Alternative to What? Alternative Pornography, Suicide Girls
and Re-Appropriation of the Pornographic Image
Suicide Girls was started, in the words of founder Selena Mooney, to provide “an alternative to the mainstream media's obsession with the silicone enhanced Barbie dolls and the incredible shrinking starlets.” Suicide Girls positions itself as a site that provides an unconventional and more female positive version of pornography. The focus is on nontraditional women, primarily involved in the goth, punk, and raver subcultures. Most have body modifications, but rather than the breast augmentation of traditional pornography, these are tattoos and body piercings. The message is that they are pushing nondominant ideas of beauty and diversity.
But what can be made of a site that claims it is celebrating a nontraditional beauty of women yet presents them as nude models? Is this site actually creating a space where the pornographic image can exist as a signifier of subcultural standing? Are the models presented in a way that does provide a true alternative, presenting the women as powerful subjects instead of passive objects? Ultimately, the site does retain the potential as an alternative space for female identification and empowerment. But the reality of most models performing traditional posing and presentation highlights the limited success of escaping “fetishization.” Still, by creating a sense of community among models, it at least appears on the surface as pornography made by women that believe they are free to choose how to express their sexuality.
The Alt-Porn site Suicide Girls was started, in the words of co-founder Selena Mooney (aka Missy Suicide), as “a project of passion to celebrate the diverse and beautiful real world women. SuicideGirls is an alternative to the mainstream media's obsession with the silicone enhanced Barbie dolls and the incredible shrinking starlets (http://suicidegirls.com/press/faq/).” It has also become something of a lightening rod for controversy regarding the mainstreaming of pornography. Suicide Girls positions itself as a site that provides an unconventional and more female positive version of porn. The focus is on nontraditional women, primarily involved in the goth, punk, and raver subcultures. Many have body modifications, but rather than the breast augmentation of much “traditional” pornography, these are tattoos and body piercings. The message they are pushing is a meeting of beauty and diversity.
With a vibrant, sex positive community of women (and men), SuicideGirls was founded on the belief that creativity, personality and intelligence are not incompatible with sexy, compelling entertainment, and millions of people agree…. In the same way Playboy Magazine became a beacon and guide to the swinging bachelor of the 1960s, SuicideGirls is at the forefront of a generation of young women and men whose ideals about sexuality do not conform with what mainstream media is reporting. Although started as a two person operation out of a loft in downtown Portland, OR in 2001, in five short years SuicideGirls has grown its audience to over 5 million unique visitors a month. With hundreds of thousands of subscribers, over a thousand models, a successful book and DVD in stores and a new clothing line, there's no telling what diabolical plan SG will next come up with to separate you from your hard earned money. (http://suicidegirls.com/about/, 2009).
The idea of a new Playboy Magazine is an interesting one. At its inception it too positioned itself as being a voice for a more liberated lifestyle, attempting to appeal to the hipsters of its era, though few would argue that Playboy be considered a positive influence on most developing women. And I am sure the Marxists are very cognizant of the line about separating someone from their money. It is a very traditional ideology for an “alternative” website.
Welcome to Suicide Girls!
All of this was started in 2001 by Selena Mooney and Sean Suhl (aka Sean or Spooky). They claimed they were starting a community site because they “had grown tired of pornography that only featured pneumatic-breasted, big-haired women. Despite the abundance of adult websites, Spooky and Missy couldn’t find any that featured punk, goth, and emo girls. So with Missy’s photography skills and Spooky’s technical know-how, they joined the adult entertainment world and started their own site. (Tomlin, 2002).”
As many as 1000 women a week submit photosets to the site. The best of these are placed on site for membership review. This voting seems to increase the subculture nature of the site. New models are chosen to become part of the club by existing members. At this point, somewhere around 2000 models have appeared on site in over 1.8 million photos. Models pose their own photosets including how much to reveal, choose their outfits, and submit the photos they want used. They are also required to maintain journals but are free to post what they want in them. In return they earn a few hundred dollars of compensation and all the Internet fame they can muster.
The site claims around 1 million unique visitors a month and over 300,000 people have become subscribers. Many of those are just there for the pictures but they are also permitted to keep journals and participate on the bulletin boards.
In addition to the photos, journals, and bulletin boards, SuicideGirls.com has numerous interviews with celebrities, culture and news blogs, videos of a non-pornographic nature, and a webstore. They also sponsor a long running burlesque show, sell their own line of clothing, started a magazine, and in a sign of how mainstream they have progressed, guest starred in an episode of CSI:NY.
Reinterpretation of Style
Subcultures are often viewed as being subordinate to another culture, whether by being assigned deviant or delinquent status or claiming it for themselves. Primarily what these divisions and assignments of status create is a sense of “Otherness.” Obviously, some subcultures celebrate this delineation in a sense of “us versus them” dynamic. Becker (1997) writes how Jazz Musicians during the sixties would go so far as to practice a form of self-segregation to limit their contact with “squares.” Others seek to hide it, attempting to take their subculture underground. Others seek to confront the dominant, pushing in to public space in an effort to confront. Since there is such a close association between many subcultures and their parent culture, a subculture is often an extension of the parent culture. Its differences exist as reformations and reinterpretations of the ideologies of the parent culture.
In effect, a group works to conform to a new way of non-conformity by creating new methods of interacting. A “subculture has to develop new group meanings, and an essential aspect of its existence is that it forms a constellation of behaviour, action and values which have meaningful symbolism for the actors involved (Brake, 1985, p. 8).” A new cultural form will exist so long as it continues to help a group resist the dominant culture. For even though a subculture will develop different methods than the parent culture, it still faces the same attempts of incorporation that the parent culture faces. And any solutions that a subculture creates are strictly superficial.
So, when the … sub-cultures address the problematics of their class experience, they often do so in ways which reproduce the gaps and discrepancies between real negotiations and symbolically displaced ‘resolutions’. They ‘solve’, but in an imaginary way, problems which at the concrete material level remain unresolved (Clarke, et al., 1976, p. 48).
The methods that subcultures create to address their situations fail to change the situation. They alter the way the situation is conceptualized. Still, if enough individuals are attracted to these superficial solutions then a subculture will grow. According to Brake (1985), two things will happen if a subculture flourishes. First, other agents from outside the original group are recruited into the fold. This growth will either cause members to formalize boundaries or will result in diffusion between the subculture and other cultures, as the new ideas of the subculture are weakened by the presence of new, less ‘different,’ members. The second is the appropriation of ideas and practices by the larger cultures. Things will filter ‘up’ from the subculture when the dominant and/or parent culture sees value in them and adopts them in saturated form.
Ultimately, there are only a few fates available to a subculture. One is that the subculture will establish its own small niche of social space and concern itself primarily with the maintenance of the group. The membership may change, with new members replacing others, but the main thrust will be in keeping the status quo. A second is that the subculture will prove so attractive to the dominant culture that it will be appropriated, its ideas, values, actions, or artifacts will be taken and turned into product that can be sold both back to the subculture and to other cultures in a diluted (i.e. safe) form. Another is that the ‘solutions’ offered by the subculture will no longer satisfy the members and they will not be replaced by new members. As a result, this particular subculture will cease to exist, having no support. The one thing that a subculture will not be able to accomplish is to survive direct conflict with the dominant culture. Although many subcultures are set up as oppositional to the dominant, they sustain their existence not through open conflict but instead attacking the ideology of the dominant class.
What is also of significance is the method by which the subculture will attempt to differentiate itself from the dominant culture, the subculture’s alteration of conceptualization. According to Hebdige (1979), it will not resist directly. Instead:
the challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them. Rather it is expressed obliquely, in style. The objections are lodged, the contradictions displayed… at the profoundly superficial level of appearances: that is, at the level of signs (p. 17).
It is in the arena of semiotics where subcultures fight their battles, by claiming items and giving them new meaning different than their original intention. There is a relationship between an object, meaning, and a sign. An object exists. In order for an individual to understand the object, they must decide on its meaning. The sign stands in for, or represents, the object in the mind of an individual. The meaning that is used is dependent on the impressions the individual feels about the object. Therefore, signs are arbitrary.
Saussure (1966) claims that all a person knows is controlled by language. What this means is that the sign becomes the object. The relationship between them is inseparable. But that does not mean that individuals have no control over meaning. For Saussure, there is a difference between formal language, called langue, and the use of language (speech), called parole. Langue is the formal system and is created a priori. However, parole is created when it is used and is altered to meet the goals of the user. The use of parole allows a person to define an object by the signs used, thus the control of their reality.
Culture is all about the creation of meaning for a group. Controlling meaning allows the dominant culture to control the creation of reality for the group. By choosing to redefine the seemingly smallest items, subcultures can attempt to claim their own cultural space, their own reality.
These ‘humble objects’ can be magically appropriated; ‘stolen’ by subordinate groups and made to carry ‘secret’ meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination.
Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus (Hebdige, 1979, p. 18).
The subculture reclaims simple items and recasts them as objects of resistance. In reusing them it indicates unity with other actors in the subculture.
An actor learns that the behaviour signifying membership in a particular role includes the kinds of clothes he wears, his posture, his gait, his likes and dislikes, what he talks about and the opinion he expresses (Cohen, 1965, p. 1).
This idea of reappropriation relies heavily upon the work of Levi-Strauss’ concept of bricolage, which Clarke (1976) defines as “the re-ordering and re-contextualisation of objects to communicate fresh meanings, within a total system of significances, which already includes prior and sedimented meanings attached to the objects used (p. 177).” As stated in semiotics, there is a relationship between an object and meaning and together this creates a sign. People from a common society arrange these signs into a form of discourse. However, a bricoleur is an individual that takes that object and assigns it a new meaning separate or altered from its original one. This creates a new meaning for the object and a new sign enters the discourse. For Clarke, the arena in which this happens in modern society is fashion. In order for the bricoleur to be successful, they are constrained by the materials already available. In the act of reappropriation, other members of society must recognize the new sign that is being attempted. What is more, the commodity must be already produced and be available in the market. Therefore they already have meanings attached to them. The bricoleur does not create new objects and assign new meanings, but takes existing objects and reinterprets them. Brake (1985) states that style is, in fact, made up of three elements:
a ‘Image’, appearance composed of costume, accessories such as hair-style, jewellery and artefacts.
b ‘Demeanor’, made up of expression, gait and posture. Roughly this is what the actors wear and how they wear it.
c ‘Argot’, a special vocabulary and how it is delivered (p. 12).
Still, all of these areas are strongly connected to the general physical presentation of the subculture member and the impression that such a physical presentation would make.
So then how does a subculture decide which items are proper and appropriate for reinterpretation? For Clarke (1976), the group must be able to recognize themselves in the potential meaning the object might possess. This means that they can recognize in the object potential support for their particular views and beliefs. It also requires a group self-conscious enough to see themselves in the symbolic objects available to them. “This developed self-consciousness both in terms of its content (their own self-image, etc.) and in terms of its orientation towards symbolic objects is the means through which the style is generated (p. 179).” This connection between object and subculture occurs because of a homology between the two.
(Re)claiming the Pornographic Image
For many people, the move to mainstream porn cuts to the heart of how to define modern feminist politics. Does pornography remain a tool to marginalize women, reducing them still to a collection of anatomy, valued only for their ability to arouse? Or is there a space in alternative female subculture for the naked body? Is the act of getting naked for a camera an act of resistance? Can the pornographic image be reappropriated or reclaimed? Can the act of bricolage be performed on it?
The primary idea of the male gaze is that the female form is looked upon by a dominant male spectator. It highlights the unequal power relationships inherent in much of society. Mulvey (1975) defines “to-be-looked-at-ness” as the way in which the female subject is “simultaneously looked at and displayed” which is coded for “visual and erotic impact (p. 7)” The male gaze relegates women to the status of objects for the enjoyment of a male viewer. She does not create meaning, she is not active. For Mulvey, women are placed in films for the enjoyment of a pre-supposed male audience by a pre-supposed male creator.
What problematizes this for Suicide Girls is that the subjects are the ones responsible for creating the photo shoots. The models set up their own sets, choosing the outfits, photographers, angles, and poses. And some suggest that this subverts the traditional roles of object and subject. According to Magnet (2007), “the models on Suicide Girls are redirecting the objectifying male gaze described by Mulvey – transforming ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. Women become the subjects and objects of their own desiring gaze rather than its passive recipients (p. 580).” This suggests that the intended audience for the photographs used on the site is not some separate male other but rather the creator of the photograph. Women potentially creating a pornographic image intended for consumption by the model herself.
This responsibility for the creation of the image opens the door for the opportunity to recast the pornographic image as a statement of resistance. The members of Suicide Girls have the opportunity to present pornography as they wish it to be seen, as something new and unique. Instead of “humble things” we instead have “humble images” which can reposition ideas of beauty, sexuality, and eroticism as part of subcultural unity and resistance.
If this is the case, then why are so many of the poses so traditional in nature? Many of them could easily be described as the Postmodern Girl Next Door. Predominately white females offer themselves up for the pleasure of the viewer. The vast majority of them are slender and the poses are more “cheesecake” or soft core than anything truly shocking or transgressive.
The photo set of the model Savanah (2010) entitled Fools Rush In is a typical example of these simplistic “traditional” shoots. Savanah, herself, has several markings of the alternative lifestyle, a number of tattoos, died hair, and body piercings. The poses, however, are mostly of a glamour type. She reclines languorously around an apartment, slowly removing articles of clothing. In most of the photos, her gaze is directed at the camera and her expressions are mostly flirtatious or sultry. She invites appreciation of her beauty but appears to ask for little more from her audience. The photos titillate but do very little to confront or challenge the viewer.
The set is typical of most sets on the site except for two small aspects. For one thing, her photo set includes a significant number of photos that include full frontal nudity. This is hardly a great break from traditional pornography, where vaginal shots are not only commonplace, but expected. But on suicidegirls.com, full frontal nudity makes up a very small percentage of most photo shoots. Furthermore, many models avoid those shots altogether.
A more important aspect, though, is that in three of the shots Savanah poses in front of a mirror. In one of the shots, she directs her gaze towards the camera and, by extension, the viewer of the set. In another she directs her view off towards no discernable target. But in one photo she directs her gaze into the mirror at her own mostly naked form. Her expression in this photo is harder to read, perhaps appreciative of her attractiveness but to what end it is difficult to ascertain. It is the most unique photo in the entire set.
These types of photos recall the earlier statement that Suicide Girls wants to be a modern day Playboy magazine. Many photos are more 50s pin-ups with tattoos than a new visual language for porn. Considering that the models are making the choices of how to pose and how to present what they feel is attractive and sexual, it does suggest that for many of them, they are operating with a limited vocabulary. Despite their freedom, they fall back to old fashioned notions of how to present themselves as sexual beings. The placement of “alternative” in alternative pornography becomes selling alternative women as another flavor of pornography rather than creating a space of an alternative to mainstream porn. Punk as a fetish flavor rather than porn that is punk.
That is not to say that there are not moments of creativity and imagination. Not all models are limited in their presentation. Some seek to expand the creative or artistic scope of their photo sets. For some, extreme emotions are turned in to sexual expression. Criss’s (2009) shoot titled “In the Ring” has a few images that contain an extreme level of physicality. In one she throws a punch while wearing nothing but boxing gloves. Her expression shows the effort behind the punch. While many other photos contain more traditional poses in this boxing theme, this photo reveals much more of the personal transgressive sexuality of the model. Without resorting to clichés of S&M, Criss makes anger and aggression part of her sexual lexicon.
Ember (2009) also incorporates aggression in to a photo set entitled “Business Time.” Much of the set includes a fairly straightforward business attire fantasy theme. She lounges on a desk and in an office chair removing articles of clothing. In many ways it is suggestive of the AMC show Mad Men but with a woman playing a more masculine coded role. However, in a series of shots at the end, Ember picks up a phone and pantomimes screaming in to it. In just a few shots it suggests a possible commentary on the nature of business and power roles. I won’t go so far as to suggest it becomes a total indictment of Capitalism and the inequities found therein. But it does hint at social commentary not normally present in traditional pornography.
These two are not the only examples of models attempting to say something personal or unique with their poses or themes. Others play with religious iconography. Crucifixion images occur several times in photosets. Zia McCabe, a keyboardist for the rock band The Dandy Warhols, did a set while several months pregnant1. One model plays with the notion of plastic surgery in graphic ways. Others just play, turning their sets in to flights of fancy (including one where the model performs acts of bondage on a stuffed animal and another where the model stages a battle between Lego creations). One photo set contains simulated intercourse with a robot, including penetration with a strap-on. What is clear here is that for these models, pornography becomes at least momentarily not something created for the pleasure of an outside spectator but rather something to please the creator. Narcissistic perhaps, but this would at least push the envelope of how to conceptualize porn, models celebrating themselves for themselves. In these sets the utopian feminist alternative ideal of what porn can be is suggest, at least conceptualized. Is self-love (or at least self-lust) a social and political statement to these models?
These sets are schisms, spaces where the hint of something transformative lurks. But again and again they consist of just a few images of an overall whole that puts forward more of a traditional world view regarding pornography. It does remain hard to determine what level of agency the women attribute to their actions. Do any of them see themselves as attempting to subvert the form of pornography and reclaim it as an expression of feminism? For them, is this a social statement as much as it is a personal one? In the comments models attach to their photo shoots there is some evidence that they are considering their roles as object and subject. Chika titled one of her photo shoots “Look at me” and wrote as a descriptor ““i'm not that innocent when i know i'm being looked at [sic]” (September 20, 2009, http://suicidegirls.com/girls/ Chika/photos/Look+at+me/#). Manko titled a set “Good For Dirty Women” and dedicated it to The International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers (December 17).
Ultimately what SuicideGirls.com accomplishes is creating a site that normalizes nudity and pornography for a this group of women, even if one argues that it is not inherently feminist to pose naked regardless of who is in charge of arranging the shots. One might claim that the models are not redirecting the gaze and remain objects for the viewer. The site has at least created the illusion of agency and rebellion for the models posing for it. The site creators have done a strong job of selling the idea of an alternative to mainstream site to the models. There is an irony here, for while attempting to re-appropriate the pin-up as an object of rebellion, they are also reinforcing the idea of themselves as having value in retaining “to-be- looked-at-ness”, primarily useful as sexual accessories.
Cohen (1997) feels that individuals react differently to societal problems. Still, to choose to be different, or to be forced in to it, invites “punishment or the forfeiture of satisfactions which may be more distressing than the problem with which it was designed to cope (p. 47).” Society puts pressure on individuals to conform; to chose the paths others feel are acceptable. That pressure can be great enough to encourage an individual to accept the role that society has chosen for them. But if there are individuals who have difficulties adjusting to the current cultural forms using the traditional solutions, they seek out others who have similar difficulties. “The crucial condition for the emergence of new cultural forms is the existence, in effective interaction with one another, of a number of actors with similar problems of adjustment (p. 48, author’s emphasis).” No one stands alone successfully, but rather attempts to adjust by forming new attachments with other actors who feel this sense of otherness.
A subculture, then, may give an ideology and a form to deviancy which threatens the apparent consensus of the symbolic universe. The subculture makes sense to the potential recruit because of this challenge to the symbolic universe, and the would-be subcultural member identifies with the subculture. The recruit uses the values and imagery of the subculture to alter his own self-image (Brake, 1985, p. 17).
The subculture ‘works’ for its members because it brings together individuals who confirm, and even encourage, the acceptability of difference and this, in turn, confirms the individual member. For the models of Suicide Girls, posing for the site could be seen as an act of deviancy from traditional values of propriety.
Perhaps the participants see a true alternative in alternative porn. For them, instead of viewing pornography as a business decision by women who are being economically exploited it is instead been sold as a lifestyle decision. This is not pornography made by women with too few options. Instead, there is a contested location where it appears as pornography made by women that believe they are free to choose how to express their sexuality. They may be naïve and they may be reinforcing the very beliefs they feel they are standing against. But they are doing so because they believe that what they are creating is, in fact, a statement of their alternative nature.
For the women of Suicide Girls, pornography in the digital era is not about stigma but rather another way to earn “indie cred.” Get the tattoo, get the body piercing, get naked for the camera and the world. On an obvious level, a shared style assists in the sense of group identity that a member feels. The shared style helps a member identify other members. It also helps to identify the difference between members and outsiders. The distinct style of a subculture allows members to distinguish themselves and create a sense of control over their situation.
If an individual feels constrained by their class/cultural situation, then adopting a subcultural style based on celebrating pornography allows them to express the resistance they feel the subculture is organized around. It also serves the additional purpose of drawing attention to the subcultural member. But the act of posing for Suicide Girls can be seen as an attempt by some models to make a claim for authenticity, “Here I am naked on the site, accept me as a member.” In some sense this would further help to explain the differentiation between those models who attempt to transgress with their sets versus those who choose more traditional posing. Truly authentic members of the punk subculture might feel less inclined to seek positive feedback by appearing attractive and more interested in pushing the envelope of acceptability.
Regardless, the unique style of punk/alternative allows agents of the dominant class to more easily target subcultural members, either to exercise control over them or to appropriate their style for consumption. The dominant culture will often reclaim the style of a subculture and market it to the culture as a whole. But the truth remains that subcultures also participate in this marketing to members. In fact, it is often the subculture itself that is first to turn its style into a commodity. Members of the subculture step forward to provide the fashion and music of the subculture to other members. The “Do It Yourself” aesthetic so prevalent for many of the members of the punk subculture required that some individuals do step up and do it themselves, whether it be starting a band to provide music or designing the cutting edge in punk fashion. Or, instead, starting up a paid pornographic web site.
1. This particular photo set was part of a number of more controversial images removed from the site. The managers of the site claimed they feared targeting by the United States Justice Department who were indicating they were going to prosecute images of a more questionable nature (though Suicide Girls was not mentioned specifically by name). After a period of time and argument, all images were reinstated to the site.
About Suicide Girls (consulted August 2009): http://suicidegirls.com/about/
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Matthew Wysocki received his PhD in Media Studies from Northwestern University. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Flagler College. His current research focuses on the intersections of media, technology, and culture with a primary focus on new media and computer-mediated communication. He has presented on such topics as the computer hacker subculture, media coverage of new media issues, and video game mod audiences. His previous teaching appointments include De Paul University, University of Louisville, the University of Illinois – Chicago, and Northeastern Illinois University.