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
MySpace.com, 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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