Fame is no sanctuary from the passing of youth. Suicide is much easier and more acceptable in Hollywood than growing old gracefully.
It seems that the depiction of women who take their own lives as being vulnerable and passive, dying young and staying forever beautiful, is nothing new. Doomed Queen of Ptolemaic Kingdom Cleopatra and tragic Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are familiar narratives. The death of Marilyn Monroe has been endlessly speculated on, the initial shock giving way to decades of tabloid gossip about her personal life and what really happened.
Even lesser mortals such as L’Innconnue de la Seine can achieve iconic status in death. A teenager who drowned herself in the river sometime in the 1880s, the mystery of her life and circumstances of her death became dinner party gossip in fashionable Parisian society of the time. Her death mask went on to become the basis of the Ressusi Anne doll and she had no choice but to pucker up from beyond the grave to become the “most kissed face in the world”.
I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me…
Evelyn McHale – Suicide note
Bookkeeper Evelyn McHale jumped from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in 1947 and left a suicide note suggesting that she wanted to be quietly forgotten and requesting that there be no funeral or memorial for her. Her peaceful, delicate corpse was photographed by Robert Wiles for Time Magazine and ended up being an attention-grabbing pop culture device for everyone from Andy Warhol through David Bowie to Taylor Swift.
One woman for whom history has found it difficult to write a passive, gentle narrative is television journalist Christine Chubbuck (portrayed by Rebecca Hall in the 2016 film Christine, pictured above). Her 1974 on-air suicide while presenting the Suncoast Digest on Florida news station WXLT-TV is notorious.
Despite her talent in the field she worked in, Chubbuck had a history of depression and seemed plagued by self-doubt, often clashing with network bosses as they didn’t allow her to cover serious news topics, preferring to focus on sensationalised material designed to grab ratings. She struggled with forming friendships or intimate relationships with other people. Her final words before drawing a gun, putting the barrel behind her right ear and pulling the trigger seem to have been a direct criticism of the people she worked for.
In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.
Christine Chubbuck – final words
When asked for comment on the tragedy years later, network news director Mike Simmons was very succinct in his assessment of Chubbock’s suicide…there was no man in her life.
The crux of the situation is she was a 29-year-old girl who wanted to be married and wasn’t.
Mike Simmons – station director
Interestingly throughout the article, she is referred to as a girl, not a woman. The only known studio footage of her death is under lock and key at an undisclosed American law firm with instructions that it is never released.
In 2013, internet purveyors of low-grade clickbait journalism Vice were roundly criticised for publishing a fashion spread featuring famous female writers who took their own lives. Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Iris Chang all starred, with models posed depicting their final moments. In fabulous gowns, of course. No doubt Vice thought it arty, provocative and challenging. Instead, public response was generally one of outrage and derision. The article was subsequently removed from the site. Incidentally, four years later Vice would find themselves at the centre of a sexual harassment. Several female employees alleged that they had been pressured for sex, groped, or been the subject of lewd remarks by male colleagues. The too sexy to live “Last Words” spread really shouldn’t have been such a surprise.
So, it appears that not much has changed when it comes to the fetishisation of and fascination with female suicide. Although male suicide is frequent, it is more shocking when a female takes that final step. Women are traditionally seen as emotional creatures, given to seeking help and talking about their feelings, willing to listen to others. When someone of the sex with the power to make life eradicates her own, it disturbs the natural order of things. It makes a compelling final statement. We should remember though, the lives and triumphs of these women, as well as the tragedies.
- 4 conspiracy theories about the death of Marilyn Monroe – SBS
- Julie Burchill – Lapham’s Quarterly
- Why are we so fascinated with female suicides? – Jezabel
- Why do so many people like looking at images of women committing suicide? – The Atlantic
- Ocala Star Banner – August 1 1977
- How the video of Christine Chubbuck’s suicide became a very macabre ‘Holy Grail’ – Vulture
- At Vice, cutting-edge media and allegations of old-school sexual harassment – New York Times
- The Most Beautiful Suicide – Rare Historical Photos