The Currency of Self Esteem: Gender and Labor in SuicideGirls' Social Network Porn
In the early 2000s, a moral panic arose about porn's widespread diffusion in North American culture. Just as these claims of "pornification" reached a critical mass, a different narrative emerged. I found in media accounts and in personal conversations an interest in the potential for a new kind of "alternative" porn. SuicideGirls.com was the most visible of these websites. The site explicitly markets itself as empowering to the women who participate in the site, whether as models or as members. While many feminists have argued that sex work has the potential to be empowering, what is novel about SuicideGirls is the way the site actively positions itself as producing porn that empowers women.
This positioning attracted considerable media attention and no small share of controversy. While early accounts were often glowing, the tenor of media coverage shifted dramatically in 2005, when some thirty SuicideGirls models departed the site and went to the press to publicize their issues with sexual harassment, pay scale, and contractual disputes over ownership of their images, as well as the site's censorship of their complaints.
My dissertation arises directly from these labor complaints. My analysis positions the site in relation to both pro-sex and anti-porn feminisms, as well as to emerging scholarship on new media labor practices, in order to articulate how porn functions for women in a new media context. I hope to add a new understanding of gendered labor online to existing debates about porn and prostitution through this case study of SuicideGirls.
I address these issues by contextualizing the specific practices of SuicideGirls and situating the rhetorical claims made by the site and the criticisms engendered by these claims. Chapter One, "Porn as Alternative Community," examines SuicideGirls' use of alternative subcultural politics and aesthetics in the formation of an online community. Looking at the marketing material produced by the site as well as interviews and media coverage from the early days of SuicideGirls, I address the specific valences of alternative in relation to porn and social networking, and the implications of SuicideGirls' joining of these. In effect, alternative signifies authenticity, which serves to foster the creation of intimate community on the site. This alternative framing, in conjunction with the SuicideGirls' use of social networking, provides the political framework for how labor is viewed on the site.
The second chapter, "Labor & Leisure in Social Network Sites' Content Creation Practices," examines SuicideGirls as a social networking site. The most obvious function of social networking to site members is as a tool for the creation of democratic and accessible community, in accordance with the logics of both alternative subculture and Web 2.0. The less visible function of social networking is as a means to generate content for the site. This content, produced by members who pay a fee to join, then becomes part of the community-creation that draws new members to the site and entices existing members to return. My analysis focuses especially on the "Member Review" section of the site, in which SuicideGirls model "Hopefuls" submit photo sets to be rated by site members. If a Hopeful's set is deemed popular enough, she may be chosen to become an official SuicideGirl and be paid for her photos. These online content creation practices are part of general blurring of lines between consumer and producer and between leisure activities and labor, practices some critical new media scholars have termed "play-bor." I examine SuicideGirls' business practices related to content production in light of this scholarship, with a particular emphasis on the ways this labor is gendered.
In the third chapter, "SuicideGirls and its Critics," I address criticisms of the site's labor practices by models and members and by mainstream media and various other online sources. Of particular interest are the many groups and forums created both on the site itself and elsewhere online to document the perceived abuses of SuicideGirls management. That SuicideGirls models actively engage in these debates suggests that concern with these issues is more than academic. I argue that the prominence of the criticism of SuicideGirls comes from the conjunction of the site's form and content, its melding of social networking with the rhetoric of empowered alternative porn, and that this criticism is centrally concerned with the blurring of distinctions between labor and leisure that take place on the site.
The fourth chapter of my dissertation, "The Labor of Porn Imagery," looks at models' photo set images, the ways that these images circulate, and the implications of SuicideGirls' labor practices for the models themselves. The pin-up iconography that SuicideGirls mobilizes is part of a history of sex work that treads a line between the "good girl" sexuality of middle class women and "bad girl" working class sexuality. Chapter Four begins with an exploration of these classed tensions in the history of the pin-up. I then relate the good girl/bad girl dichotomy of pin-up imagery to anti-prostitution and sex worker feminisms, with an emphasis on how the pin-up functions in the context of "whore stigma." This discursive policing of acceptable feminine sexuality plays a major role in the ways that SuicideGirls models understand their role as a form of labor. The second section of Chapter Four addresses the criticisms leveled against SuicideGirls' use of models' images and the labor that these images do through circulation. Of particular concern is how this circulation accrues value and for whom. Using feminist labor theories, I detail how SuicideGirls practices fit into larger structures of gendered labor and suggest new avenues for understanding this labor in a new media context.
I conclude with a discussion of the ways the new media focus of my dissertation intervenes in the existing debates about porn and prostitution. These dialogues attempt to move away from the polarizing arguments that have pitted anti-porn/prostitution feminisms against pro-sex and sex worker feminisms. I position my work in relation to recent scholarship that attempts to critically examine and engage with the various aspects of these arguments about appropriate feminine sexuality and online labor, with the hope that my contribution to these debates will be directly applicable to "real world" situations such as the working conditions of SuicideGirls models.