”Palo Suicide” stands behind a tripod, adjusting her digital camera. The subject posed before her, a 20-year-old dark beauty with dyed-black hair and pencil-thin eyebrows, vamps gloomily in a sleeveless black dress and Pink Fishnets. Click. That’s Lexie. Click. She shifts in a wooden chair and crosses her legs. Click. Uncrosses them. Click.
“Look miserable,” quietly commands Palo, who’s a junior at Boston University.
“There’s not much you can do with a chair,” Lexie observes with a sly grin. A utilitarian piece of BU-dorm furniture isn’t much of a prop, but it’s especially dull for someone who’s been photographed nude canoodling with an inﬂatable shark, a plush teddy bear tied to a headboard, and a Japanese-lantern-style orb. Click.
Palo and Lexie are SuicideGirls. That means they’re one of 1043 tattooed, pierced, and naked women who post photos, daily journals, and message-board comments on SuicideGirls.com — the ﬁve-year-old alt-porn site that claims to log one million unique visitors a week and has generated national burlesque tours, girlie T-shirts, zip-up hoodies, hot-pink panties, belt buckles, necklaces, an HBO special, a DVD release, and a hardcover coffee-table book. It also means that Palo and Lexie didn’t ditch the site during the great SuicideGirl exodus, the highly publicized departure of more than 40 disgusted models who virtually walked off the site last fall, publicly accusing management (speciﬁcally SuicideGirls co-founder Sean Suhl, a/k/a Spooky) of everything from misogyny to neo-conservatism, exploitation to censorship. It further means they’re not daunted by allegations that the site’s DIY aesthetic is completely contrived (former model “Molly Crabapple” told the New York Press last fall that “SuicideGirls is the Wal-Mart of alt-porn”) or that its sex-positive pro-feminist slant was a ruse (other ex-SGs contend that although “Missy Suicide,” a/k/a Selena Mooney, is the site’s public face, she’s actually a puppet for Suhl). And they’re not worried about the fate of their nude photo sets, which, by contract, belong to SuicideGirls.com for virtual eternity: the 210 SGs who have left the site so far are lumped together as “archived girls,” although their journal entries have been deleted.
Roller Derby girls may have already knocked down SuicideGirls as the most visible tough-girl, inked-lady archetype in the pop-cultural pantheon, but Missy Suicide stands by SG’s post–Bettie Page pinup paradigm of “conﬁdent women who’re not afraid to express themselves.” Still, she acknowledges, SG has its limitations. “I’ve never claimed that the site would be the end-all-be-all feminist site for everyone out there. But I get e-mails all the time from people who feel better about themselves and their bodies because of the work the models on SuicideGirls do.” Besides, says Missy, last fall’s hullabaloo was “ridiculously blown out of proportion.”
Unlike many of the SG defectors, Lexie, Palo, and other young women who have joined the site more recently seem to agree. “My idea was never that it’s an ultra-feminist site,” says 21-year-old Palo, whose ﬁrst photo set went up in May 2005, making her something of a second-wave SuicideGirl. “I’m all for equal rights, but I don’t need to be naked on the Internet to get those equal rights.”
With porn a strong mainstream presence in national life, it seems almost inevitable that a not-quite-underground erotic counterculture would emerge. But the genius of SG is that they make their models appear accessible. So while they visually exist in a surreal world of well-lit, conceptually uniﬁed, realistically ﬂattering fantasy images, they also read your e-mails, post comments to your messageboards, and exist in your town.
That’s maybe the best way to understand SuicideGirls’s success. If you consider eros a no-no and deﬁne pornography as smut hostile to women, then SuicideGirls will do no more than win your censure. But the site’s claimed one-million unique visitors a week ﬁnd something more layered than ﬁve-minute Internet pleasure. SuicideGirls is cultural manna: it offers real women with real attitude within an authentic context. And for the 1000-plus women of the site (who have multiplied each year since 2001), the site provides the appeal of sisterly community, says Lexie, of like-minded young women who pair pseudonyms with the last name Suicide, in a gesture of family bonding. “Fame . . . wasn’t exactly what I was aiming for, I just wanted to be a part of the growing community.” What began mostly with cute, naked, tattooed girls posing alone in their bedrooms has invariably turned into something of an international subculture.
“We’re not girly girls and we don’t have a lot of female friends,” says Bailey Maxwell, a Dorchester resident who’s been a SuicideGirl for four years. “To have this network of girls to be friends with is amazing. I’ve met some of my best friends on the site. It’s like a naked sorority.”