Showgirls: When Guilty Pleasures Stop Being Pleasurable And Start Getting Real

Nobody actually feels guilty about a guilty pleasure. Not really. It’s more of an embarrassment thing. You’re embarrassed to admit that you like this particular movie or show or this particular song or singer but if your secret happened to be revealed, you wouldn’t feel legit guilt, right? It’s like, why yes, in fact I do enjoy the song “Good For You” by Selena Gomez and maybe listen to it on an occasional jog and have maybe contemplated adding it to a sex playlist… you caught me.

So when it comes to a blog named Guilty Pleasure Love, it just wouldn’t seem right if we didn’t talk about Showgirls, the movie that some say is “so bad it’s good.” A “camp classic.”  The “think piece object d’art of its time.” (Really? Well, actually, maybe… there are indeed many write-ups on this movie… perhaps too many. And I’m only adding to the pile. But do we really have to call it object d’art? That just sounds so… douchey… Anyway.) Showgirls is said to be the “king of guilty pleasures.”

But is it?

If, as I touched on above, a guilty pleasure has less to do with guilt and more to do with being embarrassed to admit to liking something, does Showgirls fall into that category?

showgirlsstart.jpgNomi seeks a lift to Vegas in the opening scene of the film. MGM Studios.

It seems more complicated than that. Why? Because you’re still supposed to derive pleasure from a guilty pleasure. (And yeah, I’m not an idiot, I know there are plenty out there who watch Showgirls for… shall we say… pleasure. But let’s not go down that road; I’d rather not think about that.)

What I mean is, you’re supposed to enjoy watching your guilty pleasure. How can one enjoy watching Showgirls? It’s depressing as fuck and, by the end of it, stomach-churning.

So. What if Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls is actually trying to make you feel guilty for liking it? For even watching it?

Is that giving the film too much credit?

At twelve years old, when it was on late-night TV all the time, all that mattered to me were the numerous thonged ass cheeks and bare breasts I was seeing. (I’m trying to be honest here…) But thankfully I have learned that it’s not really advisable to continue to watch movies with the mindset of a twelve-year-old boy. You get older, become more aware, and suddenly, this is no longer some soft-core porn that you sneak into the basement to watch. This is brutal.

Cobp0WPWYAA3RFSMGM Studios.

It has its defenders. Quite a few, actually. But all I could find were men. Which is, like, not really all that surprising — for a number of reasons, number one being that we’re talking about Showgirls here. Dudes will be dudes. Admittedly. (My 12-year-old-self would be on that list of defenders, I’m sure, with no actual defense other than, “I like boobs and butts.”) The most popular, and extensive, of these defenses is Adam Nayman’s book, It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls His defense provides a thoughtful and interesting examination on the technical aspects of the film, something that most people ignore, as well as the mirror imaging of Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) and Cristal (Gina Gershon).

But being the male gaze-y, misogynistic film that it is, I wanted to find a woman’s perspective on it — positive or negative, it didn’t matter. A woman’s defense of it would be more preferable than a takedown of it, as the former would be more interesting to read just to see what exactly was being defended, but anything would work. (And not initial reviews at the time of its release — I was searching for more retrospective, recent stuff, to compare to the more recent male-written defenses.)

To be honest, it was even difficult to find a takedown of it written by a woman. (Unfortunately, I think that’s more to do with the state of film writing than anything else — a whole other topic that demands attention.) This perceptive piece in The Atlantic by Alyssa Rosenberg was a great find. Rosenberg brings to light what may be obvious — but, oddly, hard to explain and put into words:

“In Showgirls … the sexual harassment actually feels pretty real, and a rape scene, no matter how badly choreographed, is still ugly and violent. It may be an excuse for a lot of leather, lingerie, and faux eroticism, but misogyny is still at the core of the movie, and what little, awkward fun’s to be had from the movie’s other missteps doesn’t outweigh it.”

We can try to laugh all we want at the way Nomi seems to get ridiculously angry at the flip of a switch, or, yes, at the seal-having-a-convulsion sex scene, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to laugh when you feel so queasy — which is the nicest way to describe the impact of the movie’s sexual violence. Rosenberg’s point of a rape scene still being ugly and violent, no matter how silly the rest of the movie may be, reminds me of certain workshop days when I was getting my MFA in Screenwriting. There were a couple of times when classmates would throw a rape or a sexual assault into their scripts from seemingly out of nowhere. We all learned, based on the general reaction to these offhand scenes casually tossed in, that it’s incredibly difficult for a script with a rape scene to not become about the rape. It’s not something you can ignore and move on from.

showgirlspoolMGM Studios.

I found a takedown but was still looking for a female-written defense of it. I stumbled on The Guardian‘s Harriet Gibsone writing about her “guilty pleasure.” It’s an interesting take — the most interesting aspect, perhaps, being that Gibsone finds Nomi “very easy to root for …” From the numerous thinkpieces I’ve read on this movie, this opinion is not a widely shared one. Most viewers find rooting for Nomi arduous — either due to her childishness, the way she goes about obtaining the starring role of the show, or, somewhat unfairly, because of the way Berkley portrays her. But Gibsone defends Nomi this way: In Showgirls, the protagonist seeks bloodied retribution against a man who rapes her best friend. She hijacks a thief with a knife and talks about her period with alarming regularity and nonchalance. She is terrifying.”

I won’t disagree with that. However, I will disagree with Gibsone’s defense of the film’s handling of sexuality. She writes:

“While it is unquestionably vulgar, I think its sexual scenes are startling to watch. It is a mad kaleidoscope of exposed breasts, lip liner, seizure-like orgasms, more lip liner, and muscular men in gold lamé thongs. It is the fantasy imagining of sex before you discover that sex is more complex than champagne and pleasure.”

I agree that the sex scenes can be startling to watch — but not in a good way. Fantasy imagining of sex? Not quite. And this leads me to my most recent viewing — and what I got from it.

I couldn’t find anything sexy about the movie. I would only use the word “fantasy” to describe how unrealistically exaggerated everything is — but fantasy is too rosy a word. This isn’t dream-like, but rather nightmarish. So a dark, twisted fantasy? That sounds more accurate.

It seemed to me that any time the movie had a chance to be truly sexy and enticing, Verhoeven would bring us back down to the grit and grime of it all. As if reminding us that there’s nothing sensuous about Vegas or stripping — on the surface it may be, but underneath, it’s sad, indulgent, and tainted. (And this is not to knock stripping as a profession — I’m aware that there are plenty of strippers out there with autonomy, who enjoy doing it, enjoy the workout of it. Hell, there are classes for pole dancing — I’m sure they’re fun and demand serious talent. I’m just saying that this seems to be the point Verhoeven is getting at.)

For instance, anytime a scene may elicit pleasure in the audience, Verhoeven has something happen that warns us not to get too excited. A dance tryout featuring a group of attractive women sounds appealing. But it’s interspersed with boorish sexual harassment (body-shaming women) and then ends by taking that harassment even further (ice your nipples or I’ll do it for you).

Then we have the aforementioned seizure-like sex scene in the pool. For what it’s worth, even though Kyle MacLachlan’s character is skeevy from the start, the scene starts off with promise — it’s lit seductively and begins pretty tranquilly, a nice change of pace from the frenetic energy of the rest of the film. It’s like, okay, we’re going to get a passionate sex scene, works for me. But passion soon gives way to ridiculousness as Nomi begins flopping around in the water in a way that can’t be anything but comical. Sure, I get that this mimics an earlier lap dance scene, it’s all choreographed, everything tied back to dance — but it’s goofy as hell. And not only that, the movement is just so exaggerated and violent that it’s unsettling.

And that goes for the dancing in general. Perhaps that’s the style of this type of dance — exaggeration is the point. But it makes the dancing that’s supposed to be sexy, unsexy. If the moves are supposed to be imbued with passion, it doesn’t work. The movement is more herky-jerky than anything. Violent, as I said. The scene in which Nomi gives a lap dance to James (Glenn Plummer) at his place, if we had to choose, is probably the sexiest of the film — but even that is ruined by exaggeration and excessiveness. The kissing becomes slobbery licking — and that’s the case for the entire movie. Verhoeven turns the sensuality of kissing into tongue baths. What may feel good in the moment just doesn’t look good on screen.

Verhoeven is on a mission to weigh down gratification and thrill. It’s as if the movie is warning us that you can’t have pleasure without conscience.

And this isn’t even limited to sex — even the food consumption in the film falls in line with this idea. Nobody eats anything that’s satisfying in the long term. It’s all deep-fried and greasy– pleasurable in the moment, but regrettable later. Like Vegas: glitz and glam on the surface, hollowness underneath.

My feelings seem to fall in line with Alyssa Rosenberg’s more so than Harriet Gibsone’s. Sure the movie seems like an easy target to poke fun at, but there’s an unease here. It just doesn’t seem right when you watch the movie in its entirety. This isn’t the same thing as something like The Room. Maybe I’m extra sensitive because I still haven’t gotten over the fact that the man now in the White House is no different than the men in this movie; the man in the White House, who bragged about sexual assault and walked in on naked teenagers during beauty contests. Maybe this is why I’m disturbed by it all — because you’d like to think we’ve moved on from the sexual harassment, the body shaming. But we haven’t. Will we ever?

But even if a sexual predator wasn’t in the Oval Office right now, it still feels weird that this movie has become something to gather around and laugh at. I love Alamo Drafthouse but a revival screening featuring a comedian providing live commentary — presumably making fun of it all — seems weird when you think about the movie in its entirety. Like, what happens when they reach that brutal rape scene? Do they skip that part? Or does it get awkwardly silent? Even if you can argue it’s badly staged and directed, how can one make a joke out of that scene? It kind of makes it difficult to make a joke out of any part of the movie. It all goes back to my earlier question of whether or not Verhoeven is actively trying to make us feel guilty for watching this movie. The thought doesn’t seem so far-fetched. If Verhoeven is indeed making sure a viewer doesn’t get too excited, doesn’t receive too much pleasure from the soft-core porn aspects of the film, the rape scene is the ultimate example of that. It’s no secret that Verhoeven is a competent filmmaker — so perhaps he had intentions.

Verhoeven’s competence also complicates the general consensus that this movie is bad. Surprisingly, I found many of the scenes in which nobody was topless or bottomless, just regular conversation scenes, to actually be engaging and watchable. (Not all, but a number of them.) And from a technical standpoint, it’s not really that awful. The moving camera is fluid and handled well and it’s shot nicely. But still, I can admit that the movie isn’t… good.

But why? There have been comparisons made to this film and Black Swan. But Black Swan was, for the most part, a critical darling. What makes the two films different?blackswan20th Century FoxElizabeth Berkley Showgirls 1995MGM Studios

I think Black Swan‘s choice of embracing horror and psychological thriller elements works in its favor as it separates us from reality. It tells us that we don’t have to take things too seriously — the movie has its own rules. Showgirls elects to take a realistic route and fails. It showcases heavy subject matter in the tone of a Lifetime special. It’s too eager, which causes most of the unintentional laughs.

Another movie you can compare, one without any supernatural elements, is Magic Mike. Both Magic Mike and Showgirls have somewhat similar plots; both movies can be interpreted as metaphors for the American Dream. Both movies have a lot of g-strings. But again, Magic Mike was well received — as it should have been, it’s a solid movie — and Showgirls was not. So what’s the difference between the two? Is it like a case of if enough people say this one thing is cool and enough people say this other thing is lame, everyone else will fall in line?

magicmike.jpgWarner Bros.showgirls1.jpgMGM Studios

What Magic Mike gets right is subtlety. The word subtlety isn’t even in Showgirls‘ lexicon. As previously stated, Showgirls‘ go-to is excess; excessiveness is its state of being. And, for what it’s worth, Magic Mike fulfills its promise of being sexy. Not just the scenes taking place on stage, but the quieter, romantic parts are sexy, something Showgirls lacks.

showgirls (1)Nomi, in the final scene, looking for a lift, this time out of Vegas. MGM Studios.

I realize I’ve nearly written a book here… Wasn’t expecting to do that. But it helped me come to the conclusion that this movie is no guilty pleasure — I think it’s time to stop calling it that. This is not campy in the fun sense. While it’s not smart or particularly good, it’s not as awful as it’s made out to be. But that’s not saying much because it’s not like it knows it’s bad.

Without giving it too much credit, though, there seems to be a point to the movie, no matter how sloppy and excessive it is on the surface. This is a reminder that there’s not always a happy ending — Nomi ends up back where she started. Off to, presumably, Los Angeles, to find work in who knows what. Within her first hour in Vegas, she was told that sooner or later, she was “gonna have to sell it”, something we eventually learn is part of her past. And, in a way, she ends up fulfilling that prophecy when all is said and done. To her credit, though, she does fight her way out of it — but that leads her back to the side of a road, looking for a ride. And like I just said, who knows where that ride will lead her.

The movie is also a reminder that no matter how good Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon and all the other women may look up on that stage, the ugliness behind-the-scenes is more powerful and lasting and destroys the entertainment of watching naked-dancing — as it should. The movie is a reminder that rape is rape, no matter how shitty the “rape-acting” is. And worst of all, it’s a reminder that Showgirls is, sadly, even more timely today than it was in 1995 — workplace sexual harassment hasn’t left the building. It’s alive and well.

Guilty pleasures are supposed to be fun. Showgirls isn’t — maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I don’t think it ever was supposed to be. So let’s stop pretending it is. 

Now. To get rid of this stomachache…

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