I own two copies of Showgirls. I don't know why. It's just one of those films I somehow purchased twice, the second DVD likely impulse-bought off a Barnes & Noble clearance rack when I was panicked at the thought of a night with friends and a bottle of wine and someone exclaiming, "I can barely thread a needle!" — because then we'd have to watch it. Best to have a backup, just in case I'd lent the first one out to someone, which I would never do.
Adam Nayman's book It Doesn't Suck debuts today, taking a critical look back at the much-maligned and even more beloved 1995 drama. The story of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls is as great and legendary as that of The Wizard of Oz: a giant budget, a big-name director, and a critical and box-office flop that echoed from here to Neptune. Elizabeth Berkley became a joke — a dirty one. Gina Gershon leaned into camp, taking smart-mouthed sexpot roles in films like Face/Off. Kyle MacLachlan fell off the map for seven years before popping up as the World's Blandest Boyfriend on Sex and the City, hoping we'd all forget about that time he had floppy-fish sex in a chlorine waterfall.
But, with any such failure comes the opportunity for a second life in the camp-classic canon. If your film is just bad enough — and bad in the right way — audiences will reward it with a lifetime of tipsy, mocking, line-repeating group screenings. They will share it with college film-studies buddies and invent drinking games based on your terrible dialogue. They will buy two copies, just in case.
That's the story of Showgirls — and with very good reason. It's a ridiculous film in every possible sense. The plot follows Nomi Malone (Berkley) as she hitches into Las Vegas, determined to make it as a dancer. It's a rough climb up the ladder to stardom, and Nomi takes her hits, first stripping at a cheesy lounge, then colliding with Cristal Connors (Gershon), reigning queen of the scene. Nomi battles her way toward Cristal's throne, fighting and flirting and floppy-fish-sexing her way to the top. This film is more than a bomb — it's a righteous, drunk bombshell.
But, what does that make us?
Noah Berlatsky's piece for The Atlantic points out that, when it comes to this story — and Nomi's character in particular — we viewers are as bad as the villains of the piece. His argument hinges on the origins of camp and how it relates to the closet. Whereas early instances of camp often reflected the experience of a gay person trying to "pass" in society, Nomi's closet is filled with her past as a sex worker. The twist at the end of the film reveals that she blew into town trying to escape a life of low-end prostitution. Of course, by now, the audience has no pearls left to clutch. After two hours of lines like "She looks better than a 10-inch dick, and you know it!" Nomi is barely human, let alone a human with a past. Berlatsky may be justified in pointing the finger at us, at me, noting that we're laughing all our asses off at the travails of a marginalized sex worker. He says, "Earnest commenters enjoy the degradation of sex workers, and enjoy decrying that degradation, and decry the enjoyment of that degradation—all at the same time."
Furthermore, we cheer for this woman who uses every inch of her body to get ahead, leaping into the arms of the men who would use her, even as they repeatedly fling the word whore in her face. Nomi is no feminist, no matter how many truckers she beats up. It's a fair point. But, I have a few buts.
Camp and satire are natural, necessary genres that make the art of cinema all the more rich and entertaining. Who would want to eat brown rice all day just because it's good for you? Showgirls is the contemporary star of the medium, led by Nomi Malone, a woman who stands for no value or virtue any woman would ever aspire to. She's a cartoon, saturated with so many stereotypes that she transcends them all. The world of Showgirls hates women, that much is sure. But, I don't — and I don't hate Nomi Malone.
Nor do I hate Anne Welles, the lead character in Valley of the Dolls. Search for Showgirls on Amazon, and it recommends this as another title you might like. Though this 1967 melodrama features far fewer nipples, the female leads have much in common. They're both starting over, both clawing for success, and both are in turn foiled or helplessly dependent on the men in their lives. Yet, when I sit down to watch it, again and again, it's not because I fantasize about a life like Anne's — clinging to pant legs and popping uppers. It's because this sh*t is crazy.
The women of camp can't be paradigms of feminism and do their job as characters. They, like everyone in their wackadoo world, are outlandish and unreal. Mommy dearest can't shriek, "NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!" and look anything less than comically evil. Nina Sayers can't transform into the Black Swan until she drives herself crazy enough to do it. But, we all agree, these are interesting, popular films — and these are the weird, problematic women who drive them.
To suggest, as Berlatsky does, that audiences can't appreciate the difference between Showgirls and reality is, in a word, bonkers. (The only truly jarring part of the film is a raw, horrific rape scene toward the end. It's a wonder that scene made it through editing as bloody as it is. I'd argue that it's the one argument against the long-held belief that Verhoeven consciously set out to make a camp film. It's all that remains of a true drama.) True, it's valuable to peek behind the curtain, see the real-life issues being jammed through the lens of camp. But, this genre, and its women, provide a real and crucial service in the entertainment industry: a break from reality.
We don't laugh at Showgirls because we think it's hilarious to make fun of sex workers. We don't laugh at Nomi because she's a stripper and strippers are there to be mocked. We laugh at it because why is she talking like that?! We laugh at it because Elizabeth Berkley literally has sequins on her eyelashes. Five minutes into the film, another character asks her where she's from and, in reply, she throws a basket of French fries. And, throwing a basket of French fries is considered a strange and extreme response to someone asking what town you grew up in, and that is what makes it funny. We laugh at Showgirls because it is so, so absurd.
I don't feel bad about liking the anti-feminist heroines of camp — or, frankly, any film. I'm pretty sure I can stay loyal to the cause and still watch Bridget Jones's Diary every now and then. But, I don't think you'll see me counting calories in a bunny suit any time soon. Movies are often made to impart lessons and incite reflection on our own lives. And, sometimes they're just for fun — campy, high-shine, bedazzled fun.
P.S.: I own two copies of Amadeus, too.