Confirmed: Showgirls Is Still Terrible

Some critics and fans argue that the once-maligned 1995 film is actually a masterwork of self-aware parody. But they've missed the ugly message at the movie's heart.
MGM

Showgirls doesn't suck. That's the thesis of the short, entertaining new book It Doesn't Suck, and author Adam Nayman goes a long way towards proving it. When Showgirls first came out in 1995, Paul Verhoeven's film was, as the book chronicles, roundly panned, cleaning up at the Razzie awards for cinematic crappiness. Since then, though, Showgirls has become a cult camp classic, and Nayman deftly—though not entirely convincingly—completes its cinematic rehabilitation.

That rehabilitation largely involves demonstrating that Verhoeven knew what he was doing—that the film is well-made and intelligent, rather than a sloppy hot mess. To accomplish that, Nayman points out how carefully the story is structured around mirror images. The opening scene of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) thumbing her way to Las Vegas to make her fortune is complemented by the closing scene which shows her thumbing her way back out, battered and (maybe?) wiser. Then there's the virtuoso sequence in which Nomi and Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the star Nomi wants to supplant, have a meal together and Verhoeven has them copy each other's gestures and mannerisms. Nayman goes so far as to argue that the thrashing, over-the-top nature of Berkley's performance was a deliberate choice by the director, almost despite the actress's best efforts and without her knowledge: "It sounds like Berkley was putty in her director's hands, a statuesque slab of clay awaiting the Verhoeven Touch."

Nayman certainly makes a strong case that Verhoeven is a self-conscious director. But he doesn’t address more interesting considerations. Nayman argues, for example, that the film is a satire—but it's never exactly clear what he thinks is being satirized.  Even if we are convinced that Showgirls is intentional, we still need to ask, what is its intent?

One way to try to answer that is to think about camp. Nayman talks a good bit about Susan Sontag's theories of camp, as well as about what might be called pop understanding of camp. His discussion centers, again, on intentionality as it relates to quality, summarized by Sontag in her quip, "it's good because it's awful." For Sontag, Nayman argues, the essence of camp is the fact that it is unintentionally dreadful, and therefore wonderful—it's camp as outsider art. Nayman adds, correctly I think, that in many pop discussions of camp, that dynamic is reversed— something is campy, and therefore good, if it recognizes and revels in its own awfulness.

There are other ways of thinking about camp, though. One of the most perceptive is that of Philip Core, who in his 1984 book Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth defines camp as follows:

There are only two things essential to camp: a secret within the personality which one ironically wishes to conceal and exploit, and a peculiar way of seeing things, affected by spiritual isolation, but strong enough to impose itself on others through acts of creation.

Core's definition is linked directly to the closet, and to homosexual performance, which is the root of and basis of much of what he (and I think the culture in general) sees as camp. So, for example, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is an example of high camp because the double-life at its center represents the unspoken double-life of the closet. The play's outrageous fakeness is a lie that tells the truth about lying to “pass” in society.

Core's definition of camp as a secret both hidden and exploited is painfully applicable to Nomi Malone. Nomi has a secret within her personality. That secret is that she's (to use the word the film repeats over and over) a "whore." Throughout Showgirls, characters accuse or nearly accuse her of being a prostitute.  Cristal and others tell her that her work as a stripper at the Cheetah Club is "not dancing" but doing something else; when she gets her big break as Cristal's understudy, the other dancers more or less silently shout that it's because she's sleeping with entertainment director/Cristal's boyfriend/oleaginous creep Zach (Kyle MacLachlan). Nomi freaks out every time anyone calls her a whore, which means that she's practically always storming angrily out of some room or other (as Nayan points out). But at the end of the film, we discover that she has in fact worked as a prostitute; her real name is Polly Ann, and she has an extensive rap sheet for "soliciting."  Nomi is closeted, and what's in her closet is a past of selling sex for money.

The fact that this "secret" is instantly perceived by everyone is not a contradiction; it's how the closet, and how camp, works. In her attempt to make it in Vegas, Nomi's secret/open sexuality becomes her mysterious, overwhelming asset. "She's all pelvic thrust" the awed dance coach gushes; and he and Zach agree in another audition that "Nomi has heat!" Per Core’s definition of camp, she expresses her inner, closeted whore in acts of artistic creation; her dancing is (as Nayan notes) also sex. Everyone who sees her is therefore bound up in the same deceptive performance—recognizing the truth but pretending not to.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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