Showgirls: A Fable of Excess

     This year I saw Showgirls (1995) for the first time. I decided to make it a whole experience. I bought myself lox, bagels, champagne, and then watched the film, absorbing and reveling in its excess, marshaling a minute amount of its decadence into my own, incredibly confined life. I did this because I knew that, if anything, the film was an exploration of decadence and decadence was its apparent sole purpose. The film explored a decadence of experience, of emotionalism, of materialism, of sex; a world of extremes, of misogyny and corruption. It was a world that simultaneously depicted, critiqued, and encapsulated all of these things, leading to incompatible and often confused conclusions about the film’s purpose.

     Showgirls, often cited as one of the worst movies ever made, follows Nomi Malone, played by Elizabeth Berkley, as she navigates the entertainment world of Las Vegas. Beginning the film as a stripper, we are led to believe that Nomi is a dancer and a true, uncompromising artist. She aspires to leading a revue similar to the one led by Cristal Connors, played by Gina Gershon, her nemesis/mirror image/sexual obsession. Berkley’s performance is one of the things most often derided when the film is discussed. Nomi is explosive, her reactions extreme. She often screams, tearing away from real or perceived slights, from her subjection to a narrative crafted by someone else. According to a Rolling Stone article, however, her style of acting was very intentional. In the article, Paul Verhoeven, the director, is interviewed, saying, “People have, of course, criticized her for being over-the-top in her performance. Most of that comes from me. I pushed it in that direction. Good or not good, I was the one who asked her to exaggerate everything—every move—because that was the element of style that I thought would work for the movie.” If we believe that Verhoeven is telling us the truth, we have a possible set of intentions for how the film was supposed to be read. I see Nomi and her reactions, her overzealous and uncompromising passion, as a kind of compliment to the extremes of the locale. Nomi and her responses mirror the excesses of Las Vegas, a place where extremes hold sway. She is as difficult to contain as the city in which she has chosen to pursue her dreams. The spectacle of Las Vegas becomes the perfect backdrop, a kind of metaphor or mirror to the spectacle of desire, the rituals wherein we, as a society, covet and then degrade the female body, all in the name of entertainment and power. To the men that surround her, Nomi is as much a spectacle as the city itself is.  

     On the one hand, Showgirls appears to be an exploration of misogyny; of American society’s treatment, exploitation, and our dueling fascination and disgust with the female form. It appears to interrogate our cultural preoccupation with sex, making us confront the ways that sex and desire are viewed, manufactured, and performed. All of the men are sleazy. They gleefully profit off of women and their bodies. They lie about their relationship to power and their use of it for their own gains. Herein lies the awareness of the film. There is Zack, played by Kyle MacLachlan, an entertainment director who feigns ignorance of the power structures that keep him in women and a life of decadence, Andrew Carver, a vicious rapist, and Tony, a producer at the Stardust, whose disgust for the women in his show leads him to humiliate them on stage, critiquing their appearance, their intelligence, and even going so far as to offer them ice for their nipples. These men are all different degrees of the same  monster and the film is very clear on that fact. They profit off a system where Nomi’s body is on display. While Nomi fights for her autonomy and the validation that she is not, as she fears, a whore, these men exploit her for money, sex, and power. But while the film exposes these standards and damns the men who uphold them, it is also undeniably built upon these same standards. The film delights in the demeaning asides and violence done to its women. It almost appears to revel in the breach of basic morality that the film embodies. But this is one of the things that makes the film so complex. It isn’t clear about what message it is sending. With lines like, “In America, everyone’s a gynecologist” we are shown a world both outrageous and aware, both disgusting and honest about the way these men see women’s bodies, as objects to gawk over and examine, clearly defined as something they can or should be able to take possession of. It is this mixture of shock, awareness, and blatant disregard, much like society’s appraisal of the female body, that makes the film so unendingly confounding. But ultimately, the film revels in the transgressiveness of itself, the violence and sexualization of the women in the film and thus, a film about misogyny also becomes a document of the misogyny of the creators. 

     It is clear, from past films, that Verhoeven, himself, didn’t have the best history with women. In a Vanity Fair excerpt of her book, Sharon Stone describes the infamous interrogation scene from Basic Instinct (a 1992 film also directed by Verhoeven), in which Stone crosses and uncrosses her legs, exposing herself to the men in the room and, by extension, the audience. According to Stone, Verhoeven convinced her to take off her underwear because of a lighting issue, reassuring her that nothing would be seen. She was understandably shocked when she saw the finished film. It is clear that in an attempt to push the boundaries of conventional American film, Verhoeven was more than comfortable sacrificing his actress. This anecdote is, I believe, important in a discussion of Showgirls because it shows the basic disregard that Verhoeven has for his actresses, a disregard that registers as voyeuristic, even as it attempts to justify and dismiss its own voyeurism as cultural critique; choosing basic shock, titillation, and outrage over the safety of those who are investing trust in him as a director. It is through these vehicles that he examines the intersections of sex, fame, and desire in America, often blurring the lines between the intentions of his films and the reigning notions, Verhoeven’s own notions, about women, the female body, and his own power as director. Showgirls is a story about fame, excess, materialism, and greed; a film that serves to both expose and exalt these things, leaving the audience in a dizzying profusion of aesthetics. It is a complete and glamorous contradiction. It delights in all of these things, sacrificing clarity for image. Verhoeven creates a visually stunning but damned world, a world forced to consume itself, leaving no one innocent or unscarred by the violence of its own image. We are shown the extravagance of the locale, an extravagance of emotion, and an extravagance of desire. We are shown a world that both exposes and revels in its misogyny. And that’s why Showgirls is so captivating, because it is all of these things and none of them; it tries, it fails, it tries again. It is simultaneously aware and oblivious. It is captivating in its confusion. But it puts on a good show—honestly, it puts on a beautiful show.

Stone, Sharon. “‘You Can’t Shame Me’: Sharon Stone on How Basic Instinct Nearly Broke Her, Before Making Her a Star.” Vanity Fair, 18 Mar. 2021,

Wood, Jennifer. “‘Showgirls’: Paul Verhoeven on the Greatest Stripper Movie Ever Made.” Rolling Stone, 22 Sept. 2015,

Reconsidering a Scene: Carrie and the Horror of Adolescence

     I’ve always regarded Carrie as one of the few films able to effectively capture the fear and horror of being a teenage girl. Regardless of the fact that it was written and directed by men, it was able to understand the confusion and ferocity of youth. However, there was always one moment that gave me pause, a scene that always appeared to me to be completely divorced from the rest of the movie. 

     The title sequence of the film follows a scene in gym class that shows us how much of an outcast Carrie White is within her high school. As we travel inside the school, a lilting, romantic music floats in, signaling the romance and possibility of youth, a contrast to the horror that is to come. The camera has followed the girls into the locker room. There are girls in various states of undress and the camera follows as they playfully hit one another with towels. They run around laughing or stand confidently in their underwear discussing the gravest topics of the moment. The camera lingers on them, while the music swells. The steam from the showers creates a kind of hazy fog, a sense of the unreal. They are engaged in various customs of femininity, in primping and makeup application. It is very clear that we have entered the world of girls, but it is a world mediated by the camera, and thus by men and it is through these men that they are idealized. It is an image of a soft femininity, heightened by the steam and the music. The camera traces its way through the masses of girls until it lands on Carrie, alone, in the shower. The camera lingers on her in the shower, fragmenting and closely observing the separate parts of her body: her arms, her torso, her legs, her breasts. She, too, is being idealized. The sense of peace is suddenly shattered when Carrie sees she is bleeding. Not understanding what menstruation is, she runs into the crowd of girls begging for help. They start mocking her, throwing pads and tampons at her and yelling “plug it up”. Thus begins our understanding of the horror of Carrie’s life, the horror of the despised girl. We have shifted away from this idealized world of the girl so fast it could give us whiplash. We are now firmly in a story about the fragility and dread of adolescence, a film about the mocked and maligned girl. 

     This title sequence, this gaze-induced lingering celebration of the body, takes the viewer completely by surprise. It is never repeated. It is completely separate and at odds with the rest of the film, thematically and tonally. It is a kind of calm before the storm, but it fixates on the very characters it professes to care about, reducing them to mere bodies, a list of fragmented parts and behaviors that don’t quite come together to create a whole. 

     The remainder of the film goes on to document with nuance the stresses and fears of adolescence, of fitting in. It catalogues the fear of a changing body, and thus a changing and somewhat unknown place within the world, the fear of abusive parents or boyfriends, and of expectations of beauty; expectations that, within the confines of this title sequence, the camera reasserts. While the film explores these and their effects on Carrie, it loses its credibility by asserting the very expectations it appears to want to address. It is a story about power and powerlessness and how these two can collide suddenly and dangerously, but what wrecks that illusion is the title sequence, because in it there is no power, except in the gaze of the camera.    

Female-centered horror is so effective due to the fact that it is on the female body that we put the weight of the unknown, the supernatural. Traditionally, what is more controlled? What could be more haunting or more transgressive than a girl who refuses to follow social norms? It is the clash of the rigidly structured and constructed body against the wild unknown of the supernatural. The novel, written by Stephen King, on which the film is based, explores this more than the film, asserting that in the fraught time of adolescence a girl is more likely to exhibit supernatural powers, in this case telekinesis, because of the intensity of her experience. Her body dictates this power, drawing her closer to the supernatural. Carrie professes to be a story about the horror of adolescence but strips that away as early as the opening sequence in favor of gazing upon women’s bodies, romanticizing and idealizing them.

Sterling Hayden: The Romantic Trapped by the Leading Man

“Lost, indeed! Don’t talk to me about finding yourself. Only as you are lost is there any hope for you.” -Sterling Hayden, Wanderer (x)

     Sterling Hayden was always the tough guy. Hired time and again to portray gangsters and the seedy underworld they inhabited, he often, through voice and gesture, was able to imbue this world and these characters with nuance and depth. He was able to create portraits of men, haunted and desperate for the past. With grace, he portrayed men whom society had deemed dangerous, giving them space and a voice, and challenging the narratives that society and Hollywood had been disseminating for decades. It was the sensitivity of his every movement that made these characters unforgettable. It is probably 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle for which Hayden is best known. In it he plays Dix Handley, a petty criminal whose whole adult life has been a prolonged attempt to get back to some sense of peace, to a bucolic past of fields and horses, to recapture a beauty and an innocence that has been lost. Beneath all the posturing, his past lends his life meaning. Hayden plays this masterfully, his performance a seeming indictment of society and the censors that would damn all filmic criminals to execution for their misdeeds, no matter how insignificant. He lends Dix a startling humanity that skewers the way in which Hollywood dealt with crime and its villains. It is a master class in turning the status quo on its head, interrogating the stories we tell about ourselves and others. And it makes sense that he was able to do that. He had always been an outsider in Hollywood.

     Sterling Hayden always said that he went into acting just to buy a boat. While indifferent to acting, sailing was his true passion. It is this disinterest that made Hayden a good star. Reluctance, while bad for the psyche, is good for the star. It shows in their work. They are enigmatic, they project an indestructible aloofness to their audience. He was clearly a man not made for Hollywood, but for adventure. A romantic, in the true sense of the word, in his later years he was surrounded by books of poetry and was known to quote from them extensively. Having traveled throughout the world seeking adventure, he cultivated an almost Hemingwayesque persona for mischief: at fifteen, he was aboard a fishing boat and by World War II, he was parachuting into war zones. Sailing seems to have been an extension of this, the wildness and ambiguity paired with the euphoria of danger, autonomy, and control. On a boat, Hayden was in charge of his destiny, not so in Hollywood. It was a place of facade, a place where, especially during the 1940s and 1950s, the actor was indebted and subservient to the studio. He went from extreme freedom to the rigid and uncompromising control of the Hollywood studio system. This went, quickly, from merely uncomfortable, to dangerous. 

     During the 1950s, with anti-communist sentiment high, the House Un-American Activities Commitee, or HUAC, became one of the most powerful and feared organizations in Hollywood. Actors, screenwriters, directors, and many others were called before the Committee for alleged communist ties and were forced to either name other known Communists or face an unofficial but powerful blacklist. Hayden, who joined the Communist Party in his youth, was soon called to testify. What he did next was the thing that plagued him for the rest of his life. He named names. Although the names he mentioned were already known to the committee, he was filled with a regret, the depths of which he could never pull himself out of. He spoke frequently on this point in his later life, not in an attempt to absolve himself, but rather to speak frankly about the cost to himself and others of this action. He seemed to forever damn himself. He was hired for many films after his appearance before HUAC and, seeing these films as payment for his testimony, decided to leave Hollywood.

     “Pharos of Chaos”, a 1983 documentary, gives us a glimpse of Hayden’s later life, after his self-imposed exile from Hollywood. Living on a barge outside of a small Parisian town and plagued by alcoholism, Hayden is shown at his most frank. The film is composed of moments that together form one of the most unflinching surveys of a man’s life. To a young man asleep on a boat, Hayden recalls having said, “Strange that you can’t see. What a terrible affliction.” While a story of a different time, I believe this statement means much more because Hayden is a man who sees everything. He is a man tormented by his faults, whose clarity of vision has caused him to demand so much of himself. He is a man whose perception has made him solitary, who has failed to find comfort in the ideals of a modern homogenized society. He is a man of awareness and it is this that has made his life so poignant and so hard. Building your life the way you want it, surrounded by the things that you draw beauty and inspiration from, does not necessarily mean that you are able to escape the ways that you have let yourself down. This is what we see when we see an older Hayden, a contemplative and pained man, constantly at odds with himself. Here’s the thing though, to have the vulnerability to accept that you did wrong is to show what true strength is. And here, again, we see the outsider and the mentality that characterized Hayden. The honesty. He wanted to show people what the world had been and what it had momentarily turned him into. 

     There are many ways that the HUAC hearings killed people. Some were more obvious, like suicide or stressed induced heart attacks, and others were more subtle. Hayden’s is an example of the latter. The gnawing and overwhelming guilt, the sense of personal devastation at the loss of one’s morals, and the deeply held conviction that there is no returning from that loss. The refusal to learn how to live with yourself after you have let yourself down. It is a devastating thing to think about. The drinking to mask the despair, the loneliness, the knowledge that you are not the person you hoped you would be. But doesn’t the honesty about what he perceived as his failings actually show fortitude and awareness? Isn’t that what makes a person powerful? I think he would heartily disagree, but how are we supposed to change ourselves and the world if we can’t even accept our own failures. Maybe he never found peace with himself, in fact, I’m sure he didn’t, but at least he was honest, to himself and to his audience, and in that he showed strength. It was not the strength of the tough guy from the movie, but real human strength, the kind made up of fragility. It is the kind of strength that we should actually mean when we talk about strength and it made Sterling Hayden who he was.

Blank, Manfred and Wolf-Eckart Bühler, dir. Pharos of Chaos. 1983: The Criterion Collection, 2016. DVD. 

Hayden, Sterling. Wanderer. Connecticut: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018.

Elizabeth Taylor: The Persona and The Public

     When my Mother was young, she crept into the dining room where her Mother was, deep in conversation with a neighbor. At the mention of Elizabeth Taylor, my Grandmother turned up her nose, shook her head, and, in a voice dripping with derision, called her “the sexy witch.” With this off-hand statement my Grandmother seemed to have encapsulated her worldview. In saying it, she set herself up in opposition to whatever she saw as the threat of Elizabeth Taylor, of glamour. It seemed to be an incantation for her own place in the world, no matter how small or filled with turmoil. Taylor was the image of sensuality and luxury, of unabashed desire, and my Grandmother was a woman in and of small town Oregon, a woman for whom these things did not only not apply but to whom these things would have been seen as truly forbidden. They were of two completely different worlds and that, with resentment and resignation, is what my Grandmother latched on to. 

     Elizabeth Taylor is a true movie star, a woman whose image is indelibly linked to the studio system and its old elegance. She was a woman whose many transformations, from child star to mid-century ingénue then, finally, to decadent, tempestuous artist, could never destroy her. She was resilient, never acquiescing to demands, but always countering with her own. She was a woman full of empathy and compassion, whose ability to care for those she saw as the victims of an uncaring society, was vast. She was accustomed to luxury and she reveled in it, in diamonds and in fury. She was a force of emotionalism, in her films and out of them, and all of these things conspired to make her, according to the negative view of my Grandmother, “the sexy witch.”

     But what made Elizabeth Taylor the “sexy witch” is what made her great. She was uncontrollable, frank, and unapologetic. These personality traits were cultivated, alongside scandal, throughout her career. Maybe the first time the public truly turned on Taylor was in 1959, when she began a very public affair with the very married Eddie Fisher. His wife, Debbie Reynolds, was fashioned by the press into the all-American sweetheart, the poor angelic woman, the pious and devoted wife, left unceremoniously by her husband. Taylor was vilified. The dichotomy was cemented: the naïve, blonde wife and the harlot, the seductress, the wanton homewrecker, who seemed to feed on immorality, sex, and a general disregard for others. She became the enemy of all wives, of Americana, of the suburban dream. Taylor, for her part, decided to lean into the role that had been written for her. In an interview, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper questioned her about the affair and Taylor responded with, “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?” (Longworth). She was unabashed and while under fire from conservative pundits and the culture at large, she dug in her heels and seemed to say what no one else had dared say: that, as a woman, she had desires and that they were foremost and, further, that she would not be shamed by them. She was bold, she was unapologetic, and she emerged triumphant, gaining her fourth husband and a Best Actress Oscar for BUtterfield 8 in 1960. This was the Taylor that people saw when they went to the movies. The public who read the newspaper and the movie magazines knew all of the details of the scandal and projected this image onto her. And Taylor, who refused to conform to the few acceptable notions of femininity available to her at the time, reflected this in her very public life and in her films.

     And then, a few years later, on the set of Cleopatra, she began an affair with her co-star, Richard Burton. When the affair became public knowledge, the studio sued both Taylor and Burton, citing morality. To the studio, Taylor and Burton’s behavior on set damaged the film’s value. But what the studio didn’t seem to acknowledge was that it added to Burton and Taylor’s allure. All of this was widely commented upon by newspapers, gossip columnists, and the general public. Together, they had become a cultural force. Here, again, Taylor seemed to court intrigue and salacious rumor and emerge from it all even stronger. Throughout her life, she was married and divorced eight times (twice to Burton, whose tumultuous nature was well-documented). Some of her later films even highlight her growing frankness and apparent abhorrence for convention. In The Sandpiper (1965), where she was once again paired with Burton, Taylor plays Laura, a single mother whose son is forced to go to a parochial school. She is a free-spirited painter who lives by the ocean and shirks convention. She is tied, metaphorically, to the place she inhabits, the wild untamed power of Big Sur. Burton, as the headmaster of the school, soon becomes enamoured with Taylor, learning that following convention for its own sake can itself be a kind of sin, wherein there is no room for the human spirit. Laura is undeniably free, and so is Taylor herself. Taylor’s public persona and knowledge of her personal life is brought along to add depth and nuance to her character. The scandals of her life are addressed and seemingly justified within this film. 

     Given all of this, I don’t think my Grandmother’s response was unusual. Many women probably reacted to Taylor this way. Partly because she seemed to threaten the very foundations of their lives and marriages (the monogamous husband and the devoted, yet unsexual wife), and because she is all of the things that they were not allowed to be. She reveled in her sexuality and when its particulars were made public, she decided to revel in that too. Rather than apologizing, she made light of the things that were designed to harm her. She became something difficult to contain, something wild and willful. Women can’t be that, society continued to say. (My Grandmother, for example, was ostracized in her small town religious community for getting a very necessary divorce.) But Elizabeth Taylor was that and to many women, whose firm belief in a system that had not only trapped them but forced them to celebrate their submission, grew to resent it. To be a part of so rarefied a world, so insular and protected, that all of your scandal, all of your supposed misdeeds only added to your allure, was unacceptable. My Grandmother seemed to resent that mobility, that world of apparent ease, a world with which she, on some instinctive level, knew that she would never have any common ground. These shows of emotion, these tempests, were something a small town American woman was not allowed. To express your needs, however minuscule or life-affirming, was akin to selfishness. Taylor was the opposite of that and she loved it. I only wish that women like my Grandmother could have seen that, could have found some solace in it rather than resenting and attempting to harm it. I wish that they could have been allied, their views on their femininity not something to fight over, their respective places in the world not something filled with resentment, but with support and understanding. Rather than lashing out at the things that were holding her in an impossible place, she chose to do so to Elizabeth Taylor and I get it, I really do, but it also makes me kind of sad. There are things that she could have learned from Taylor: how to be thorny, what it means to persevere, how volatility can be beauty and boldness can be life giving, how society will not protect you and decorum will destroy you. If she wasn’t forced to hate her, I think she could have loved her.

Longworth, Karina. “You Must Remember This: How Elizabeth Taylor Won Her Oscar.” Slate.

On Holly Madison, The Girls Next Door, and Debunking One of Our Greatest Misogynistic Legends

     In March of 2021, after living for a year in the relative isolation of a pandemic, when the look of my face in the mirror had become overly familiar and overly scrutinized, when the relief of a vaccine rollout was paired with an anxiety that seemed to whisper to me daily that now, in this final stretch, irony dictated that I would contract Covid, I began to watch the Playboy Mansion centered reality television show, The Girls Next Door. It was a welcome distraction, an extreme of a different variety. Instead of the world that I was dealing with daily, I was pulled into an extreme of denial, of control, of questionable sexual politics, all played off as the risqué and off-color jokes of a frivolous era. But it was when Holly Madison, known as Hugh Hefner’s number one girlfriend, said, “I don’t get jealous of other girls, because I was… raised in a cloning lab to be the perfect woman for Hugh M. Hefner…” that I really started to pay attention. It was a case of a thinly veiled joke that doesn’t quite land, one delivered with the eerily unwavering eyes and flat voice of someone numbed or held hostage by their experiences. It was a joke that appeared to speak to a truth that has been barely hidden, socially accepted, and yet rarely discussed. A joke that appeared to deflate the myth of Playboy. 

     The Girls Next Door aired from 2005 until 2010 and followed the misadventures of Hugh Hefner’s three girlfriends and their lives within the Playboy Mansion compound. While ostensibly a story about the growth and identities of three women, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson, the show functioned as a fairly obvious PR stunt that served to reinvigorate the Playboy brand while also dispelling any unsavory stories or connotations that it had acquired since its inception in 1953. Sure, the show trafficked in often sophomoric humor about sex and gender and, much like the magazine, was built upon women’s bodies, but all of these things seemed to underline the accepted myth that the Mansion was a place of fun where inhibition had no place and, further, that posing for Playboy was, in fact, a form of liberation. It was this format and these jokes that were meant to overshadow the serious rumors and allegations that have dogged the magazine and Hefner for decades. In the world of The Girls Next Door this darker side did not exist. Or, at least, it didn’t until 2015, when Holly Madison wrote a memoir entitled Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny. With the publication of this memoir came the revelations that were often obscured by myth, the things that we knew instinctively, but never with any clarity. For Madison, the experience of Hefner and the Playboy Mansion was one of constant humiliation, verbal abuse, manipulation, and impossible body standards. But this of course makes perfect sense. We are dealing with a brand built on women’s bodies and the scrutiny placed upon them. A brand whose use of women renders them almost completely inconsequential; one that views them as mere objects to obtain in the quest to become the ideal man, a man based and built around Hefner himself. This tenet is essential to Playboy and can be seen everything, particularly in the composition of the notorious Playboy centerfold. One of the most crucial elements to a centerfold is an object that insinuates the presence of a man (a tie, a glass of whiskey, a cigar or pipe) placed in the background. This object implies that a man is never far away, that he is the true subject and spectator, while the woman a mere object. The woman, the actual woman, whose body is there, is rendered inconsequential, a mere adornment for the lifestyle of the man. And, unsurprisingly, that is much the way that Madison describes her time at the Mansion. 

     In Down the Rabbit Hole, Madison draws parallels between her time at Playboy and the fairy tales and fables embedded in our society. In doing this, she is exposing the fantasy as an illusion, and a detrimental one at that. Rather than living in lush and uncomplicated luxury, as the show would have us believe, we are shown a portrait of a man threatened by his own mortality and fear of inadequacy, whose massive ego was so burdened by his image that he insisted on parading around with a brood of women who could easily have been his grandchildren. She describes a man who lashed out regularly, creating a culture so isolated and so toxic, it was barely livable. Within the Mansion, there were strict regulations (a nine p.m. curfew, for example), an endless fund for plastic surgery that would render women nearly indistinguishable, and an insular world where women were pitted against each other for Hefner’s affections and approval. It comes as no surprise that Hefner is a misogynistic bully, but Madison’s account is noteworthy for its proximity to the world she is depicting. Throughout the book she details the mental and physical effects that living in such extremes can have on a person and as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of what this brand, this show, and this story meant in the larger context of our society. It seemed to me to become not just about Holly Madison, who is a captivating and sympathetic protagonist, but to be a kind of illustration of the hurdles that face all women, a manifestation of our society’s most deeply held beliefs. The television show, as I viewed it in 2021, appears to have, despite Hefner’s best, and worst, intentions, become a sinister document of the ways in which women are forced to contort themselves to fit into very narrowly defined forms of femininity, dictated to them solely by male desire. Under all the manufactured glamour and seemingly dizzying excitement of a life of material excess, there was an underlying darkness that appeared to say, above all else, that this act of contortion, this manufactured beauty, will not protect you. The empty look in Madison’s eyes when delivering her lines, the hollow laugh, hinted at a reality darker than the show would admit. 

     Within the television show, I saw all the goals of the magazine realized, the surface celebrated, beauty venerated and accepted as depth. With Madison’s book, I saw the image of the magazine, of Hefner, and its effect on society, in a much clearer way. I began to think of it as an example of the ways in which women are meant to carry the emotional and existential baggage of a society. I thought of how we are often saddled with the responsibility of conforming to and alleviating men’s pain and if we honestly address the distress and humiliation caused by this position, we are usually met with accusation and disbelief. Madison forces us to confront these troubling patterns. Further, we are forced to come face to face with the absurd societal notions that conflate beauty with safety and value. Engaging with Madison’s story, we confront the pervasive myth that beauty grants women safety from predatory men, that beauty means one can’t or will not be exposed to pain and suffering, that beauty implies virtue and the idea that certain people, depending on their image or their actions, are more deserving of our sympathy than others. Holly Madison, through her work, complicates all of these ideas and chips away at some of our culture’s most stubborn and strongly held myths, allowing us a vision of vulnerability and honesty that can change the way we perceive and tell women’s stories. 

Britney Spears: The Danger of Fame and the Power of Vulnerability

     Most of my days are suffused with a broad kind of sadness, a sadness that is made up of worldwide panic, and mixed with a personal anxiety that my, at times, recognizable and yet endlessly incomprehensible routine could stretch into the foreseeable future. It is a large amorphous sadness that lies in wait, ready to be triggered by the most unexpected, seemingly mundane events or memories. For me, the last few days have been punctuated by a particular sadness borne of nostalgia and the remembrance of cultural misdeeds. What I was feeling was melancholy at the rediscovery of Britney Spears. As with many days during the pandemic, I found myself researching random events or phenomena and this time I was drawn to the controversy surrounding Britney Spears and her conservatorship, an ongoing saga since 2007. As I found myself looking through Spears’s Instagram, I felt a deep well of sadness for what we, as a society, had put her through. As I viewed the heroic, unflagging optimism with which she still chooses to meet us, I realized that I was looking at, not merely a pop icon, but a woman whose truthfulness and idealism is an inspiration. In a post dated September 16th, 2020, Spears captions an image “Ask yourself today … am I truly happy ??? What makes you happy … coffee [coffee emoji] early in the morning ??? Dancing for hours ??? Making lots of plans for the day then canceling [woman shrugging emoji] ??? Whatever it is …. I am trying to find more ways to give myself more self-love ….. and feeling confident in my divine feminine body !!! I experience so much joy and passion ….. and always try to find ways I can demonstrate that to you all !!! I hope you are also finding ways to find joy and happiness… GOD BLESS YOU ALL !!!!”

     There is a sensitivity and a relatability to these posts, as if a dreamy-eyed friend is reaching out to you. Her Instagram account is filled with images of flowers, tea cups, kittens, and fairies. It is a place infused with hopeful wonder; a kind of prayer for the world to be a little kinder, an incantation for idealism, as if dreaming a little beauty into the world can be the thing that sets you free. Contrasted with her early career and the way the world treated her, it is a poignant reminder of the frailty that each one of us holds within ourselves, a reminder that behind the impenetrable facade of the pop star, there is a deeply sensitive human being (a thing that we often forget). It is a thing that, in mid-2007, was far from anyone’s mind as we all gleefully consumed the emotional and mental breakdown of Britney Spears. I’d like to say that this occurred during the early years of modern celebrity and that the boundaries were not yet drawn between the public and the private; that we were merely craving an inside look at the lives of the people who shaped our culture and our world. In short, I’d like to be able to say that we just didn’t know any better. But we did know better, or, at least, we should have known better. We had already had to contend with the public ridicule and humiliation that had swallowed the lives and careers of women such as Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Courtney Love, and Anna Nicole Smith. We had been through it before. We had watched on as women who failed to live up to all of the myriad and often contradictory expectations that are put upon women were mocked and became mere punchlines as they navigated drastic and often dangerous circumstances. We watched on, delighting in their pain and refusing to accept their stories of abuse and trauma, refusing to see any vulnerability, as if accepting their precarious position would force us to come to terms with our own, a thing that we could not allow ourselves. We had been through this all before. Britney was no new phenomena, yet we let it happen again. We voraciously consumed her pain and laughed at her for signaling a humanity, a crack in the image that had previously seemed impenetrable. But we’ve always had a morbid fascination with the destruction of the perfect image, relishing the details of the downfall, perhaps because it makes us feel superior. Think of Marilyn Monroe, in many ways a parallel to Britney in terms of fame and public persona. We relish the image of Monroe because she is forever beautiful and young. In other words, we relish her because of her tragedy, because she did not survive. 

     According to a Vox article that lays out the details of Britney’s conservatorship, in 2007, when she shaved her head, she was heard “telling a nearby tattoo artist that she was sick of people touching her hair…” For anyone who was alive during this period of Britney’s all too public life, the image of Britney shaving her head is an infamous one, etched into our consciousness with the guilt borne of moments too intimate for our knowledge. For it is with simple statements such as this that we realize the true toll of our obsession with her. We realize the depths of our entitlement, as if our love for her music decreed that her pain was our property as well. So, of course she attempted to force a distance between her and the ravenous consumption of her image. It was an act of desperation for peace, for a moment of silence against the roar of our derision, it was Britney attempting to place a barrier between herself and her image and, for a moment, it must have felt like a revolution. It was a drastic attempt to carve out space for herself in a world that wouldn’t allow her to be a complex woman, that only allowed for the exploitation of her image. Imagine for a moment the horror of Britney’s daily reality, the excessive scrutiny and the endless parade of people pawing at you. Escaping by almost any means necessary becomes an instantly understandable, even recognizable, desire. 

      Britney Spears has always been resolutely all-American; a promise through which we, her audience, could hone all of our aspirations about love, womanhood, and success. She was the image of perfection for so long, that the fracture seemed somehow both inevitable and cataclysmic. But even though this, she is also the image of the survivor. The image of resolute optimism. And even after we betrayed her with our ridicule, she offers us a glimpse of her dreams, of life as she prefers to imagine it. For that we should feel extremely lucky because it is a sweet dream of a simultaneously simple and magnificent life, graceful, innocent, and excessive in its girlishness. Sometimes it is necessary to retreat into these created worlds for our own safety, a fact that Spears’s Instagram feed appears to acknowledge. Britney’s tale is one of resilience, but it is also a cautionary tale about fame and the ways in which we, as consumers, relate to fame. All too often, we end up feeling entitled to the pain and suffering of our idols. It has been thirteen years since Spears had to retreat from public life for a brief time and I want to believe that we have changed as a society, but the truth is, if it were to happen tomorrow, to another pop star, I fear that we would not act any differently. We can see Britney and her story as a plea that we strive to be better, because we need to be better. We were given the perfect pop star, and instead of protecting her, we tried to destroy her. 

Grady, Constance. “Why Britney’s Fans are Convinced She’s Being Held Captive.” Vox. Last modified August 19, 2020. 

Spears, Britney (britneyspears). “Just a Touch of Rose [red rose emoji]/ Ask yourself today … am I truly happy ??? What makes you happy … coffee [coffee emoji] early in the morning ??? Dancing…” Instagram, September 16, 2020.

The Empty Promise of Nostalgia in the World of “Twin Peaks”

“When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first and the wind rises and then all goodness is in jeopardy.”

-The Log Lady to Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992. 

     A profound nostalgia for an imagined past and an invisible but omnipresent force control and shape the small town of Twin Peaks. It is a place where contemporary life fuses seamlessly with an idealized mid-century sensibility. The notion of mid-century normalcy has been exposed as a fraud, but the myth is persistent, as is this town’s insistence on preserving its particular brand of pristine Norman Rockwell-style Americana. But what the town refuses to admit is that when you give yourself over to nostalgia, a darkness borne of unresolved conflict and trauma often thrives. In an early episode of Twin Peaks, whose original two seasons aired from 1990-1991, Sheriff Harry S. Truman explains to FBI agent Dale Cooper, an outsider, that there is some unknown but powerful force that lurks in the woods surrounding Twin Peaks and that it is the necessary price for the town’s very specific eccentricities, it’s idealism and quaintness. Inherent in this is the notion that for something to be perfect, there has to be a darker truth that is obscured, that we sacrifice a very real knowledge of ourselves and of the larger world in order to keep the simplicity of a different time. But it is this dichotomy on which the show’s aesthetics are built; the beauty and simplicity of nostalgia, of the American mid-century suburban dream in contrast with the darkness that comes of such an intense and self-imposed blindness in a drive towards normalcy. The show is aware of this dichotomy and exploits it, marking the suburban home as a place of horror, not comfort. Throughout the original run of the series, we are shown the disintegration of this very specific, very stylized American dream, but it is in other Twin Peaks-related media that David Lynch, without trepidation or restraint, explores the true human expense of such saccharine dreams. 

     The nostalgic aesthetic of Twin Peaks is nowhere more evident than with the styling and characterization of the women. In their saddle shoes, calf-length tartan skirts, and houndstooth suits, they seem to reference a mid-century simplicity and austerity along with a notion of 1950s young womanhood that prides itself on innocence and virtue, a young womanhood both exemplified by and condemned in the figure of Laura Palmer. It is a town steeped in a past dominated by the image of the white picket fence, but as we now know, the white picket fence did little to protect those who erected it from deep-seated discontent and rampant emotional and physical violence. Similarly, the inhabitants of Twin Peaks, who yearn for the days of the white picket fence, find themselves contending with the failures of such an ideal, finding themselves with only a useless fence with which to trap themselves alongside these very real dangers. It is a nostalgia that hides the realities of adultery, rampant drug use, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. 

     The price of this false ideal is interrogated further in two pieces of media created in relation to Twin Peaks. The feature-length film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and the novelization The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990) explore in stark terms the human expense of the world that Lynch and Mark Frost created without the benefit of quirky, endearing characters. These works explore a more nuanced world in which pervasive Lynchian dream logic crashes menacingly into the all too real trauma of a world so hell bent on revering the empty symbols of Americana that it leads to the suffering of those who spend their lives in service to such illusions. The film and book are an exploration of what Americana really means; what it stands for and what it obscures. Without the trappings of nostalgia, we are left with the discomfiting presence of the overwhelmingly impoverished, the unwanted, the decrepit, and their suffering. We are forced to face the senseless violence that is America and we are forced to accept that Twin Peaks is, without a doubt, a part of this America. In Fire Walk With Me, a kind of prequel to the series, we are shown Twin Peaks as a claustrophobic world from which Laura Palmer cannot escape. It is a complex and frightening world, where she is forced to face an ever-present violence. She, in turn, becomes as frightening and erratic as she possibly can be in an attempt to challenge danger, to challenge death. She channels her grief into her own self-destruction, craving it as much as she fears it. Her grief and her anger is so immense it pours out of her, threatening to destroy her and those around her. These are very human explorations of trauma and their every manifestation, and Lynch offers us no reprieve, no moment of levity in which to turn away from this young woman’s suffocating pain. We are drawn into this claustrophobic world with Laura, her pain surrounds us. The film gives us Laura Palmer not as symbol, but as human being; her image is no longer a blank slate onto which all of the other characters project their own needs and desires. We are shown a girl with a complex and troubling inner life. We see her suffering plainly in the routine that is her daily existence. She is never able to escape herself. Forever banished is the notion of Laura as the symbol of the sweet, beautiful blonde, the girl next door, the homecoming queen. She is no longer the uncomplicated face staring out of a picture frame, a frame which, within the series, serves to highlight the confines of her life and her story. This indelible image, with its literal framing, bars anyone from truly seeing her trauma. They are instead dazzled by the seemingly sincere smile that emanates from the photograph, by the facade. These are the confines under which she herself struggles as she strives to find a sense of safety in herself, in her life, and in those around her, a sense of safety that she is ultimately never able to find.Twin Peaks allows us a glimpse into the dream of America, a dream that offers so much and continuously fails to deliver, a dream which, contrary to its image, serves to hide deep wells of horror. With the companion piece, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we see the suburban dream opening up into a vision of hell, a destructive force rendered in powerful imagery. In this film, Lynch appears to be saying, in as strident a way as he possibly can, that your particular brand of nostalgia will not protect you, it will not save you, and may very well kill you.

A Woman of the Land: Beauty and Wilderness in Powell and Pressburger’s “Gone to Earth”

We first meet Hazel Woodus, played by Jennifer Jones, among the rolling hills of the English countryside. She is a force among the elements. A proto-Kate Bush or a Catherine Earnshaw, wild and desperate, running along the moors. She is one in a lineage of literary women who find solace in the land, a woman for whom the landscape has become a symbol of her passion and inner turmoil. Hazel lives with the spirits of these women, whom society has doomed and nature has rescued. Her very soul is as wild as the country in which she resides. Hazel derives her power and conviction from the earth around her, from it’s beauty, superstition, and folklore. Her eyes sparkle with defiance. They are filled with dreams of the land, they hold her hatred of society, riches, and convention; the things that hurt her beloved land, her beloved animals. When we first see her, she is barefoot, her clothes are tattered, and her hair is windswept and tangled. We hear the sounds of a hunt and are shown various animals running to hide as their world quickly descends into hell. Hazel runs determinedly along the steep and craggy hills. She has rescued a fox who becomes her constant companion. We have been shown the thing that differentiates Hazel from the rest of the community. We have been shown the ways in which humans have forced nature to yield to their own wasteful enthusiasms, but Hazel is here to preserve and treasure what she can.

The central struggles of Gone to Earth, released in 1950, are the dichotomies of nature and civilization, of society and wilderness, of the superficial and the essential. Time and again, Hazel finds herself up against the strictures of society and, noting their cruelty, she refuses to participate in them. She follows her intuition, she follows beauty, and, while the community whispers about her follies and derides her wantonness, the men find her captivating. And here, again, we are met with the “civilizing” influences; the men who attempt to tame her, who mention beating her into submission, who attempt to give her religion or beautiful dresses, as if taming her were a form of love, as if altering her appearance and her conception of the world were love, as if slowly drawing her away from the land, the thing that has formed her and fed her, was love. She is a woman who derives power from nature, from superstition, from Foxy, her feral counterpart. These men, in attempting to separate her from this power, effectively kill her.

Made in England by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film’s lush and menacing depictions of nature, with oversaturated and beautiful color, make for a particularly evocative film. It is with their direction that the land and Jones begin to fuse. They are growing out of one another. She is among the broken and rattling trees, among the steep rocks and hills, she becomes a part of them so completely, she is the landscape. In less imaginative hands, the depiction of this connection would most certainly have fallen short.

     Gone to Earth is the story of Hazel as she moves through the world, from her father’s house to her marriage with the minister to her brief adultery with a country squire. It is the story of a small town, with all it’s manufactured intrigue and gossip. It is the story of nature and desire and nineteenth century mores. It is the story of abandon. Hazel is a woman who doesn’t quite fit into this world or into this time. She is a woman of conviction, whose every belief and superstition is played out, even to her detriment. Hazel feels at times like a clarion call for the untamed woman. She is unburdened by society’s conventions, preferring the fierce, unsteady, and darkly beautiful land. She feels deeply, her acknowledgement of her own interiority, derided by the community, gives her strength, as does their derision. It is once she tries to leave this behind, that the trouble begins, because, ultimately, she belongs to the earth and the earth, the film appears to say, cannot be controlled.

Hollywood: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Last American Dream

When, on December 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald took his last breath, he left behind a college-aged daughter, an intermittently institutionalized wife, a failed career as a screenwriter, and an unfinished novelization of his time in Hollywood, in addition to his better known work. His final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, is a thinly veiled account of the studio system based on his time as a screenwriter. It is a fragmented novel. But it still holds that prescient Fitzgerald wisdom, that ability to capture so exquisitely the mores and style specific to an era and a place with language so sparse and yet so sharp and insightful. It is a novel eternally in progress, but it is as scathing as any account of a cynical and superficial ecosystem.

The novel follows producer Monroe Stahr, a fictionalized Irving Thalberg, as he maneuvers through the daily difficulties of running a studio. Stahr is a hero, a moral man with convictions, pride, and a generous helping of ego, a man whose scruples run the studio just as much as he does. Fitzgerald struggled in Hollywood and his experiences with producers were not wholly positive, but in Stahr he created the ideal, the heroic success story. The whole world is at Stahr’s beck and call, but to him, love and genuine human connection is elusive. It is with the subtitle of the novel, A Western, that we first become aware of Fitzgerald’s conception of Stahr. With just such a wording, Fitzgerald is able to harness the iconography of the trailblazer, the myth of the lone genius, of a wilderness just waiting to be tamed by some resourceful man, by someone, it becomes clear, that is like Stahr. Hollywood is our last great American myth and Fitzgerald is here to expose and celebrate it as such. Early on, we are taken on a tour of the studio, in which we are shown the duties of a producer, as well as a glimpse behind the beauty and glamour. We are shown a world in which a starlet is not an untouchable and elevated deity, but a mere woman in “a low gown which displayed the bright eczema of her chest and back. Before each take the blemished surface was plastered over with an emollient, which was removed immediately after the take. Her hair was of the color and viscosity of drying blood but there was starlight that actually photographed in her eyes” (50). The glamour is disrupted, the ideal is shattered, but the underlying power of the myth of stardom remains partially intact.

Fitzgerald’s experiences in Hollywood are background throughout the novel; a dull but persistent whisper in which we are shown a more comprehensive view of the author in later life. Fitzgerald’s issues stemmed from his inability to grasp the conventions of script writing. He dedicated himself to learning; screening movies and keeping copious notes about the medium, but he was ultimately unable to transfer these into a cohesive script. His dialogue was too wordy and pretentious, too literary in scope and failed to capture the natural rhythms of speech that are so necessary in film. Often, his work was rewritten by producers to make it more manageable. Ultimately, he was shuttled between studios because his work was unusable. But during this time, Fitzgerald was becoming more aware of the system in which he worked. This knowledge served him as he began his novel. It is clear that Fitzgerald understands Hollywood and the studio system and speaks of it with an unguarded intimacy. It is a world of appearances and hearsay, a world guided by beauty and populated with gossip. As with his most famous protagonist, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald is positioned on the outside, forced to be merely a spectator amid the opulence, the facade of decadence and glamour, and he is able to see the small human dramas that pervade the studio; the life behind the screen.

Throughout this novel, we see two of America’s most enduring legends, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hollywood, brought together and laid bare. We are shown these legends, both emblematic of America’s greatest conflicts, decadences, foibles, and beauty, and we are forced to contend with the reality of their existences. We are given a privileged glimpse into private worlds and handed shattered illusions by the man who knew best how to shatter the illusions we hold most dear, the illusions of ourselves, our society, and of the beauty that we mistakenly believe has no cost. Despite the fact that the novel is unfinished, this is clear: Fitzgerald populates every character, every word, and every syllable of The Love of the Last Tycoon and The Love of the Last Tycoon encompasses all Fitzgerald was and all he worked for.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1993.

Unlikely Icon: The Honesty, Vulnerability, and Strength of Margot Kidder

To watch Margot Kidder is to be charmed by Margot Kidder. She is equal parts shy, brash, and, at times, so frank as to be bordering on lewd. I recently saw her on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, which aired on August 3, 1970.  After being introduced, she saunters onto the stage in an exquisite empire waist dress with a Juliet sleeve that looks as if it was found in a thrift shop. She takes her place next to Cavett and his other guests, Janis Joplin and Gloria Swanson. Almost immediately, she pulls her legs up onto her chair and into her body, and we see that she is barefoot. It is this small movement that signals to me her sense of her own body. There is a self-consciousness in the gesture, an awareness of herself in space, and it was this that I was drawn to. It is a normal, but deeply intimate movement, a testament to her own interiority. Throughout the show, she is quiet but persistent in her commentary, prompting a conversation about women’s lingerie in which Swanson takes credit for inventing the panty girdle. Cavett blushes and, through all of this, Margot giggles, surveying the awkwardness with glee. She is not completely self-assured, but she is present, never evasive. She is vulnerable, but what exactly makes her vulnerable is a mystery. She seems almost ethereal, but her motions are those borne of insecurity and awareness.

In the wake of this interview, Margot appeared in some of her most memorable roles, in films such as Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1972), Black Christmas (1974), The Amityville Horror (1979), and, in the film she is most remembered for, Superman (1978). Margot Kidder is an exquisite actress. She has a control and a vulnerability that is incredible. She imbues her characters with the same relatability that can be seen in her interviews, and it was this relatability that was such a large part of her public persona. She seemed to be accessible and completely human, not solely an aspirational figure of glamour, the kind that stars are traditionally made to become. The reality was darker than that. There were struggles that we, her audience, could not even fathom, but she was always willing to give so much of herself to demand what was right.

In the process of researching Kidder’s life, it was, once again, an interview of sorts that caught my attention. In 1976, Kidder posed for Playboy. Her agreement to appear in the magazine was contingent on being able to write the article that appeared alongside the photographs. In this article, she railed against the magazine and its effects on women, especially young, impressionable women. She recounts the time when, at 14 years old, she first became aware of the magazine. She speaks of the way it caused her to analyze every inch of her body, how she was made to feel inadequate as she looked at the women who were the supposed images of perfection, and how, trying to fashion herself after these women, she had always found herself lacking. Her goal in doing this was to shatter the illusion that the magazine cultivated. She wanted to show what a real body looked like, to expose the real toll that these images have on women, and to restore some power to women whose lives are, from a young age, dictated by magazines such as these. She states, “Hopefully, these pictures are of a real honest-to-God, in-the-flesh, fucked-up-like-everybody-else human being. At first, I said no to Playboy, pleading male chauvinism. Finally, I said yes in a fit of missionary zeal. I’ll show them what a real body looks like, I thought to myself. I’ll be brave and outrageous and get the photographer to show me in all my imperfect glory… But maybe I chickened out. When the contact sheets came back from the lab, I put huge Xs through the pictures that I thought made me look lumpy. However, halfway is better than nothing. If you’re 14 and reading this, take solace: You probably look a lot better than you think. And nobody looks like Miss January.” With these words, she alters the discussion. She has refused to be passively consumed. She has allowed women into a discussion about their own bodies, one that had, for so long, been dominated by men. Kidder ends the piece with a critique of her own vanity and selfishness when faced with her image. But in this, she unfairly maligns herself, for, with this article, she has done a rare thing within the pages of Playboy; she has managed to wrest power from the men who have wielded it for decades and has given it to the women who were most impacted by the images the magazine propagated. She has opened the magazine up to the impact it has. For this alone, she is a legend.

It is this insistence on honesty, this frankness, this willingness to be vulnerable and uncomfortable that is so appealing in Margot Kidder. This is what makes her stand out in a sea of performers, many of whom were more prolific during the 1970s and 80s. She was aware of the forces that had impacted her life, the standards and the powers that had hurt her and many others and she strove to expose them, to render them false and rob them of their power. She was not required to do this, it would probably have been more acceptable for her to refrain, but she did it because it was necessary. It is this challenge that I believe is inherent to Kidder. You see it present throughout her whole life; this desire to hold power accountable in any way and with any platform she has at her disposal. This was a woman who lived her convictions and her power was immense.

Brosnahan, Chris. “Margot Kidder: Playboy 1976,” Medium. May 15, 2018.