Refusing the Rules 

The SuicideGirls say their teasing burlesque show reflects a 'sex-positive' brand of feminism

Burlesque: A humorous and provocative stage show featuring slapstick humor, comic skits, bawdy songs, striptease acts and a scantily clad female chorus ...

Like it or not, women disrobing has been a form of entertainment for thousands of years, and it shows no signs of going away. For proof, turn to various ads in the back of this very publication.

But if the idea of a female of the species doffing her clothes in a public venue has ruffled the feathers of some pundits, social observers and policy makers over the centuries, that's usually because the imagery contained therein so often has been controlled by the gaze of the male.

Not so with the SuicideGirls Live Burlesque Tour, which for the second time this year will ramble across these United States, showing off the dancing, comedy, titillation and strike-a-pose talents of eight outgoing young women. The tour will touch down in Tucson on Tuesday, May 25, at Club Congress.

Known exclusively by their first names--Siren, Stormy, Shera, Nixon, Nixion, Sicily, Pearl and Ravenisis--these performers entertain their audiences in tasteful, playful and non-graphic ways as a collective act of personal expression, for their own empowerment.

Just like the adult Web site (don't call it a porn site) known as SuicideGirls.com, from which the tour grew; for the last three years, the site has strived to overcome prejudices about the concept of sexy modeling. In the words of the site's home page, SuicideGirls.com combines "the DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude of underground culture with a vibrant, sex-positive community of women (and men)."

The 26-year-old founder of SuicideGirls.com is Missy Suicide--all SuicideGirls adopt the same last name for safety and security purposes, kind of like the Ramones did. Most photographs on the site are taken by women, many by Missy herself, and the female subjects remain fully in control of how they are depicted, she says.

This is how they want to present themselves to the world, not how an art director thinks men want to see them. It's an updated approach to the classic, non-degrading pinups of an earlier era, Missy says.

Generally, the women you view at this site appear to be of the underground, alternative-lifestyle, punk, outlaw rock 'n' roll, pierced and tattooed and dyed-hair crowds. But they also have the opportunity to express themselves as real people, beyond the stereotypes.

This has something to do with the site's name, which, to the uninitiated, might seem a bit unsavory but is meant to have no dark or self-destructive connotations, Missy says.

"It's really a slang term me and my friends used to use to describe girls who hung out in Pioneer Square in Portland, the ones who wouldn't fit into those tightly stereotypical categories of music culture. They were not punks, ravers or goths."

The phrase SuicideGirls, then, is meant to "represent the women who refuse the rules of polite society, girls that live life their own way and don't really care what a good girl is supposed to be," Missy says.

The SuicideGirls site, which gets 750,000 unique visitors per week, features photo layouts of 319 members, as well as their online journals and message boards, pop-culture articles and celebrity interviews.

SuicideGirls, by the way, is becoming a multimedia cottage industry.

In addition to the live show, preparations are underway for the publication of a coffee-table book of Missy's sensual photographs and a magazine version of the Web site. In one of the SuicideGirls' highest-profile gigs, 75 of them danced and cavorted in a recent music video for the song "Shake Your Blood" by the heavy-metal supergroup Probot.

Speaking on behalf of all SuicideGirls, Missy tells us, "There's nothing wrong or shameful about the female form. Sex is something that is very empowering and enjoyable. Women should not repress their natural tendencies or desires for sexuality."

SuicideGirls respects the diversity of women, she says. "We have girls of all shapes, sizes, forms and colors. I feel very strongly that women should be able to control how they are depicted, especially when it is in a sensual way."

Missy says SuicideGirls are not opposed to feminism but tend to embrace a "sex-positive" version of it.

"A lot of feminism in the past looked down upon sexuality. Now, it's something that women can feel empowered by, and SuicideGirls challenges those last bastions of male domination of female sexuality. I think women being empowered by their sexuality is a beautiful thing."

The same goes for the SuicideGirls Live Burlesque Tour, says Pearl Suicide, who recently joined the revue and last week was in the midst of vigorous dance rehearsals for the May 20 tour kickoff.

Although Pearl is reluctant to reveal too much about the SuicideGirls performance over the phone, she describes the theories behind its approach.

"The show has a lot of sass and a lot of attitude, and a little nudity, just a tasteful amount. All of it relies on humor and pop-culture references. I think it can be compared it to traditional burlesque show in that there are several group numbers, skits, some solos and a finale.

"We draw from contemporary music, like Björk, classical stuff, a remixed Elvis song, lots of music from movies and TV, a reference to The Graduate and the James Bond girls."

The Florida power-pop band Bloom also is touring with the SuicideGirls as the designated warm-up act. Also on the Tucson bill will be female singer-songwriter Lennon.

Pearl says there is nothing lascivious or obscene about the performance. "We are doing something that is sensual and tantalizing but not graphic. We take off some clothes and show some skin, but it's not full stripping. It's meant to tease the audience, with a nudge and a wink."

Pearl sees the success of the first SuicideGirls tour, and of the Web site, as examples of a newly tolerant and accepting attitude in American culture toward healthy expressions of sexuality.

"There does seem to be a shift in the way people are coming to realize that they don't have to feel bad about sexuality. If they don't like these things, such as our performance, personally, they can say 'That's OK, but there is nothing wrong with other people who want to see something sensual and sexually teasing.'"

Pearl also says the SuicideGirls burlesque show, as is the Web site, is intended for an audience equally divided between men and women. She encourages her male interviewer to attend the show with his wife: "We'll show you both a good time.

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