Empire Burlesque

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

By Jessica Hopper
and Julianne Shepherd

"Someday you will be nostalgic for now," goes the tagline for www.suicidegirls.com, a soft-porn website both "now" and old-as-the-hills, progressive and retrogressive--in other words, just what an online community built around paying to see tattooed punk girls naked is destined to be. The contradictions, predictably, haven't slowed the growth of the site (for an earlier look at the phenomenon, see "Cynical, Bitter, Jaded As Hell. Also Naked,"), which has evolved from a grassroots experiment to a counterculture empire and touring attraction. Suicide Girls' merchandise line includes skateboards, books, underwear, playing cards, and a just-issued DVD, Suicide Girls: The First Tour (Epitaph). While the DVD advertises a behind-the-scenes view of the site and the tour, one aspect of the operation remains obscured: that the girls aren't running the show.

As Missy Suicide, the site's main photographer and idea lady, explains in the DVD, the site began as an art project depicting her friends, punk femmes all, in poses copped from old pinups à la Betty Page. She says her drive was to document alternative ideals of beauty, and the women she knew were a far cry from those featured in mainstream porn: women with newscaster-blonde hair, fake tits, and press-on nails. The prospect for a punk-lady peepshow seemed long overdue; with all other porn niche markets reaping the benefits of the internet, why shouldn't women with lavender hair, sleeve tattoos, and flat butts (and the men and women who fetishize them) get in on the racket too? Now supporters tout the site's diversity of women--shapes, sizes, subcultural affiliation--but its public face and 811 models are really rather homogenous. The dominant images are of flat-bellied, white, take-no-prisoners types: pierced, tattooed, dyed hair, all striking standard men's-mag and fetish-porn poses.

One male colleague of ours recently defined feminism as, simply, "women doing what they want to do." This is the kind of feminism that informs the Suicide Girls' marketing and mythology. Here, the pitch goes, is a website where empowered, sex-positive women post their own nude photos and run their own accompanying journals, by which the viewer is led to surmise that the girls are in control. They could be "the girl next door," or the girl next to you at the punk show, rather than a disembodied bit of ass. Suicidegirls.com is a success story of late-stage capitalism: In a world of confused mores and sexual enjoyment stilted by taboo, the site packages sex positivity for a nominal dip in the Paypal jar.

The "realness" aesthetic/rhetoric advances the idea that Suicide Girls is just punk-ethic writ large. The implication of the models' approval and enthusiasm is that suicidegirls.com can be viewed without guilt or shame--an important element for a fan base brought up in an era of p.c. punk and riot grrrl. It presents a stealthy rationale of fair trade; the "community" enjoys the site as much as the girls do. Subscribing to the site also means subscribing to a certain idea: Its viewers get to lust after girls with shared cultural interests ("shaved pussy; loves Fugazi!"), and the models' "feminism"--they are "doing what they want to do"--exonerates the guilt behind the gaze.

Suicide Girls: The First Tour chronicles a burlesque revue featuring the website's most popular girls, as one model explains, "taking off [their] clothes in a synchronized and classy manner." Were it not for the nudity, the Xs of electric tape strapped over the girls' nipples, and the cascades of beer poured over their chests in money-shot simulacra, it could almost be a home video of Gen Y summer camp--or an episode of The Monkees--it's so good-natured. The SGs engage in misadventures and goofy pranks aplenty: skinny-dipping, roller-skating, and covering their tour manager's van with spray cheese and gay-porn photos, effectively translating the site's regular-girls blog style to life.

The tour scenes and model interviews stress the SG prevalence of sisterhood and girl bonding. One model effuses that she's never met anyone like her tour mates; while describing what her life might be like if she had never become a Suicide Girl, her eyes get wet. The models' firm belief in the opportunities the site offers them is earnest and convincing; it's no wonder that on their homepages many of the girls list their gender as "Suicide Girl."

The friendly sheen and "wacky" footage of the girls takes the not-so-jagged edge off their amateur striptease acts, wherein they flip the bird as they flash their tits. The DVD is little more than a pastiche of behind-the-scenes scenes: the girls backstage! The girls in the van! The girls in the shower rinsing off chocolate syrup! All interspliced with footage of the girls in photo shoots for the site, at which points the film strays from road diary to Cinemax after 11:00 p.m. The camera pans up and down the girls' bodies, cross-fading between tits, ass, tattoos, and the girls' eyes, which meet the camera's gaze knowingly. A soundtrack of awful new-school pop-punk, emo, and hip-hop accompanies these scenes.

The performance outtakes span the gamut from clunky gyrations (most of them) to inspired ones (the hula-hoop routine is a highlight) to one of the more bizarre interpretive-performance pieces this side of prime-era Karen Finley. SG Sicily admits that her "routine" is often lost on the audience. Clad in inmate/patient garb and a thong, she pulls a stuffed bear off her back, "receives" cunnilingus from the bear, simulates phallic masturbation on a large pair of safety scissors, stabs the bear apart, then crawls up to the front row naked--save for electric tape and her G-string--and begins thrusting in a feral and deeply violent manner to "I've Got Something to Say" by screametal band the Kinison.

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."

"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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