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, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/03/sharon-stone-on-how-basic-instinct-nearly-broke-her.
Wood, Jennifer. “‘Showgirls’: Paul Verhoeven on the Greatest Stripper Movie Ever Made.” Rolling Stone, 22 Sept. 2015, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/showgirls-paul-verhoeven-on-the-greatest-stripper-movie-ever-made-54740/.