, "Hey, that was really uncool," a thoughtful and open-minded person (or magazine) should be able to say, "You know what? You're right. That was really uncool" without being condemned for being cowardly. Being told that what you did or said was uncool can be an important part of growth. We've come to expect that any time somebody gets criticized, the natural thing for them to do is get defensive and fight back. But maybe Vice realized that it was a mistake, and they're trying to do the right thing. If that's the case, then they deserve some praise.

But maybe that's not what they're doing. We'll get to that in a moment, but for the sake of argument, let's try a defense of the photo shoot. Even though it appeared in a magazine known for its bad-boy image, this was a fiction issue devoted to women writers. The photographer was a woman, too. And there wouldn't be anything wrong with a magazine attempting to produce a visual piece about the suicides of all these brilliant women in a way that was emotionally vivid without being exploitative.

Convincing? Well ... maybe not quite. Personally, I just can't get past the fashion credits, particularly the stockings. It suggests that they were just trying to make a provocative fashion spread, instead of approaching this with much in the way of care and consideration.

But once it's out there and generating controversy, should they have taken the pictures down from their website? That's what they did, but it's a fair bet that more people have now seen them, through Jezebel and wherever else they're available online, than would have otherwise. So I think a better choice would have been for the magazine's editors to sit down, do some hard thinking about the substance of the response it generated—not just "How do we deal with the fact that we're under attack?" but "Do they have a point?"—and then write an introduction that would accompany the photos on their web site. It could say something like, "When we decided to do this photo shoot, we knew it was provocative, but we now understand that we didn't put enough thought into it. There has been a strong response, and here are some of the most incisive critiques of our choice that we've seen." Then discuss the best arguments people have been making against the photo shoot. It's tempting to find the stupidest things people have said and respond to those, because that's easy. But looking for the most serious ones would show that you're not just being defensive or hoping the issue goes away quickly, but you actually want to hear what your critics have to say, with the appreciation that the critics might be right. And then finally, they could have said, "We've decided to leave the photos here on our site—they're all over the web now anyway—so you'll be able to look at them if you choose, and contribute to the discussion."

Instead, Vice offered up the same kind of apology we nearly always hear in situations like this, saying they "apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended." The trouble with this kind of rote response isn't that it's necessarily insincere, though it often is. The trouble is that it doesn't take a stand on whether you were actually wrong to have said what you said. That's a very hard thing to do, which is why people do it so rarely, particularly in public life. None of us think our own motives are bad, so we always have what seem to ourselves to be perfectly good reasons to have acted or spoken the way we did. The pro forma apology leaves us with no idea what the people at Vice now think about all this. And at this point, that might be the most interesting thing to learn.

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