Empire Burlesque

The Suicide Girls are supposed to be a triumph of sex-positive feminism, but what's wrong with this picture?

For all its feel-good vibes and pantomimed dog seizures, the DVD is ultimately a tedious succession of tattooed girls doing the hoochie-coochie plus Real World-style confessionals. Tellingly, the men are missing--including Sean Suhl, the pro-war, punk-looking neocon who blogs anti-Muslim rants under his SG identity "Spooky." (In a post dated April 2004, he called "Muslim Arab culture" "deeply sick.")

Spooky's real-life title is SG president and co-founder. The outfit's reputation as a girl-positive site recently began to crumble as 30-odd Suicide Girls--including DVD stars Sicily and Shera, and the face of SG, Katie--left SG on bad terms, citing wage and contract issues as well as misogyny.

The saga is archived on SG exile community Tales from the Dark Site (livejournal.com/community/sgirls), where several SGs have accused Suhl of verbal and emotional abuse, including calling the girls "stupid whores."

Suicide Girls' much-touted diversity includes dark-haired, tattooed, skinny white girls with lots of piercings and dark-haired, tattooed, skinny white girls with just a few piercings
Courtesy of Suicide Girls
Suicide Girls' much-touted diversity includes dark-haired, tattooed, skinny white girls with lots of piercings and dark-haired, tattooed, skinny white girls with just a few piercings

"The current accusations of abuse by former models are baseless and untrue," Suhl responds. "These models were not allowed to participate on the tour because they refused to prepare [and] threatened promoters.... We have upheld every contract with these girls and paid them as much or more than agreed upon in every instance. We find it ironic that the press takes the word of two or three women who have an agenda when there are nearly 1,000 models with very different stories about their experiences as part of the community including two women currently on tour who also say the accusations are untrue."

Initially those who quit, including some SG staffers, had all dealt with Suhl directly; later, some SGs also left in solidarity. But some of their journals continued to be updated--ghostwritten--and their photos were still up generating cash. Sicily recently told the Boston Phoenix, "What's going on right now is a slap in the face to feminism...I really thought it was a new feminist outlet, where girls could look up to Suicide Girls. I really thought I was a part of something that was almost revolutionary."

Suicidegirls.com hinges itself on the idea that there is no male gaze, that pornography can exist outside the bounds of subject/object relations, that there is no soft-focus power imbalance inherent in paying to look at naked girls. Behind this facade, convenient principles of second-wave feminism are folded into convenient principles of "fuck me feminism"--the ideals of independence and self-support are melded to "empowerment via self-exploitation and aesthetic control." Suicidegirls.com uses tattoos and piercings as shorthand for the real-life ethics of punk rock, and its feminism is similarly superficial. Its members and models are led to believe they're dismantling the master's house; in fact, their photographs and membership dues have helped build it.

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