If you grew up with the internet, you’ve probably seen at least one picture of a Suicide Girl. Tattooed, pierced, nude. Though the site requires a small monthly membership fee, photos of the models are readily available on the most popular photo-sharing and social networks on the web. SuicideGirls culture, born of west-coast alternative style, is now mainstream. So popular, in fact, that the company has created a world-touring burlesque show, which stopped in Portland at Revolution Hall on April 23rd.

Like Portland, SuicideGirls has an interesting duality – a series of contradictions that make it difficult to define. SuicideGirls bills itself as “the sexiest, smartest, most dangerous collection of outsider women in the world.” But when nearly 40% of people under 40 have a tattoo, and almost half admit to watching pornography, what’s so dangerous about a website centered around naked women?

Started in Portland in 2001, SuicideGirls was the idea of Selena Mooney (aka “Missy Suicide”) and Sean Suhl, following Missy’s relocation from the Bay Area at the start of what was becoming another tech-boom wave. The name is a nod to a line in Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, which fittingly features a fictitious a dumping ground for America’s old pornography. The first Suicide Girls were mostly friends of Missy’s, some would-be models, other local exotic dancers, and still others found from posting an ad in Anna Bananas. “I don’t think it could have started anywhere else,” says Missy. “Portland understands the ethos in a way no other place does.”

Before her stint in the Bay Area tech sector, Missy grew up in Portland. “It was the perfect place to raise a rebel girl,” she says. “Big enough to get in trouble, but small enough that people watched out for me.” She remembers hanging out in the park blocks, seeing countless shows at Satyricon, running into Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix at the Pine Street Theater, and taking Bus 20. Decades later, the company she founded boasts receiving more submissions than Playboy. “I hope that we’re bigger than Playboy in 10 years,” Missy says. “The empowered, beautiful woman concept is just starting and we can only go up from here.”

The comparison to Playboy comes at an interesting time as Hugh Hefner’s former iconic brand has struggled to keep afloat in recent years and has stopped publishing nude photos in a move seen more as an admission of defeat to the widespread availability of hardcore streaming videos than a moral stance. For all of its messaging on empowerment, rebellion and originality, SuicideGirls is less Annie Leibovitz taking over the Pirelli calendar and more a modern product of the American sexual market, an uneasy blend of capitalistic opportunity and unfortunately still beholden to puritanical shame.

SucideGirls labels itself erotica, not pornography. “The nude female form is beautiful; it’s the most celebrated form in artistic history,” says Missy. “Go into any museum and you’ll see nudity like you’ll see on SG.” When pressed as to what makes SuicideGirls different than pornography, Missy continues, “We want to show girls being confident in themselves. But it’s a grey area between art, erotica, porn. Where’s the line get drawn? SG is about spreading positivity in all women and that to me isn’t necessarily porn.”

SuicideGirls is, or at least was, breaking new boundaries and establishing a renewed era of sexual empowerment fueled by the democratization of digital photography and the rise of the internet. However, it’s hard to deny the brand is using the same avenues as the male-dominated industry it’s so closely associated with – objectification of the female form. The distinction is that SuicideGirls is run by a small band of women, directing the style and community that has made the brand viable for almost fifteen years; commendable considering the overwhelming amount of hate women receive online.

Missy attributes the site’s commitment to comment-oversight to keeping SuicideGirls welcoming to women baring their bodies in what could otherwise easily become a place for harassment. “Our fans tend to be pretty respectful,” says Missy. “Since day one our community has been moderated. We have no problem kicking off people who are rude, like the stuff you’re used to seeing on Twitter or Instagram. It’s one of the only places online where you can post naked pictures of yourself and not have ten thousand negative comments in the first minute. Our fans are awesome; [the ones] that come to the burlesque, they’re so sweet and just want to share their stories, like ‘My girlfriend didn’t feel beautiful until she saw the site.’”

SuicideGirls may be empowering women to be more confident, but that confidence doesn’t come with much economic opportunity outside of a select few. Like most online communities, SuicideGirls relies on its users to create value. Though the site has slightly more female than male users, there is a high volume of SuicideGirl hopefuls who submit photos and video for free – thousands every month. Models whose sets are chosen for a featured “Set of the Day” are paid a few hundred dollars. Expecting to become a prosperous model from becoming a Suicide Girl is analogous to a band hoping to land a record deal from recording a Daytrotter session. “It’s definitely not a full-time job, but it is a fun opportunity,” says Missy. “99% of the models have other jobs and endeavors.”

Though social communities, like Reddit, Tumblr, and just about every social media site, that profit off the free content its users submit are a relatively new phenomenon, the history of others profiting from the images of naked women stretches back decades, including the case of Bettie Page, whose pin-up image in a San Francisco vintage shop first inspired Missy to create SuicideGirls.

The site isn’t without its history of controversy from former members regarding ownership and exclusive clauses. SuicideGirls hasn’t been immune to what writer Peter Koht wrote in 2006 as, “the inevitable clash between capitalism and DIY punk culture,” something the music industry knows all too well. But SuicideGirls has adapted to at least some of the backlash, and more recently has archived sets from older members when requested or pressured. “The archive is definitely fluid space,” Missy says. “There are girls that put it behind them forever and there are girls who come back.”

As SuicideGirls had influenced culture, it’s embraced other former sub-cultures, incorporating comic books and other nerdy products into their brand. Like SuicideGirls, comic book culture isn’t exactly alternative anymore in the face of Disney-owned Marvel having made nearly $20B off blockbuster franchises. Blackheart Burlesque is promoted as the “ultimate geek fantasy,” where attendees can bask in the fetishization of characters from shows like Adventure Time, Sailor Moon, and Pokémon, complete with a chorus line of topless Stormtroopers. Though the act isn’t far and above what any Portlander could seek out in a city with dozens of options for pop culture inspired adult entertainment, it’s sleek presentation sells out crowds. Men, women, couples, friends, young and old – the crowd at the Portland event was more diverse and boisterous than a standard audience at a local indie rock show.

SuicideGirls might not be dangerous anymore, and “sexiest” is subjective as the site almost exclusively features white, slim-bodied, cisgender women, but as far as brands go, it’s in the running for smartest. The sexual revolution has been commoditized; SuicideGirls is getting paid.

Comments

comments