Pretty Women?

Are Suicide Girls Modern-Day Pin-Ups, or Peddling the Same Old Smut?

Suicide Girls is a cultural phenomenon. It’s Playboy meets, as brought to you by Tim Burton. It’s a Web site. It’s erotica. Some say it’s punk-goth-softcore porn. It’s the cute girl at the punk show posing naked for pictures, and it’s the girl’s boyfriend, the band’s lead singer, and the geeky guy in the corner who never gets any play, all paying four dollars a month to look at those pictures. It’s interviews with Pixies frontman Frank Black and articles about abortion rights. It’s discussions about Macintosh computers, animal rights, and the benefits of getting really, really drunk. It’s an endless diversion. It’s objectification internalized. It’s the bold new face of feminism’s third wave. It’s the same old misogyny with Manic Panic hair color and a septum piercing. It’s a brilliant marketing vessel that taps into the geek, deviant, and misfit in all of us. It’s just a business. It’s a life-changing revolution. It’s a cry for help. It’s a career.

sam05.jpgDepending on who you are, it’s any of these things. For me, Suicide Girls is all of them. But before I continue, I should explain what Suicide Girls is — and what it isn’t. On a very simple level, it’s a Web site and online community where punk, Goth, raver, lesbian, transgender, vegan, and other “alternative” girls (all older than 18) pose naked in themed photo spreads (or “sets”). In about 40 photos, the girls go from clothed to totally nude. However, it isn’t porn; penetration is forbidden and no men ever pose with the women. It also isn’t about suicide, except in the most indirect sense. The (admittedly disturbing) moniker is a reference from the book Survivor by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, and describes (according to the Suicide Girls Web site) “the girls with skateboards in one hand, wearing a Minor Threat hoodie, listening to Ice Cube on their iPods while reading a book of Nick Cave’s poetry.” These girls may be morbid, but they don’t actually want to die.

What makes Suicide Girls (SG) particularly popular, though, is the elements it shares with Friendster, MySpace, LiveJournal, and other up-to-the-minute networking Web sites (most of which SG predates). Members and models keep personal profiles and blogs, send messages to each other, chat on interest-based message boards (e.g., Vigilante Mathematicians, World of Warcraft, and even Suicide Boys, where, as founder Missy Suicide said, “members can post pictures of their members”), or read news items and interviews with cult celebrities (John Cusack and Maggie Gyllenhaal, yes; Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, probably not).

Since being founded in 2001, the site has also produced clothing with the SG logo, a hardbound book featuring model photos and select journal entries, a live burlesque tour, and a DVD documentary about the tour, podcasts, videocasts, MySpace banners, and more.

In the Beginning

Though hugely popular now — garnering more than 500,000 unique visitors per week — the Suicide Girls Web site started out quite simply when Missy Suicide (Suicide is her adopted surname, as it is for many others involved with SG), a Portland-based photographer, noticed how strong and beautiful her pierced, tattooed, and mohawked friends in Portland, Oregon, were — and how no media outlets displayed girls like them. Missy was a fan of pin-up photography, an art form famous for its playful, provocative, and yet surprisingly innocent photos of scantily clad girls — from Gibson and Vargas in the early 1900s, to Marilyn Monroe in Playboy in 1953. And she was particularly interested in the collaborations between Bettie Page and pin-up-model-turned-photographer Bunny Yeager. “There’s something so personal when a girl is taking a photo of another girl,” Missy said. “In those photos, [Bettie] seemed more herself … she could be silly and goofy and have fun. When you look at a girl in a photo who’s really laughing, that’s sexy.”

SGstory-%285%29.jpgDrawing on the tradition and vocabulary of classic pin-up photos, Missy decided to take pictures of the radical girls she knew, all in settings the girls directed themselves. A business- and tech-savvy male friend, Spooky Suicide, helped her put the photos on a Web site. Because Missy believed part of what makes a woman is her personality, the duo gave each model an online profile and journal. And because Spooky was interested in online communities, he gave the site an interactive component so subscribers could keep profiles and journals, too.

As soon as the site launched, it began to grow exponentially. Each week, hundreds of people (both men and women) signed up to become members and hundreds of girls applied to be models. Members met, held Suicide Girls-themed events, and some even married each other. More than a place to look at naked pictures, the site gave models (and girls who realized they could be models, too) confidence, reclusive techies and morose Skinny Puppy fans community, and all members of a variety of subcultures a shared, proud identity in their outsider-ness.

Not long after its founding, the site became so popular it started getting mainstream attention. Models were featured on an episode of HBO’s Real Sex and in a music video for Dave Grohl’s side project, Probot. Soon, Playboy struck a deal with Suicide Girls to feature tattooed models on its mainstream Web site. Some observers and longtime members starting crying “sell out” as more normies joined the site. One member, Santa Barbara photographer Beau Roulette, put it this way: “Now it’s girls trying to do it to be cool, instead of they were already cool and doing it because they’re already cool.”

Complaints aside, the site has earned remarkable popularity within its demographic. Most of the participating models are devoted to SG, claiming they’ve learned to love themselves and their bodies through posing nude on the Internet. Most members, too, are quick to defend the site, pointing out that 43 percent of subscribers are women, and that most people come to SG for the pictures but stay for the friendships.

Who’s that Girl?

My relationship with Suicide Girls is complicated. I was introduced to the site in 2003, when my boyfriend took an aspiring model’s first set of naked pictures in his living room. According to Missy, SG’s mission is to empower by bringing unconventional types of beauty together and celebrating each female’s true, authentic, alternative beauty; but, imagining my boyfriend alone in a room with a cute, naked girl felt anything but empowering for me. However, when I went to the site to see the results of that photo shoot — which followed the purple-haired, pierced vixen from black clad to totally nude against the backdrop of my boyfriend’s pink faux fur rug — I was intrigued.

SGstory.jpgThere was something about Suicide Girls that was both familiar and fascinating to me — its mohawked and dreadlocked models, nerdy members, and its all-around vibe seemed rooted in classic Alternative culture, which I have flirted with since my younger years. Like many in the throes of teen angst — and SGs — I was prone to seriousness, depression, and eating disorders. I experimented with drugs, reckless sex, and radical identity changes. I had a lifelong affinity for outsiders, who seemed joined to me by their pain and their attempts to escape it. Still, I never completely gave my life over to the culture — I dyed my hair, but wore no makeup; I loved physics, but was also a cheerleader.

I was also interested in feminism, which isn’t a hot topic in many circles. I’d grown up with first-wave feminism, all suffrage rights and purity, and second-wave feminism, with its equal pay and shoulder pads. But it was third-wave feminism, from Girl Power to Riot Grrrls, which really inspired me. This diverse, often controversial, post ’80s feminist movement was all about microcultures (Asian-American lesbians, for example, or transsexual African-Americans); continuums (I’m 80 percent straight, I learned in one class, and about 85 percent female-identifying); and non-traditional forms of female empowerment, like prostitution, stripping, or posing nude on the Internet.

This “nudity-as-a-feminist-act” feminism fascinated me in particular, for at its nexus were two issues very close to me: sexual identity (which for me, up until that point, mostly involved having unplanned sex while drunk) and body image (which, as an anorexic and bulimic, was, by definition, messed up). I didn’t know if I bought the theory — I’d yet to find a stripper, whore, or nude model who seemed well- adjusted, happy, and empowered — but I was on a quest to find evidence supporting it.

I was also trying to see where someone like me, with a history of burning holes into her skin, a love of Nine Inch Nails music, and an interest in self-realization, could find peace, wholeness, and maturity. So when I read Missy’s SG statements about alternative forms of beauty and the shortfalls of mainstream media, I twisted her words until I’d created my own perceived agenda for Suicide Girls.

In a culture that worships Barbie, I wanted each Suicide Girl to be the anti-Barbie: flawed, fleshy, cellulite-thighed, smelly, overemotional, neurotic, lazy, zitty, and also smart, ambitious, loving, compassionate, enthusiastic, quirky, outspoken, and opinionated. Varied. Contradictory. Real. I wanted the site to inspire its models and members to become higher versions of themselves.

It was a tall order, and one Suicide Girls was destined not to fulfill. But I set forth on the pursuit for my Girl Power Grail, starting when I met and befriended the young model who disrobed for my boyfriend’s lens, Fractal.

Anti-Barbie vs. Alternative Barbie

Fractal was barely 21 when she first posed for my boyfriend’s camera. She’d recently moved to Santa Barbara from New York, fleeing a life of booze, drugs, and unhealthy relationships. She had little direction and even less of a social life, which wasn’t helped by the fact that she’s a hermit who tends toward misanthropy. What she did have, though, was ample access to the Internet, via her temp job, and a bit of experience modeling for Brooks students. The combination of these factors led her to Suicide Girls — first as a member of its community of like-minded geeks, with whom she could have finite, anonymous interactions, and then as one of the pin-up models around whom the community is built.

When I met Fractal, she had lavender hair and tattoos that referenced cult comic books and Dante’s Inferno. She seemed at once very young and also world-weary. Like many Suicide Girls, who are college chemistry majors and computer programmers as often as they’re slacker punks, she was intelligent and well-read. She was also sardonically funny, self-deprecating, gossipy, and had an affinity for lots of things I liked (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, eating ice cream in her pajamas, smoking too many Kamel Red Lights, and bitching about love). Despite Fractal’s fondness of dead animals, headless dolls, and horror movies — which I didn’t share— we had enough in common that we formed a friendship. Ironically, the more I got to know, like, and respect Fractal, the more disappointed in Suicide Girls I became.

Contrary to my assumption that punk/Goth/Suicide Girls defined themselves in opposition to the beauty industry, Fractal seemed devoted to it. Her “haphazard” up-dos required 40 minutes and 100 bobby pins to create. Her closet was filled with rows of carefully chosen, none-too-cheap black shirts, black pants, black shoes, and black belts, all different in miniscule but (apparently) important ways. Fractal had the art of looking “alternative” down to a science, a fact that left me half envious that I didn’t look that way and half exhausted at the thought of what looking that way required.

The site also didn’t seem to be giving Fractal the sense of sexual power or awareness I’d imagined it would inspire. Though she was meticulous about her stylized photo sets being bizarre and intellectual (in one, she wears black lingerie and a metal dental implement prying her mouth open like a speculum. In another, she writes existential phrases on an old typewriter before stripping down to reveal a pelvic tattoo that reads, in Latin, “Hell is other people.”), she never cared about them being expressions of her own sexuality. In fact, Fractal doesn’t consider herself very sexual, once listing on her profile as her favorite sexual position: “I don’t like to be touched.” Suicide Girls, she said, is the most sexual thing about her. “I’m not a cool person, but I play one on the Internet,” she told me once, a statement that was funny and refreshing in its honesty, but sad in its meaning.

Even more disappointing to me was that neither Fractal nor the site’s founders seemed to share my particular brand of feminism. I believed that Playboy and traditional pornography were inherently flawed, misogynistic, anorexia-inspiring forms of media that needed to be abolished. And I thought it was Suicide Girls’ responsibility to be the revolution.

But in talking to Fractal, and later interviewing Missy Suicide, I realized I’d been imposing my agenda onto Suicide Girls. Although not much of a porn connoisseur, Fractal doesn’t believe the medium objectifies women. And the only complaint sweet, soft-spoken Missy has about Playboy is that it didn’t used to feature girls who looked like her friends. “Most women I know wouldn’t be featured in a magazine,” she said. “I wanted to give them a time and a place to shine.”

While I’d been hoping Suicide Girls was the creation of the Anti-Barbie, it was actually marketing Alternative Barbie, up there on the shelf with Black Barbie and Asian Barbie and Working Mom Barbie. Still romanticized, still better-than-life, still the unattainable ideal. But now, with dreadlocks and a tramp-stamp tattoo. I realized that although Bitch magazine might have overstated its case when it described Suicide Girl models as “cheerleaders with a make-over at [shopping mall, alternative clothing outlet] Hot Topic” in a 2003 article, it wasn’t entirely off either. Disappointed with my revelation, I decided I had only two options: either leave the community altogether, or try to change it from inside, which meant becoming a Suicide Girl.

If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em

I wasn’t ready to give up on the SG community altogether and so, like the girl who decides to change her boyfriend rather than leave him, I started planning how I could make Suicide Girls a site I could support. The plan was this: Have my boyfriend take pictures of me and apply to be a model. Shoot photo sets I felt were authentic, personal, and devoid of vanity. Keep an honest, frank journal that talked about feminism, body image issues, and even my ambivalence about Suicide Girls. Speak for the silent. Encourage self-acceptance. I would be a third wave Suicide Girls revolutionary, single-handedly changing the culture of the Web site with my lopsided breasts and warty toes.

But my righteous fervor was always followed by something else: an intense and visceral need to fit in. Although I recognized SG as the same old system with different symbols (Lip Service leather instead of Seven Jeans, tattoos and piercings instead of fake tans and augmented breasts), I began calculating how I would be accepted into it (e.g. “maybe I’ll finally get my nose pierced or my tattoo redone”). And just as I lamented that so many girls looked anorexic, I began to diet in anticipation of my first photo shoot. By the time my boyfriend finally took naked pictures of me, I was so busy thinking about how to lose my belly fat and how to hide my pebble-sized teeth that I’d forgotten my mission.

This shift in personal motivation — and how quickly it came — scared me. At best, it seemed my political inner-rhetoric was the automatic loser in a battle with my insecurities. At worst, my feminism was a rationalization, albeit an academic one, for shamelessly indulging them.

Suspecting my motives were less than pure, I conferred with SG members and models about my decision. Fractal carefully outlined the pros (fun!) and cons (creepy stalkers!), ultimately cautioning me to think very carefully before diving in. Though she didn’t regret her decision in the least, she admitted that she was very young and naïve when she chose to pose and may not have made the same decision if she’d known what she was getting into. Other SG friends said they suspected, as I often had, that girls with piercings and tattoos, like girls who pose naked, are wounded and looking for healing. Girls with both are doubly so. This was just the feedback I needed. I never turned in my application. Shortly thereafter, I cancelled my membership to the site, too.

It’s Not My Bag, Baby

But my relationship with Suicide Girls wasn’t over. For one thing, I was still friends with Fractal, and I still felt my issues surrounding the site were unresolved. Knowing Fractal, it was impossible to dismiss the site, or its models, as all bad. In many ways, Suicide Girls was doing her a lot of good. When she’d first moved to Santa Barbara, a place where being different isn’t easy, joining Suicide Girls had given her a sense of community — and not just online. When Fractal joined the site, there were at least 10 to 15 active local members who’d regularly meet for drinks or dinner.

Her motives for being a Suicide Girl may not have been noble, and the results may not have been revolutionary, but I couldn’t deny the experience was working for her. What’s more, if it was unresolved childhood issues that were leading her toward this life, I sensed that Fractal knew it — and was using that fact to her advantage — which is more than I could say for most. She seemed self-assured, self-contained, independent, and grounded. She had direction. She had a plan. She seemed settled. Her two personas had started to merge. Through Suicide Girls, she was becoming a whole, happy person. And wasn’t that, after all, the crux of what I wanted the site to do? To help inspire girls to be themselves?

I began to appreciate Suicide Girls for giving my friend a direction, a career, and a stronger sense of self, even if it wasn’t the method or the lifestyle I would choose for myself.

And as for all my feminist fervor? I asked Missy about it. “Feminism is such a hot-button word that I tend to tread lightly,” she said. “Do I think [The Feminine Mystique author] Betty Friedan would think that [the site is] feminist? Probably not. But it’s girls being able to do what they want to do. It’s female friendly.”

It wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, but it was an informed, intelligent response and one I couldn’t argue with. After all, one of the characteristics of third-wave feminism is the understanding that, unlike second-wave, which sought to unite all women under one identifiable culture and belief system, feminism means different things to different people.

I also realized that just because looking at Barbie makes me feel bad doesn’t mean that little girls who want a Barbie shouldn’t get one. In fact, as long as Barbies exist, it seems Alternative Barbie should get a place on the shelf, too.

I’ve come to a kind of peace with Suicide Girls. No, it’s not the Girl Power Grail for which I was searching. But I can appreciate the site’s good points, and not just as a community and possible career for people who have few options for either in mainstream society.

There are some photo sets worth seeing for artistic value alone: a cyborg-themed set of a silver-painted girl hooked up to blood tubes, for example, or another that featured the creative, artistic, and tasteful placement of rolled sushi on a bare back. The message boards often feature interesting, informed discussions about feminism, current events, and my favorite TV shows. Once called “the punk rock Vogue,” the site’s also the perfect place to get hair color ideas and outfit inspiration. And there’s the pure, voyeuristic pleasure of seeing how other human beings represent themselves in public and to each other.

I believe that Suicide Girls can be a powerful, life-changing experience for some people — just not for me.

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