"BITCH, I’M TELLING YOU THE TRUTH”: Showgirls, misogyny, and ironic masturbation
by Ben Mauk
(editor’s note: this essay was originally published on October 19, 2010)
On September 22 of this year, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls turned 15.
The day passed without fanfare for much of our beleaguered nation. It made no news cycle. There’s a war on, after all, and a worrisome recession. It’s an election year and the country is inexorably divided along chasmal ideological lines. Fluff like Showgirls feels of another, more frivolous era: the bullish, shallow, and slightly embarrassing 1990s.
Which may be a fair assessment of a film whose resurgence as a popular midnight feature is due largely to the ironic sensibilities of drag queens. ButShowgirls remains a unique milestone for both fin de siècle cinema culture and for the private sexual histories of basically an entire generation of adolescent boys, as whose self-appointed spokesperson I hope to take another look at the ‘90s queen of camp.
To be in Patuxent Valley Middle School’s sixth grade in 1995 was to neither know nor care that Verhoeven’s film was one of a handful of big-budget, cinema-bound NC-17 films in history, or that it flopped famously on both commercial and critical terms. Or that it was written by Hollywood’s then-biggest screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, who called it a “terrible” film after it nearly ruined his career. Or that Verhoeven claimed that he wanted to remove the “stigma” of the NC-17 rating, to portray an adult sexuality that viewers wouldn’t be ashamed to embrace.
In 1995, to attend PVMS—as I did—was to know, as firmly as facts can be known, that Showgirls had tits. Tons of tits. That it was rated X. That in the movie, tons of people did it. Fucked. These were facts. Showgirls had vaginas. Stripping. BJs.
For at least one and probably millions of desperately horny eleven-year-olds,Showgirls quickly became, through nothing more than pre-adolescent word-of-mouth, a kind of sexual Elysian field: a land of Taboo, of Adult Sex, of everything your body was just beginning to tell you about, albeit in a foreign and shameful language that you could not begin to understand. For these American boys—each of whom seemed to have heard of a friend of a friend whose parents were divorced, who wore his hair long and who sometimes got to drink beer and who had actually seen it, had actually fucking seen Showgirls!!!—it was a kind of grail.
Times have changed, of course. Excepting those raised in certain Luddite or evangelical households, soft-core trash of the kind peddled in Showgirls is Sesame Street to any ten-year-old with a smart phone. But I didn’t have an e-mail address until 1999. Smut was, for a brief time in my life, sacred.
I fear there may be no more grails.
I think watching a bad movie is a qualitatively different experience than watching a good movie. I think we enjoy bad films more intensively than we enjoy good ones.
-Lance Duerfahrd, Purdue University
Among those who could actually get into an NC-17 film in 1995, Showgirls is remembered less for its mythological Adultness than for its mythological Badness. Like 2003’s The Room for the aughts, Showgirls was the so-bad-it’s-good movie of the ‘90s, a film synonymous with stilted dialogue and moments of unintentional hilarity. Its very ineptitude was the whole point of watching. Following its initial flop, Showgirls was quickly embraced as a camp erotic classic on VHS.
The very notion of enjoying a bad or campy film is strange. The experience requires a finely tuned sense of irony that has only recently come to define American consumption habits. (The 1970s, with its B-movie renaissance and SNL-type edgy social analysis, did a lot of legwork in making self-awareness and self-reference prerequisites for watching mainstream movies and TV.) So when I found myself last month watching Showgirls for the first time, I admit to being distracted by some meta-textual questions:
Like, can a bad film succeed on its own terms?
What terms would those be?
Can a filmmaker intentionally make a “bad” film—as in campy or pulpy? Is that different than an unintentionally “bad” film?
What do we even mean when we call a film good or bad? Does it make a difference if we define “we” as “average American consumer”? “Intellectual cineaste”? “Roger Ebert”? “Horny Patuxent Valley Middle School student?”
I won’t pretend that this line of questioning isn’t well-trod territory among cultural theorists whom I ought to have read but have not. But even a dilettante can’t ignore them when watching a film directed by Paul Verhoeven, who is a very smart guy who happens to trade in filth the way Warhol traded in soup cans and Raphael in Madonnas.
Case-in-point: Verhoeven directed Starship Troopers, a terrific meditation on the roots of fascism in American culture and a big subversive wink at the action flick tropes of brainless violence and racial intolerance. It’s a film I love. It was filthy.
But unlike that film, the ironies in which even some sharp reviewers completely missed, Showgirls—despite overtly satirical elements—is not what a Starship Trooper would call a “clean kill,” satire-wise. Its victims (erotica? fame? sexism? 42nd Street-style fantasy?) are not so much skewered as playfully chained up and whipped.
Furthermore, Showgirls is easily as exploitative and misogynistic as the sort of movie it purports to satirize, and it isn’t at all clear how conscious this exploitation and misogyny is. Other distracting questions:
What makes a film violent? What makes a film sexist?
What if the film is about violence or sexism? Is that “better” than a film that is unreflectively violent or sexist?
How do we tell the difference?
Does it change your conception of the level of subversion at work in Showgirls that Verhoeven was happy to appear at 1995’s Golden Raspberry Awards ceremony, where he took home seven Razzies, including Worst Film? Or that in 2000 the film won the Razzie for Worst Film of the Decade?
Despite the film’s camp status, some critics are coming around on Showgirls. It has defenders who argue that the social satire is working like a well-oiled, um, machine. But having watched it several times now (for solely academic purposes, I can assure you) I’m not convinced that we ought to remember Showgirls as anything other than that first sacred smut of our prepubescent childhoods.
Filth as experience
We’re all whores.
-“Cristal Conners,” Showgirls
It opens with a shot of Elizabeth Berkley’s stone-faced Nomi Malone hitchhiking on the side of a Nevada highway. She’s picked up by a greaser type (c. 1990s) and when he starts to get fresh—“You can sit a little bit closer if you want” is a fair example of the level of subtlety this script deals in—Nomi intimidates him with some threatening knife play.
We thus learn, not two minutes into the film, that Nomi is a Woman Not to Be Fucked With. The refreshing power dynamic on display as the greaser fearfully obeys Nomi’s orders is a bit of false hope for a film in which women are nearly always portrayed as victims. After earning Nomi’s trust by proposing that he help her find work (“What, ain’t anyone ever been nice to you?”), the greaser makes off with her suitcase, leaving her helpless and broke.
This early incident, irrelevant to the plot, is typical of every male/female relationship in the film: above all else, Showgirls is concerned with the varied ways men fuck—and fuck over—women. (And how women fuck over other women, too. When a woman in Showgirls does achieve a modicum of power—usually by stabbing another woman in the back or, in one case, literally shoving her down a flight of stairs—that power is always granted by a man in charge. And the woman who’s been pushed ends up happy to have been sidelined! There’s an unfriendly streak of sadism here, separate from the misogyny, which I’m not even going to try to get into.)
Helpless and broke—and at the mercy of males—is how Showgirls likes its female characters. Penniless in Vegas, Nomi is forced to work at a club named “Cheetah’s” where she strips for lascivious businessmen who crack dumb gynecological jokes and spars with a boss who requests blowjobs from his crew. It’s to her credit that Berkley plays her role as victim with mad abandon and a fierce pride, even when the script demands the ridiculous.
(In fact, the major roles are all wonderfully cast, and it’s clear just how good a time all the actors are having with the material, from Gina Gershon—who plays the same role Bette Davis did in All About Eve and takes the opportunity to chew every piece of neon scenery in sight as Vegas starlet Cristal Conners—to Kyle MacLaughlin, who oozes sleaze as slick, heartless casino entertainment director Zack Carey.)
Speaking of ridiculous: the infamous lap dance scene. At Cheetah’s, Nomi is pressured by Cristal into giving a private dance to Zack. The unsettlingly explicit scene that follows involves people watching other people do private things, or as we say in the liberal arts, it involves several male and female “gazes”—including man-on-woman, woman-on-woman-on-man, and at one point, as James secretly watches Cristal watch Zack watch Nomi watch Cristal, viewer-on-man-on-woman-on-man-on-woman-on-woman.
All this is probably very interesting in a graduate thesis sort of way. But the cognitive dissonance I get watching Twin Peaks’ Special Agent Dale Cooper go cross-eyed during a lap dance given by Saved by the Bell’s Jessie Spano amounts to a complete and utter pop culture paralysis—a frame-of-reference brain freeze—and the only thing I can say about this scene is that it furthers one’s whole awareness of the film’s artificiality of character in bizarre and decidedly non-erotic ways.
Showgirls veers wildly between exploitation of women and their bodies on the one hand, and a stilted indictment of that gaze on the other. The men at Cheetah’s are cartoonishly vile (“Can I suck your tits?” “I want to see your ass!”) and yet the camera lingers on a striptease long enough that we cannot help but see ourselves as patrons of Cheetah’s as well, with all the supposed erotic effect. The satire is unsubtle, but so is the soft-core porn.
Once Nomi leaves Cheetah’s, the film follows a standard 42nd Street / A Star Is Born rise-to-fame structure, although again, the most overt reference point here is the Machiavellian All About Eve. Nomi’s acceptance into the Vegas world parallels her increasing ruthlessness; I couldn’t possibly document here all the instances of woman-on-woman hatred or, for that matter, male contempt for women. (Or the flaccid “erotic” scenes so unsexy that one starts to look for subversive elements in Showgirls just to have something to do.)
Is Showgirls likeable? Is liking Showgirls sexist?
One could argue that liking Showgirls no more makes us sexist than likingStarship Troopers—a film so vehemently anti-war that it’s frankly embarrassing the percentage of film critics who missed its deconstruction of the usual war movie bullshit—makes us war-mongers. However (and to Verhoeven’s credit) the violence still kicks ass in Starship Troopers. The film works on a blockbuster as well as satirical level. (It helps that we’ve been desensitized to violence in cinema, and that the gore in Starship Troopers is especially sci-fi. It’s hard to feel empathy for a CGI-built insect.)
Cruelty and violence toward actual women, though, does not work on a blockbuster level, especially when executed with seeming glee. The viewer can’t help but feel complicit in what happens to the film’s women—who get lied to, beat up and finally raped—no matter his or her finely tuned ironic sensibilities. And some lines are impossible to spin into ironic humor. When a sneering producer tells an auditioning dancer to “come back when you fuck some of that baby fat off,” the intended takeaway seems to be not that he’s an evil, self-described “prick,” but rather that he’s telling it to us like it is. The men in Showgirls are pigs or liars, who, when women challenge their baseness, cry out (and this is a quote): “Bitch, I’m telling you the truth!”
The women may be worse. Their self-loathing and cruelty often don’t seem to serve a purpose except to disgust. Early in the film a female burlesque host jokes to a crowd of leering men: “You know what they call the useless piece of skin around a twat? A woomaaaan.” This sort of stuff doesn’t come as part of a larger package examining the relevant issues. We’re meant to laugh. Even assuming Showgirls is being heavily ironic here, the brutality feels sincere. Who could possibly find this film erotic? How is it fun? After finishing Showgirls I felt like I needed a shower—not a cold shower, but an actual cleanse. Is the filth part of the experience? Is filth the experience, period?
There’s a great Onion article whose headline reads “Ironic Porn Purchase Leads to Unironic Ejaculation,” which sums up the conflict I’ve been struggling to convey: There’s no such thing as an ironic boner.
Sex in art involves some level of complicit sincerity between artist and audience even if satire or irony is the ultimate goal. Sex is too primal: too wrapped up with our physical and emotional development (cf. the stuff about Showgirls as “rated X” grail that trickled down to the boys at Patuxent Valley Middle) and with the ways our culture assaults taboo (cf. Showgirls’ acceptance as midnight-movie camp/drag experience, also cf. successful perversions of sexual desire and violence, e.g. John Waters, David Lynch).
That’s why Showgirls fails as satire: it doesn’t treat the sex (and, by proxy, the misogyny and violence that throughout the film follow sex like its shadow) with due sincerity. Which is a five-dollar way of saying the film isn’t good enough. The script is too wooden to engage material this difficult. The direction is too gleefully ironic. The ambiguities in the film are misplaced or handled ineptly. There’s a good, serious, funny, sexual All About Eve out there, but this isn’t it. Such a film requires a subtler tool that whatever Verhoeven’s working with.
Ben Mauk is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland. He is a regular online contributor to The New Yorker, and his essays and stories appear in The Sun magazine, The American Reader, The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.