SuicideGirls’ burlesque show meant to empower

By
November 10, 2005

Courtesy of SuicideGirls

Nearly frothing at the mouth and barking their love for “boobies,” hundreds of fans were transfixed by the colorfully inked and creatively pierced dancers.

Onstage sniffing a powdery white substance from makeup cases, fingernails and a shining silver platter, the women became giddy and reckless, manically peeling off their clothes to reveal black electrical tape in an “x” over each nipple.

This is not your average burlesque show. This is the SuicideGirls Live Burlesque Show, where dancers spit food on the crowd and threaten to leave if the audience doesn’t ask nicely for more “boobies.” SG’s punk re-imagining of the classic burlesque show came to San Francisco’s the Independent last Wednesday and Thursday, selling out both nights to a crowd sprinkled with women.

The skit mocking cocaine-induced euphoria was one of many sketches that walked the line between inspired, if somewhat demented, visions and masturbatory, artsy-fartsy hoo-hah. In the variety-show spirit of burlesque, dancers appeared as a goth-chick bound with rubber tubing, a tripped-out Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the main character from Napoleon Dynamite, the movie mainstream kids love to call a cult classic. Some skits-like one between two dancers dressed as a police officer and offender, where the officer was hogtied and had a gun forced into her mouth-attempted to uphold SG’s punk image.

The idea of brazen, sex-positive dancers breaking into the airbrushed realm is exciting, but something about the show didn’t sit right. It wasn’t the violent imagery, which did little more than bewilder, but the overall image. The dancers may perform barefoot as opposed to teetering on platformed stripper heels; they may have a refreshing, plastic-free jiggle, but as I was flushed onto the street afterward in a crowd of satiated fans, I got the feeling that most of us have been suckered. Does SuicideGirls deserve its reputation as soft-core porn that feminists and those made squeamish by the mainstream’s packaging of sex can love?

The live show is an offshoot of the SG Web site (suicidegirls.com), which was created in 2001 by Missy Suicide and Sean Suhl (a.k.a. Spooky in Suicide land) with the belief that “creativity, personality and intelligence are not incompatible with sexy, compelling entertainment.” The site features soft-core photos of alt-chicks, paired with detailed profiles that list their body modifications (only tattoos and piercings here), among other things. SG has garnered hardcore adherence from even the most punk-rock, anti-establishment urbanites and receives 500,000 visitors a week.

Missy, 28, who has modeled for the site herself and, depending on the photo set, has jet black or white-blond hair, says that SuicideGirls came at the right moment.

“Apparently the world was ready for some strong, beautiful women who didn’t look like they just stepped off the Baywatch set,” she says.

And it seems a fresh idea. Each SG model has her own corner of the site, with her own journal, and it’s she who controls which photos are published. In fact, models often direct the angle of their photo shoot – if she has a penchant for roller skates and pigtails, then nude in roller skates and pigtails it is. Not to mention, the models combat the inflated chests, blonde hair and orange tans that have for so long been the font of mainstream pornography.

For fans, it’s porn without the guilt of supporting sites that exploit women. In other words: socially conscious jerking off. It’s something even the models could get excited about.

“I thought that Missy had come up with something novel and almost revolutionary for the ladies and loved being a part of it,” says Jennifer Caravella, 28, who was known as Sicily before leaving SG in September. “For young women, self-confidence has been an uphill battle in this culture, I honestly wanted to involve myself in something positive and empowering for females.”

But Caravella, who performed on a previous SG live tour, is one of a handful of former models that say the company’s image is meticulously and falsely crafted.

Accusations of poor pay for models and verbal abuse at the hands of Suhl thrive on gloomdolls.com, a Web site dedicated to unearthing SG’s “unethical” practices, and a few web logs from self-proclaimed former SG models. Caravella says that Suhl, whom she calls a “misogynist ass,” runs the show and that Missy works the media circus, reinforcing SG’s woman-run, women-friendly rep.

“I never knew the meaning of the word ‘exploitation’ until I became involved with SuicideGirls,” says Caravella, who is shown with fire engine-red hair and smoky green eyes on her now-archived SG page. “I came to the conclusion that I could no longer represent a company with such low morals and dishonest marketing antics.”

Dia, who asked to be called by her former SG moniker, describes herself as a “diehard fuckin’ punk rock girl” – pre-Nirvana, she emphasizes – and left SG in 2003. The 30-year-old black-haired, porcelain-skinned model originally joined what she viewed as a “punk utopia,” thinking that SG strayed from how ugly she considers most mainstream pornography.

“I found out it was just packaged differently; I was still being fed the same shit,” Dia says. “I felt like I was really duped about what the ethics of the site were, in relation to feminism and punk rock. I felt initially that there was a commitment to quality and the uniqueness of each model. Now I feel like there’s a conveyor belt of models. It turned into the fast food version of porn – slinging bodies left and right. It denigrates women because it reduces them and dilutes all of their personalities.”

Among Dia’s other claims are that Suhl called models “whores” and once told her that he planned to eventually sell the site to a major porn conglomerate like Hustler.

Dia says she left after Suhl asked her to stop being as vocal on the SG message boards. She says that Suhl told her that she was supposed to be “one percent of a voice out of 100.”

“That’s not punk,” she says. “Punk is all about being 100 percent.”

As for the SG camp, a section of the Web site has been designated to debunking these claims. The page says that the majority of SG employees are women, including photographers, and maintains that Missy is very much hands on. The site also includes testimonials from 20 current models, decrying all of these claims as rumors and outright lies.

Missy and Suhl declined to comment on the accusations.

Despite the back-and-forth, it’s clear that the live show continues the site’s attitude of empowered, sex-positive women, which is exactly where the show is unsettling. Forged female empowerment is far more offensive than your run-of-the-mill strip club where sex is sold as-is. The women of SG’s live show may threaten the audience and spit food on them, but let’s not forget, they’re only giving exactly what the audience wants of them.

Does knowing that the naked woman on your computer screen reads Nabokov really make her any more of a real person? Are SG’s model profiles any different from those on typical porn sites that tell the viewer only what they want to hear? What is the difference between fetishizing Asian schoolgirls and a punk-rock F-U attitude colorfully garnished with tattoos and piercings? Seems to be the same thing with a different aesthetic.

Or maybe I’m just not hip enough to get it.


SuicideGirls’ burlesque show meant to empower was published on November 10, 2005 in Features

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