Sometimes movies just stick with you in a way you never saw cumming. Legendarily hated upon its release by both critics and mainstream audiences, Paul Verhoeven‘s explicit, outrageous and anything but sexy Showgirls has gained a momentous cult following in years since its 1995 release, especially among the LGBTQIA community. Parody shows are frequently performed by drag queens and midnight screenings sell out fast. All this leads one to believe there’s something deeper to Showgirls that viewers might have missed 25 years ago.
First of all, the film is directed by masterful Dutch auteur, Paul Verhoeven, known for his other not ironically loved films such as Starship Troopers, a goofy war picture on the outside and a biting, anti-fascist satire on the inside, Elle, an outrageously dark comedy of manners about a woman (an Oscar nominated Isabelle Huppert) taking control after her brutal rape, and most notably Robocop, pretty much the same thing as Starship Troopers but sharper and funnier. Based on all these three films it’s pretty clear Paul Verhoeven uses ridiculously over-the-top material to deliver very sobering messages. So what does that say about Showgirls?
Maybe Verhoeven is using this outrageously unrealistic story of a Vegas showgirl to make another sobering point about the tolerated abuse of women in show business. And when I say outrageous, I mean fucking 143 on a scale from 1 to 10 looney tunes. Showgirls feels like a movie that the loud, cackling aliens of Battlefield Earth would make about their understanding of human sex workers. I can see John Travolta‘s Teryl now, musing about them: “They breed by dancing naked on each other, but conception isn’t even the goal! They derive pleasure by rhythmically grinding their urinary parts together to the music of some sound wizard named Tone Loc! HAHAHAHAHHAHAA” Cut to Barry Pepper looking confused.
Anyway, lets shelve Battlefield Earth references and get back to the point Verhoeven might be making about the tolerated abuse of women in show business. Every male character in this movie is actively trying to humiliate, dominate and exploit every women they see in a cartoon super villain sort of way, including our protagonist Nomi (Elizabeth Berkely). She learns this the hard way, every time, and comes out stronger because of it. One thing that can never be said about Nomi is that she’s not a strong female character. She might be absolutely shit-house bonkers, but she always fights for herself no matter how hard the going gets. Also, the movie never attempts to normalize the males’ abhorrent behavior and they are always seen precisely as the creeps they are.
On the other hand, you could argue this gesture comes across as a bit insincere given how interested the camera is in the flesh of these women. Male gaze-y doesn’t even begin to the describe the way these women, especially Nomi, are filmed. Misogyny can be found in Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas‘ previous collaboration, Basic Instinct. Remember that famous clit slip, not to the mention the entire vibe of the movie is “can you believe women are this duplicitous?? Proud boys like us don’t stand a chance!” I don’t know, I don’t buy that theory. I think the women of Showgirls are filmed like that because it’s specifically commenting on the male perception of women and the unreasonable and undignified expectations we have of them, especially sex workers. I buy that Joe Eszterhas has some fucked up views on women, but I everything else I’ve seen leads me to believe Verhoeven is quite the opposite.
I think what really happened here is that Eszterhas wrote this as a sensationalist, misogynistic piece of drivel, and Verhoeven came in and framed it in a way that gave us all these juicy tidbits of feminism and the politics about Hollywood. Because make no mistake, this is a movie about Hollywood, not Vegas. If the dehumanizing audition scenes, the cutthroat competition, the obsession with body weight, the loser friend?/sometimes lover who wants to use your back as a ladder into the industry (and probably wants you to read his screenplay) and the bi-polar highs and lows don’t give it away, the ending shot sure as hell does. Showgirls might be one of the first me too movies, before women could claim me too because cartoon super villains like Harvey Weinstein still comfortably held court. It was no secret what was going on back then, even if certain high level male celebs blatantly continue to lie about it “I had no idea what was happening at the time!”
This was a time when you couldn’t even utter what happened to that hopeful young actress in Harvey Weinstein‘s hotel room, much less make a big budget, NC-17 movie about it. I whole heartedly believe that that is what this is, though. A big, showy, tell-all about the bullshit that goes on in the American film industry. So this week, please watch Showgirls, if only to give a big middle finger to an industry that repeatedly fails to protect its members.