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.
The satire in Showgirls, and the intent, then, can be seen as directed squarely at the viewer. Verhoeven's film is organized in the tradition of the American success story— Nomi comes to town to make it big, and then she makes it big (while losing her soul). But the way she makes it big is through the secret fact that she is a debased object for sale. The implication, therefore, is that the American success fantasy and America itself are both also debased.To know what is in the closet is to be implicated in the closet—it takes one to know one, as queer theorist Eve Sedgwick has argued. That means that all the characters in the film—Cristal, Zach, that guy who is amazed by Nomi's pelvic thrust—are no better than Nomi; they're whores too, selling themselves, body and soul, for money and power. How could they recognize her otherwise? And as for those of us sitting there watching the NC-17 film and giggling at Nomi's crass, sexualized performance—well, what are we? When we laugh at the film, or see ourselves as better than the film, aren't we just like Nomi, pretending to be better than she ought to be, while reveling in what she really is?
Nayman singles out as especially satirical the scene in which Nomi's employer Al and the comedienne from the Cheetah Club comes backstage at the big show to congratulate Nomi on moving up. Al, who casually tells his dancers that they need to give him blowjobs, is presented as a paternal figure. That's the joke. A father proud of his daughter's success is just an ugly, lascivious pimp. "It must be weird not having anybody cum on you," he says wistfully as he exits—and then Nomi goes off with Zach, who cums on her as a prelude to giving her a big break. The rat race is all about pimps and whores—and you, over there, snickering because the rat race is all about pimps and whores? Verhoeven sees you too.
So Nayman is right, then, and Showgirls is a great, or at least a good film? I'm not so sure. His book definitely demonstrates that Showgirls is a coherent statement, and that its excess, its ridiculousness, and its tastelessness aren't arbitrary, but thematic. The theme in question, though, is built on cynically exploiting the stigma experienced by a marginalized group: sex workers. Nomi finds her past shameful and disgusting—and the entire force of the movie, its whole satirical pelvic thrust, is predicated on the fact that Verhoeven finds it shameful and disgusting as well, and that he assumes that his audience will also find it shameful and disgusting. That’s why he links capitalism and America to Vegas and stripping and prostitution: All of these things, the movie implies, are repulsive and degrading.
That means Verhoeven is a part of a long and hypocritical tradition that includes Martin Scorsese’s titillation/repulsion around Jodi Foster's character in Taxi Driver, or Nicholas Kristof's breathless live-tweeting from brothel raids. In each of these cases, 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. That doesn't seem like a pointed, intelligent critique on Verhoeven's part; it just seems like regurgitating stereotypes. Sex workers have enough problems already without having to stand in for the Dutch Verhoeven's loathing and love of the crass American way. I like many of Verhoeven's films, and I admire and enjoy many things about Showgirls. But overall, I have to say, it still kind of sucks.