In 2013, VICE Magazine published a fashion spread called ‘Last Words.’ The spread appeared in that year’s fiction issue and, with the issue having been ‘entirely dedicated to female writers, photographers, illustrators, painters, and other contributors’, it was fitting that the theme of the fashion spread was female authors.
Yet the magazine – the original channel in what is now a vast media house that includes a multi-website online presence, a publishing imprint, as well as film, a television show and a record label – didn’t become a cultural titan valued at well over a billion dollars in under 20 years by doing bog-standard aspirational fashion spreads: this was not Donna Tartt in Valentino, or Margaret Atwood in Comme des Garçons. This was ‘Sylvia Plath’ kneeling before an oven in designer clothing.
The theme of this fashion spread was female authors who have committed suicide. The authors’ dates of birth and death were captioned below the photos, along with the cause of death and, of course, what the model was wearing. The piece was roundly criticized for putting a filter of romance over very real tragedies (indeed, the historian Iris Chang had killed herself less than 10 years before) and VICE soon pulled the piece from its website, though the print version remained.
Blue plaque of Sylvia Plath: writer and inspiration for VICE's 'fashion shoot'. Photo: Christian Luts via Flickr. The publication issued a fairly predictable take-no-ownership apology ‘to anyone who was hurt or offended’ but for many, the damage was done. Not only had a highly influential cultural voice dared to portray the scorched emotional landscape of a suicide as if it were a nostalgic Wes Anderson-style tableau, but VICE had reinforced the sinister reflexive position of our culture that when it comes to women – no matter what their accomplishments – their vulnerability is always more interesting than their strength. We are all, at best, Ophelias.
‘Last Words’ wasn’t shocking because it was doing anything new, it was just a particularly egregious instance of our culture repeating a destructive behaviour. Vice, indeed.
So it was with no small amount of scepticism that some of us (myself included) heard the news that VICE has begun a new website, Broadly, which will be ‘devoted to representing the multiplicity of women’s experiences.’ The scepticism was not just based on a single fashion spread. While ‘Last Words’ seemed to mark a point of no return for VICE, the publication had already positioned itself as a ‘safe space’ for people who needed their counter-culture commentary to come with a spoonful of misogyny.
VICE’s aesthetic has been greatly shaped by two men who’ve repeatedly been accused of using their non-traditional working environments and self-promoted images as being sexually-liberated men as foils for predatory behaviour: Dov Charney, whose company American Apparel has long been a major advertiser in VICE, and the fashion photographer Terry Richardson who has done extensive work for the publication.
In the last few years, numerous women who have posed for Terry Richardson have come forward to allege that he assaulted them during shoots. In 2010 Danish supermodel Rie Rasmussen confronted Richardson at a club in Paris, accusing him of exploiting young models, saying many were too afraid to reject his requests for fear that it would end their careers.
With their long-standing relationship with Dov Charney’s American Apparel, issues of VICE were always punctuated with a smattering of shots of women in sexually suggestive poses, and styled in a way that drew as much attention to what wasn’t being worn as it did to what was. Part of the cachet of American Apparel ads was that they featured women who weren’t models, though as some have pointed out, they still supported most conventional beauty standards. For VICE, it must have seemed a perfect fit: the style of the ads was irreverent and sexy but the low-fi production values and fantasy girl-next-door appearance of the models supported their brand’s positioning as being both outside of mainstream culture and inside the minds of young men.
The narrative of American Apparel as a cool, equitable workplace (they are famously ‘sweatshop free’) took a blow, though, when complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace began to surface against founder and CEO Charney. The onslaught of claims against Charney eventually led to his suspension and then firing from his role by the company’s board of directors. While Charney’s defence says that no claims of sexual harassment against him have been proven, in June of this year his former company filed documents in the Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging that, among other things, they have evidence that he sent graphic, sexual texts to employees and saved video of himself having sex with models and employees on the company’s server.
As Molly Lambert put it in an article for ESPN’s Grantland website:
‘It was very smart and also very cynical, co-opting the third-wave feminist idea that women have the right to display their own bodies and profit off of them while downplaying the reality that the person really getting rich off these images and the clothes they sold was Dov Charney.’
With the strong association between VICE, American Apparel and Terry Richardson, the publication has also undeniably profited from their images and the dubious conditions surrounding their production. VICE has always positioned itself as the magazine that wasn’t afraid to call out bullshit – but at times it has seemed as though that take no prisoners attitude applied to all but those in the VICE family.
Yet writing VICE off completely has never been easy. They have covered (and uncovered) some hugely important issues that weren’t getting talked about elsewhere. Two months after ‘Last Words’ was published, VICE published an important story alleging that First Nations women were being sexually exploited and trafficked on ships on Lake Superior. They have provided extensive coverage of the vacillating politics around reproductive rights, and regularly publish incisive feminist commentary on a range of issues – from sexism in dance music to interviews with criminologists studying why men kill women. They’ve also been a platform for publishing a lot of young, talented female writers, giving their views an important chance to be read worldwide.
So why has it so often seemed like every time VICE sticks it to the man, it’s paid for by an ad featuring a young woman in a compromising position?
It’s almost as if VICE has an indie-version
of the Madonna-Whore
Complex: seeing women in a binary of cool, clever women who they want to
publish; and beautiful fantasy women who they use for ad and click revenue – a Sontag-Leia Complex perhaps?
Given this history, the launch of Broadly has led some (myself included) to wonder if it’s just a cynical attempt to earn back a female audience they’ve spent years alienating, now that feminism is experiencing something of a resurgence in popular culture.
But dig a little deeper, and it appears VICE has been working to mend these fences for a few years now. In 2008, VICE parted ways with one of its founders, Gavin McInnes, who has since taken advantage of his free-agent status to give vent to such views as ‘feminism has made women less happy.’ ‘Creative differences’ was the reason cited for ending the relationship, but whatever the backstory, McInnes’ schtick of Grumpy Old Men Take Brooklyn was only ever going to become a liability.
In 2013, Jesse Pearson, who was then editor-in-chief (and a friend of Terry Richardson) left, and in the same year, the publication stopped hiring Richardson. While it’s not clear if there was a connection between VICE’s relationships with Pearson and Richardson ending in the same year, the fact that they no longer work with Richardson is huge, and exactly what many who have had the misfortune to model for the photographer have called on the wider fashion industry to do.
While VICE still runs American Apparel ads, this might not be such a bad thing. Having fired Charney as CEO, American Apparel has latterly been running ads that push their ethical credentials by showing (very much clothed) female workers in their factory. VICE débuted the ad campaign.
As VICE continues to expand and leaves its former tastemakers behind, one can’t help but hope that this is indicative of a broader move away from the brand of sniggering hipster misogyny that was more interested in judging than listening.
Allegations swirled around Charney, Richardson and other powerful men like the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby for years without being taken seriously. Yet recently there’s been a move to establish the truth of many of these allegations and (in some cases) to do right by the women who have been assaulted – it does seem as though something in our culture has changed. Little by little, initiatives like Slutwalks, the everday sexism project, and the humour of comedians like Tina Fey, Amy Schumer and writer Caitlin Moran that pack a stealth feminist message seem to be making a difference.
Yet in the midst of the gains, disappointment can come from some surprising places. In April of this year Jezebel – the website that published many of the testimonials against Terry Richardson and has long been known for sharp feminist commentary – published an utterly useless, misogynistic snark piece in which it pored over the personal hygiene items ordered on Amazon by a female Sony executive, orders which had been published by Wikileaks following the Sony hack. It was clickbait of the vilest sort, and a strange choice for the publication.
So is VICE worth trusting?
In February of this year, VICE appointed its first female editor-in-chief, Ellis Jones. Jones’ trajectory has been exceptional, having started at the company only six years before as an intern, and becoming managing editor as early as 2012. At the time of her appointment, the Guardian reported Jones saying that readers should expect to see VICE publishing more writing by female correspondents during her tenure.
Perhaps the most significant indicator of VICE’s good intentions is to be found in the women they have asked to write for Broadly. Jamie Peck, Rie Rasmussen and Anna del Gaizo have all made allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behaviour against Terry Richardson, and as the Observer reported soon after Broadly’s launch, all three have been hired to write for the new site. Speaking with the Observer, Broadly editor-in-chief and director of content, Tracie Egan-Morrisey stated in no uncertain terms that this was a deliberate move.
“It’s not a coincidence. Hiring these women and giving them a platform is our comment.”
While VICE’s desire to give these women a platform is nice, it is more telling that these women have decided to trust VICE with their voices.
Does Broadly indicate that VICE is finally ready to leave its Sontag-Leia Complex behind and just be cool about women? It would be great to think that it does: with their crude binary approach they’ve made a lot of money, but they’ve left a lot of women out in the cold, too. Maybe VICE finally gets that they’ve missed a trick.