Cover of SuicideGirls new photo book
SuicideGirls: Hard Girls, Soft Light

SuicideGirls was founded in 2001 in Portland, Oregon, by photographer Selena Mooney, aka Missy Suicide, and partner Sean Suhl.

Drawing the name from a story by another Portland institution, Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel Survivor, Mooney and Suhl have said they appropriated the term to refer to women who commit “social suicide” by refusing to conform to the American ideal of a beautiful woman, by refusing to “fit into the mold.”

SuicideGirls models are reportedly paid $500 when their photos appear on the site’s front page, and subscribers pay $4 per month to see models the rest of us can’t see—i.e., to get beyond the SuicideGirls.com paywall.

The SuicideGirls homepage declares: “SuicideGirls is a community that celebrates alternative beauty and alternative culture from all over the world.” “Alternative beauty” isn’t explicitly defined, but Mooney addressed it in an interview with New York magazine earlier this year, saying that while the site’s models once each had a few tattoos each, and that made them alternative, now they often have up to a dozen, which is apparently even more alternative.

Which begs the question: Is SuicideGirls’ mission of promoting alternative beauty still relevant in 2013? In an era when Angelina Jolie, with more than a dozen tattoos, is an Academy Award-winning actress who is repeatedly voted the sexiest woman in the world, do tattoos still make a woman “alternative”? When the actress Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the award-winning and very popular HBO show Girls, takes her clothes off to reveal her own tattooed torso in nearly every episode of the show, couldn’t it be argued that Mooney’s mission for SuicideGirls has been met, that alternative beauty has been accepted into mainstream culture, big time?

Maybe it’s time for the website to drop the modifier “alt“?

As in “alt-porn”, that is. Which would make it just a porn site. With a bit of cultural reporting thrown in. In 2001, what was accepted as a beautiful woman did need some shaking up. But in 2013, do Mooney’s goals for SuicideGirls of promoting alternative beauty and inspiring confidence still resonate?

The new SuicideGirls’ book Hard Girls, Soft Light is full of “softly lit” pin-up girl style photos with plenty of tattoos and piercings. Mooney has said that SuicideGirls is “about confidence,” about making the case that “every woman is beautiful,” but looking at the new book and at the SuicideGirls’ site, I don’t see much variation in size, shape, age, or color – all of the models are skinny, with one exception they’re light-skinned, and they all look well under 30. I don’t see “every woman,” which makes Mooney’s message that every woman is beautiful a pretty tough sell. I’m not a paying customer, though, and maybe there’s more diversity behind the paywall. But then, the site’s practice of having paid subscribers vote on photosets of potential models to gain official SuicideGirl status doesn’t really sound like a confidence booster—it sounds like a good old fashioned beauty contest, or to cite a slightly more modern equivalent: Hot or Not.

SuicideGirls' Blackheart Burlesque Tour
Roseland
Oct. 23 at 8

“Hey Young Girls, spend less time looking at your reflection in the mirror and more at your reflection in the people you care about.”Combining “alternative,” “confidence,” porn, and young women is a bit tricky. Given that what SuicideGirls is ultimately doing is selling porn, albeit of the artsy, softly lit variety, it will work for as long as it can compete with free sites. But if I were going to scheme up a large-scale, money-making plan and P.R. campaign that aimed to boost the confidence of young women worldwide, I might try to partner with the very wise and witty Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock writer Paula Pell, whose Tweets occasionally begin “Hey Young Girls”, as in:

“Hey Young Girls, if you like someone, introduce them to your mind first, then your heart, then your body. You’ll be stronger and happier no matter what.”

“Hey Young Girls, being cool is better than being hot.”

But that would be so damn alternative and not hot, I probably wouldn’t make a dime.

Let us know in the comment section below where you come down on the question: is SuicideGirls still relevant?

[Ed. Note: This essay originally ran March 27, 2013 before a book signing event.]

For more on Portland arts and culture, sign up for our weekly On The Town newsletter, subscribe to our RSS feed, and follow us on Twitter @aarondavidscott. Visit our Arts & Entertainment Calendar for our editors’ event picks.