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Suicide Girls: Tattooing as Radical Feminist Agency- Megan Jean Harlow

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Abstract

Tattooing is a form of radical feminist identification. Jaylin, a Suicide Girl, is a part of an alternative genre of feminist actors who perform the pain of beauty in order to upset beauty’s hegemonic control on women’s bodies. The tattoos of Jaylin speak to the contradictory performances of gendered actors in light of Butler’s theories on agency to highlight the ways in which agents subvert imposed subjectivities. This paper argues that beauty is thus not only a system of control, but also a means by which the individual can resist power structures through positive articulations of one’s agency.

Tattooing is a radical form of feminist self-identification[i]. This paper unravels the process of gendered identification through a rhetorical analysis of Jaylin, a member of the Suicide Girls website. This paper will shed light on positive forms of resistance that found within an alternative genre of sexual performance. First I introduce Suicide Girls, and then examine Jaylin’s three central tattoos. The tattoos are radical assertions of self that reject an imposed capitalist plastic definition of “woman”. Responding to the call of Sloop and West (2008) to increase attention to gender norms and its accompanying cultural hegemonies, this paper articulates tattooing as positive forms of self-identification:

In a culture built on women’s silence and bent on maintaining silence as a primary part of the relationship between women’s bodies and cultural writing, the rules have been simple. The written body may only speak form a patriarchal script that tries to limit women’s voice and bodies to supporting roles and scenery. So on a woman’s body any tattoo becomes the symbol bodily excess.  When a woman’s body is a sex object, a tattooed woman’s body is a lascivious sex object; when a woman’s body is nature, a tattooed woman’s body is primitive – (Braunberger, 2000, p. 1).

Bringing pain out of the closet and onto a virtual stage, Suicide Girls performances blur the boundaries between beauty and beast. Jaylin speaks to the horror of the beauty hegemony in visual screams of pain on stage. Bringing the blood to the surface, let the red drops fall, let it spill, let it stand for pain, let it express that which is real and unspoken. A multiplicity of powers emerges, reclaiming the dead as free to name themselves. To start speaking about pain is to inscribe meanings upon a history that wrote woman as passive, a text devoid of meaning. Raising the dead through writing pain upon her, Jaylin speaks her gender in a way that goes against the institutional norms of a Playboy world.

The photographs of Jaylin found on the Suicide Girls website is not an act in isolation, rather it is part of an emerging genre of ‘alternative erotica,’ and therefore has powerful consequences for how gender and sexuality are constituted in the status quo. Suicide Girls is a website that hosts nude sexually provocative images of women. These women are not the typical Playboy model, and often are adorned with tattoos, piercing, and other punkish aesthetics. Jaylin is a Suicide Girl, part of a growing company that has expanded into a multi-platform empire with DVDs, live burlesque tours, magazines, books, a website, and various Suicide Girl merchandise including hoodies and stickers. The website also boasts that more than 48% of its viewers are women (Suicide, 2007). Suicide Girls is a unique website, compared to traditional sites such as Playboy, where only 17% of its readers are identified as women (Baron, 2006). Scholars focused on genre and argumentation must turn towards popular culture and its underbelly because of the rising influence it has on students and the radical possibilities of expanding notions of agency that can arise from such a focus. With over 1,000,000 hits a week on the Suicide Girls website, it becomes clear that this medium is a powerful site for debate over sexual identification (Warpechowski, 2006). Suicide Girls promotes itself through a feminist rhetoric: the website states their goal clearly on the homepage; to redefine beauty through ‘Suicide Girls’ who commit social suicide and assert their own version of non-conventionally aggressive beauty.

The Ideal Unmarked Body—Silence—

In a visually fixated post-capitalist world, women’s beauty has become a commodity. Women’s bodies are plastered across the supermarket isle and television screen selling a variety of commodities ranging from goods to services. The fragments of eroticism have been refigured as fragmented body parts, Deleuze and Guattari (1983) have described this capitalism through the metaphor of the schizophrenic. As a young girl grows up surrounded by images of artificial beauty that value the body in fragments, she comes to know herself as fragmented. Shattered representations of female bodies privilege a partial perspective that denies a holistic sense of self. Advertisements feature women’s legs, women’s breasts, and women’s lips—the body once fragmented is easier to conquer and sell in this framework.

Patriarchy has imprisoned women’s subjectivities through an imposition of artificial beauty; first defining women by her body, menstruation and childbirth only to follow this with condemnation[ii]. In order to come to speak a woman must sanitize her writing, lower her voice, and scrub her voice to a point of stasis. . Helene Cixous (1976) calls for a rhetoric that returns to the body:

Woman must write her body, must make up the unimpeded tongue that bursts partitions, classes, and rhetorics… go beyond the discourse with its last reserves, including the one of laughing off the world “silence” (Cixous, p. 95).

Jaylin embraces desire as a form of agency through writing her body. Beauty is transformed from a silent canvas to a speaking skin. And what does the skin have to say?

Performing The Language Of Death

The tattoo featured on the forearm of Jaylin is the image of a beauty queen with blood pouring from her mouth[iii]. The mouth has been an erotic marker within Western art; the surrealists saw the mouth as an invitation for transcendence and erotic realization. Andy Warhol’s silkscreen, Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, immortalizes the artificial beauty ideal of pop art and its corresponding plastic voyeuristic culture. Warhol comments, “Marilyn’s lips weren’t kissable, but they were very photographable” (Gilles, 1998, p. 87). Wrapped in an ethos of cellophane, pop art king Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe embraces the beauty ideals of a post-modern world. Warhol’s observation that “the whole world is plastic” wraps up the aesthetic of a Playboy culture. In this image dominated culture everything is for display, but nothing can be touched. Eroticism turns into voyeurism, and all connections to a real body become fuzzy as touch—and smell— and pain are replaced with voyeurism, perfume, and medicalization.

The crowned beauty queen demarcating Jaylin’s forearm is the heroine of Chuck Palihnuk’s novel Invisible Monster (1999)[iv]. The story focuses around Shannon McFarland, a fashion model who shoots her self in the face to escape the artificial world of appearances. Shannon describes her motivation:

I wanted the everyday reassurance of being mutilated. The way a crippled, deformed, birth-defected, disfigured girl can drive her car with the windows open and not care how the wind makes her hair look, that’s the kind of freedom I was after (Palihnuk, 1999, p. 286).

Monstrous beauty promises a sense of identity that escapes the voyeuristic Playboy culture and engages the freedom of the senses. To feel the wind as it blows through the hair, without the double-conscious of being watched motivates Shannon’s violent self-mutilation.

Beauty icons displayed on the cover of issues of Playboy embrace this artificial beauty. Pictures are airbrushed to sanitize any sign of a ‘real’ woman: attempting to live up to this standard is impossible, as there is no airbrushing for daily life (Freedman, 1986). Meanwhile, a male audience displays Playmates for consumption and woman, as artists tool remains unaltered in many regards; beauty standards continue to changes over time (Fallon, 1990).  As Butler (1994) writes there is always the possibility for a subject to refuse the power that names them as such. The act of tattooing holds the “possibility of individual agency subverting externally imposed inscriptions” (Schildkrout, 2004, p. 323).

“Abigail” is inscribed on Jaylin’s lower spine in Hebraic[v]. On her blog, Jaylin describes the tattoo’s meaning:

My Hebrew name is Abigail, and it was given to me because it means “father’s joy.” No it is not my REAL name (that would just be silly of me to have an SG name when my real name is inked on my lower back for the world to see but it was the name my mother chose for me before my Bat Mitzvah (Jaylin, 2006).

It is ironic that the name her mother desired to give her means “father’s joy.” Girls are the apple of their father’s eye, possessed linguistically and economically by their father’s, women have been handed from father to husband. This process has been sealed with the stamp of linguistic finality through patriarchies mark the name (Butler, 1993, p. 125).  Naming herself is a way of rejecting the ascribed definition to become oneself.

Tattoos are religiously prohibited within traditional interpretations of Jewish codes as idolatry (Lev 19:29; 21:9). By choosing to tattoo, Jaylin is rejecting the societal rules that attempt to dictate her body and identifying with radical feminism. In opposition to the passive role most women within the Old Testament ascribe to, Abigail bravely travels to King David requesting he spare her husband’s life (Samuel 25:14). To be fair, her husband was starving, but he foolishly overestimated his power within society when he took off to demand the King feed him.  Abigail’s husband kills himself, shamed by her actions.

Jaylin’s entire left arm is covered with a sleeve tattoo[vi]. A black angel marks Jaylin’s otherwise white skin. The black angel’s flesh only covers half of her skeletal figure, blood drips from a shotgun wound to the head. A piercing pricks the angel’s nipple and large wings extend from her back.  The borders between death and life speak through the angel’s skeletal figure. Angels symbolically connect the divine and human in Western Culture. The angel’s black skin is a visual break between a black and white dichotomy of racial identification. Between skin and bones the angels’ fury is, “women’s pain [as] the embodiment of the contradictions and constraints under which women are placed in patriarchal systems, the expression of ‘body anger’” (Fournier, 2002, p. 56). As a border between living skin and the dead skeleton, skin negotiates the contradictions of life. The angel’s pierced nipple startles the viewer; the piercing adds an apparatus to the flesh disrupting associations of angels and natural innocent skin (Chao, 2006). Angels are traditionally thought of as beautiful and divine, yet this image shows the angel of fury – an angel that has turned the fury of God into violence against herself. She is the bearer of the end times, signifying the end of days. The angel speaks of the unlivable position—a black female angel who was denied her place in Religious text and society. To escape the dichotomies within the angel, death is her response. The pain the angel expresses parallels the violence that accompanies navigating the border lands of gender.

Written Bodies and Some Radical Possibilities

Tattoos visually mark the excess of repressed desire. Excess is femininity exceeding its text, an overflow of meaning (Fournier, 2002, p. 53). Skin wraps the body’s senses and bears the marks of its wearer’s experiences. The skin, becomes a fetish when its color diverges from the commonplace, when it feels so beautiful and silky; when it is adorned with tattoos; when it calls forth a cannibalistic sensuality…” (Gilles, 1998, p. 90). Tattoos are loud rejections of the silent place that skin generally hides behind.

Those who have not embraced the full range of erotic possibilities are not actively expressing their identity (Bataille, 1989). The fear of death and the fear of the erotic shackle desires, the values of the body and self. Suicide Girls embrace their ‘social death’ and their erotic potential through tattoos and alternative sexual performances. Aligning themselves with a radical feminist aesthetic, they reject a vision of beauty that would airbrush away their desire. Opposing a sanitized culture, Jaylin embraces the abject monstrous body.

Performing sexuality on stage is a double-edged sword. The risk of co-option of sexual performance still operates within a traditional sexist framework. Her body becomes objectified for consumption by viewers on the website and holds little hope for a subversive version of feminist sexual liberation. Her tattoos are attempts at creating new forms of language that embody the pain of being designated female.

The risk of co-option should not close the book on the transgressive possibilities for a radical form of feminist agency. Biesecker (2002) read’s Cixous’s The Laugh of The Medusa as a call for a rhetoric that cuts into a phallocentric system. Feminism and rhetoric can converge through alternative genres that release the imposed notions of ‘action’ and ‘good speech’ to unveil alternative forms of writing and speaking. Examining tattoo’s material effects returns the disembodied virtual self of today’s world to the material body (Schildkrout, 2004, p. 320). Tattoos archive the rhetorical rejection of Playboy beauty standards- each step rhetorically[vii] etched into the skin – to mark and break apart the passive beauty that has attempted to shroud women in silence. Jaylin’s virtual performance of identity embodies the ways in which material bodies continue to make themselves present.

References

Baron, J. (2006, June 06). When Sub-Pop Meets Porn. Retrieved November 25, 2007, fromwww.wired.com: http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2002/06/53034

Bataille, G. (1989). The Tears of Eros. City Lights Books.

Biesecker, B. (1992).Towards a transactional view of rhetorical and feminist theory: rereading

helen cixous’s “the laugh of the medusa.” The entity from which ERIC acquires the content, including journal, organization, and conference names, or by means of online submission from the author.Southern Communication Journal, v57, 86-96

Braunberger, C. (2000). Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women. NSWA , 1-23.

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. . New York: Routledge.

Chao, P. S. (2006). Tattoo and Piercing: Reflections on Mortification. In L. Prelli (Ed.), Rhetorics of Display (pp. 327-343). Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Cixous, H. (1976). The Laugh of the Medusa. Signs,1

Deleuze, G. Guattari, F. (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Mineeapolis:

University of Minnesota Press

Fallon, A. (1990). Culture in the mirror: Sociocultural determinants of body image. In T. C. Pruzinsky, Body images: Development, deviance, and change (pp. 80-109). New York: Guiliford Press.

Fournier, V. F. (2002). Fleshing Out Gender: Crafting Gender Identity on Women’s Bodies. Body, 8 (2), 55-57.

Freedman, R. (1986). Beauty bound. Lexington: D.C. Health.

Gilles, N. (1998). Erotic Art. (A. Muthesius, & B. Riemschneider, Eds.) London: Taschen.

Jaylin. (2006, December 9). Suicide Girls. Retrieved September 29, 2007, from http://suicidegirls.com/girls/Jaylin/blog/page6/

Palahniuk, C. (1999). Invisible Monsters. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Schildkrout, E. (2004). Inscribing the Body. Anuual Review Anthropology , 319-344.

Suicide, M. (2007, December 4). Bnet. (P. Ollinge, Interviewer) http://www.bnet.com/2422-13721_23-170194.htm.

Warpechowski, M. (2006, May 31). Suicide Girls. Retrieved November 17, 2007, from Webesteem Art and Design: http://art.webesteem.pl/16/suicidegirls_en.php

West, I. (2008). Debbie mayne’s trans/scripts: performative repertoires in law and everyday life.

[This article was published previously in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 5, 245 – 263.]


[i] Diving into the world of sexual performances this paper analyzes the rebellious use of tattoos as a form of radical feminist self-identification. Through an analysis of Jaylin’s tattoos on Suicie Girls provides an example of a post-strucuralist agency. The world of alternative erotica is an emerging genre that seeks to challenge the Playboy culture of artificial beauty. Through a rhetoric of death agency is exerted

through inscriptions on the body that reject the unmarked bodies prized status.

[ii] Being named woman is described by Fournier in terms of pain. Living the life of a woman involves realizing that one is more at risk than men to be a victim of violence, etc. The girl who learns that she is somehow less than her brother experiences frustration and realizes her place such as Virgina Woolf’s famous ghost of Shakespeare’s sister (Woolf). Knowing that you are the other upon which culture has been built is a painful experience. Bonnie Kreps explains that the end effect of this process of socialization creates the essential characteristic of the female as passivity (Kreps 46). Heterosexist patriarchal power remains strong through keeping silent this pain. As women engage in various attempts to become beautiful, through make-up dieting, fashion they are acting within their script. As they play the role of the supporting wife at home and at work the women does her job, and reifies herself as lacking that which man has.

[vii] Examining the body as a text, forces a reading of bodies. One doesn’t pick up a book and declare, “This is book”, then put it down. Reading is an intimate project in which the reader becomes engaged with a text. A critical reading will question, who does the author cite, what arguments are the author proceeding? What worldviews does this text aim to create? Jaylin is not simply a woman’s body because she is designated as such. Going further and encountering through reading brings the critique closer to an understanding of the construction of that text. As with books, there is no definitive explanation or static way to know what a book is . Readers will vary on their descriptions of the books meaning and each new reading can highlight new hidden meanings. One approaches a novel in search of meaning and takes a generous read looking for secret meanings, as one reads directions for their new cell phone the reading holds a different understanding. One does not look for novel meanings, new metaphors, one will skip to the pieces they want, they will look for the Truth of direction. Let us read Jaylin as a novel not a dishwasher manual.