Round Table: Showgirls

Author(s): Akira Mizuta Lippit, Noël Burch, Chon Noriega, Ara Osterweil, Linda Williams,
Eric Shaefer and Jeffrey Sconce
Source: Film Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Spring 2003), pp. 32-46
Published by: University of California Press
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S howgirls is funny, stupid, dirty, and Ž lled with cinematic
clichés; in other words, perfect. Even better, the writer
and director, no matter what they say today, don’t appear to
be in on the joke. I saw the Ž lm opening night in Baltimore
with an audience that took it seriously. “That’s what Vegas
is really like,” I heard a woman whisper to her husband
without a trace of irony as she exited the theater. Showgirls
will hold up; it will be great trash forever.
John Waters

A s recently as December 26, 2002, Elvis Mitchell in the New York
Times (p. E5) evoked Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) as he
sought to convey the true horror of the movie he was reviewing, which
he described as “a picture that is mostly a desert of strangeness, a movie
so bad that it quickly enters the pantheon of wreckage that includes
Battleship Earth and Showgirls.” Yet earlier that same year, a Film
Quarterly editorial board meeting had been at first entertained by a
chance mention of Showgirls, and then galvanized by the discussion that
ensued. It turns out that there is a signiŽ cant number of secret and not-
so-secret devotees of the Ž lm—although their admiration takes differ-
ent forms. And apparently— if unexpectedly— Showgirls has served to
stimulate scholarly thought around what the Ž lm is, how to describe it,
and issues of camp, satire, class, gender, the fallen woman, the show-
girl musicals, trash cinema, sexploitation Ž lms, hedonistic criticism,
and reading and teaching the Ž lm.
It was at that board meeting that we decided to present another FQ
Round Table (the Ž rst one, on Thelma and Louise, appeared in FQ 45.2
[Winter, 1991-92]). Seven distinguished scholars—Noël Burch, Akira
Mizuta Lippit, Chon Noriega, Ara Osterweil, Eric Schaefer, Jeffrey
Sconce, and Linda Williams—have contributed to this discussion. It
would seem that Showgirls might stand a chance of entering a differ-
ent pantheon than Mitchell’s. . . .
Ann Martin, Editor

Film Quarterly, Vol. no. 56, Issue no. 3, pages 32-46. ISSN: 0015-1386. © 2003 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Send requests for
32 permission to reprint to: Rights and Permissions, University of California Press, Journals Division, 2000 Center Street, Suite 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223.

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In the 2002 edition of his Movie and Video Guide, girls as “part soft-core porn, part hokey backstage
Leonard Maltin rates Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls a drama, full of howlingly hilarious dialogue.” (“Hokey,”
“BOMB.” Even after seven years to reconsider his OED: “Characterized by hokum ; sentimental, melo-
opinion, Maltin describes Showgirls as a “stupefyingly dramatic, artificial.”) A hybrid, monstrous film that
awful movie—whose creators swear to have made it spreads across the genres of soft porn and melodrama.
with serious intentions.” Maltin, who is characterized Here, a simple 12 rating might be an accurate descrip-
in the Movie and Video Guide as “one of the country’s tion if not evaluation of the movie. Maltin makes no
most respected Ž lm historians,” explains his rating sys- mention of its dance num bers, choreography, and
tem, which ranges “from , , , , , for the very best, to music; and he never considers the musical, or other an-
, 12, for the very worst. There is no , rating; instead, tecedents such as Flashdan ce (1983, , , 12 ), Staying
for those bottom-of-the-barrel movies, we use the ci- Alive (1983, , , ), and Footloose (1984, , , 12). Nor com-
tation BOMB.” All capitals. (Among other things, edy, for that matter, despite the “howlingly hilarious
BOMB is also almost an acronym of “bottom-of-the- dialogue.”
barrel.”) Why can’t a film receive a single star, and Is Showgirls part softcore porn? If softcore is ex-
what exactly is the status of a 12? Why can’t the very empliŽ ed by a general sexual ambiance (strip clubs,
very best Ž lms receive , , , , 12 , like an A+ in school? Vegas stage shows), partial nudity (topless dancing),
Showgirls fails to register on Maltin’s star-rating sexual practices (lap dances, interracial sex, lesbian sex,
system, which ends or begins, depending on one’s sex in swimming pools), and sexual violence (rape),
POV, with , 12 . In Maltin’s world, a BOMB is not only then Showgirls qualiŽ es as such. It is titillating without
the worst possible film, it also has the effect of de- inducing the full force of arousal. At least in part. But
stroying the system itself. No longer a figure, trope, or does the other part of Showgirls, the hokey half, affect
acronym, Maltin’s BOMB operates literally, as an as- the pornographic aspect of the movie? (There are hokey
sault on the— or rather, Maltin’s—star system. Trac- pornos, but in those cases, the porn is itself hokey.) Can
ing the origins of the idiom “bomb” to the Oxford a movie be part softcore and part melodrama, without
English Dictionary (OED), one finds the reversible altering the chemistry of either genre? What does a soft-
function of the word, which means—specifically with core melodrama look and feel like?
regard to entertainment—both a success and a failure. Periodically, producers and studios have sought
A virtual palindrom e, “bomb” can be used to describe to elevate pornography, or sexually explicit Ž lms, into
either a success or a failure, or even, perhaps a si- a form of film art, usually by raising some of the
multaneous success and failure. (The term is also used, production values (a developed narrative, character
according to the OED, as “a pregnant expression for psycholo gy, foreign accents, elaborate camerawork,
the atomic or hydrogen bomb, . . . regarded as unique and other forms of cultural depth). The objective is to
because of its utterly destructive effects.”) In these mainstream pornograp hy and increase ticket sales, or
senses of the term, Showgirls may be a BOMB for at least to assuage viewers’ anxieties by disguising
more than one reason: it may have bombed, at the box porn as something else. Among the notable efforts: the
office and/or critically, while also bombing the very Emmanuelle films (none included in Maltin), Café
ratings systems that were never equipped to handle Flesh (1982, not included), Last Tango in Paris (1973,
its effects. Or its utter failure, bomb, could be under- , , , 12 ), In the Realm of the Senses (1976, , , 12), etc.,
stood as the very basis of its success, the other mean- etc. The results are usually an unsatisfying blend of
ing of bomb. pornography and drama: pornod rama. Most have
Maltin’s entry, which is relatively long for a “bot- bombed with porn fans, as well as with fans of serious
tom-of-the-barrel” movie, goes on to describe Show- drama. In each of the mentioned examples, one senses

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the dissimulation of pornography, itself a form of cen- lieves she can succeed as a Vegas showgirl; extra-
sorship. Showgirls, however, can be thought of as both diegetically, Berkley believes she can succeed as an
porn and not-porn, a type of impure 12 porno that never actor. Inside-out: polymorphous, polyester, Pollyanna.
blends with its other half. As art historian Jean-Claude By the Ž lm’s end, the audience learns that Nomi’s real
Lebensztejn has noted, in the languages of mayonnaise name is Polly Ann. She really is Polly Ann, which is
and photography, certain mixtures can be thought of as also to say she isn’t yet anything, but believes she will
emulsions, suspended mixtures that never really mix some day be everything. A polymorph with many
properly or thoroughly. Like the expression “bomb,” shapes past and future; a naïve if not innocent child;
which can indicate both failure and success, or the perverse but not really a pervert. Half everything.
movie Showgirls. Pornographic mayonnaise. One can identify two ways to read the homonym s
Perhaps the way to understand Showgirls is as a in Polly’s invented (synthetic) name: “No me,” the ab-
form of obscenity, rather than pornography. And maybe sence of a self, or “Know me,” discover a true(r) self.
the obscene nature of the Ž lm emerges precisely from To no or to know, a prohibition (or negation) and an im-
the grotesque hybrid of pornography and hokum . The perative. Or, better yet, to no and to know. Nomi is
illicit mixture that never properly blends may be at the Polly, (but also) a polynym . Everything in Showgirls
root of this “stupefyingly awful” picture. (How could can be said to consist in multiples, contradictions, and
a Ž lm that is stupefyingly anything, even awful, be a antinomies; for every claim one can make about the
BOMB, unless Maltin means this in the positive sense Ž lm, there is always another option or possibility. The
of the expression: “This Ž lm is the BOMB”?) A fair Ž lm is too sexual, even sexist, but not sexy enough (a
description of Showgirls is “obscene”: to the senses, distinction underscored in another genre-bender, This
to taste, to modesty (it shows too much show, is mon- Is Spinal Tap); it’s bad (“stupefyingly awful”), bad
strous, “howlingly”). But how does one rate an ob- (naughty), and bad (good, as in “bad motherf, cker”);
scenity? What are the standards for a rigorous criticism it’s “howlingly hilarious” (dialogue), but lacking in
of the obscene? Should greater obscenity receive more irony (its “creators swear to have made it with serious
or fewer , s? intentions”); and of indeterminate genre: “part soft-
The protagonist of Showgir ls, Nomi Malone core porn, part hokey backstage drama.” In this sense,
(played by ingénue Elizabeth Berkley) has served as perhaps Maltin is speaking precisely when he describes
one of the focal points of the Ž lm’s critical devasta- Showgir ls as a BOMB. A description rather than a
tion. She can’t act, she overacts, she explodes in every judgment. An obscene, monstrous bomb that fails and
scene, ruining the Ž lm with an eruption of affect far succeeds at the same time, defying a consistent stan-
in excess of the protocols of so-called good acting in dard of judgment, since about this Ž lm, every claim
cinema. (Of her expressive force, Maltin says, “Berkley and its opposite can be made. (The same can be said for
sets the tone for her performance in an early scene in much of Verhoeven’s oeuvre, which is marked by in-
which she expresses fury by vigorously spewing exorable ambiguities. Is he or isn’t he serious, sincere?
ketchup over her French fries.”) Berkley is a bom b, Is he good or bad, in all the senses of those terms? Is
explosive and destructive, within and without the he or isn’t he gay, or, is he straight?) Perhaps the Ž lm
diegesis. But she also has a secret name, or cryptonym , is less a failure than a failed Ž lm; which is to say, a
a word-name that exposes, as it were, another facet of Ž lm failed by the institution and industry of Ž lm crit-
her performance. Nomi is Polly, Pollyanna, Polly- icism, which never took into account the full extent of
annish. When her Vegas choreographer snarlingly Showgirls’ monstrosity, its rigorous (or at least con-
refers to her as “Polly,” Nomi shoots back, “Why did sistent) obscenity. A more nuanced entry in Maltin’s
you call me that?” “Because you’re a Pollyanna.” She guide might have registered Showgir ls as a , , , , 12
achieves happine ss through self-delusion, remains BOMB, which would have included every possible rat-
blindly optimistic and pathologica lly naïve. Nomi be- ing at the same time.

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Showgirls is certainly among the three Ž lms directed rapist’s desire for her only to punish him with karate
in America by Paul Verhoeven which are most worthy kicks (in a perversely erotic scene redolent of the rape-
of respect. Total Recall and Basic Instinct were also— revenge movies), and goes back on the road, switch-
along with Showgir ls—written by Joe Eszterhas, blade at the ready. A kind of happy ending: life in the
which is probably not coincidental. Showgirls is espe- gutter is a rat race too, but somehow cleaner. . . . It is
cially remarkable for the way in which it associates also worth noting that the only solidarities possible for
gender and sexual issues with the class contradictions Nomi in this world of show biz are with members of
so often glossed over in Hollywood Ž lms. This is in her own class: two African Americans, and also, in one
fact an authentic “fallen woman Ž lm” in the grand Hol- unexpectedly moving scene, the manager of the sleazy
lywood tradition: a working-class woman’s sinful past strip joint where she began her Las Vegas career who,
catches up with her just as she has gained access to the though she had brutally walked out on him, comes to
world of wealth. Those 30s melodramas were theaters pay tribute to her talent and congratulate her on her
of forbidden pleasure and social injustice; they were success.
about how it is women who must always pay under The film was trashed by critics on both sides of
patriarchy. the Atlantic, in the U.S. for reasons that have been
Verhoeven and Eszterhas have contrived to cele- clearly perceived by a web surfer on IMDb: “Like all
brate the perfectly genuine attractions (not solely for of director Verhoeven’s American Ž lms, Showgirls is
the male eye, I would suggest) of the sexy Las Vegas an over-the-top vision of American culture and ideals.
revues—and more intimate ceremonies such as lap The loud chorus of negative response to the Ž lm when
dancing—only to gradually undermine these repre- it opened shows just how defensive Americans can be.
sentations with an exposure of the ferocious exploita- Every film critic in the land seemed to suddenly
tion upon which they are founded. Critics I have read develop a ‘If-you-don’t-like-it-here-then-go-live-in-
invariably emphasize the Ž lm’s “vulgarity,” perceived Russia’ attitude, typically reserved for members of the
as consubstantial with that of the world it depicts. Yet NRA.” And he goes on to add that Verhoeven has often
the story of Nomi Malone, a dancer of undeniable tal- relied on “melodramatic, ‘soap-opera’ qualities as a
ent (whose fate eerily foreshadow s that of the extraor- style and a method of satire.”
dinary Elizabeth Berkley, whose career was nipped in This universal critical condemnation often takes
the bud by a suspiciously violent critical reaction), is for its pretext the vulgarity of mass culture which
for me that of a working-class woman who rises from Showgirls lavishly deploys and with which it has lazily
gutter to glory and Ž nally rejoins her class when a suc- been identified, in both form and content—even
cession of ugly episodes is capped by the rape of her though, for the conscious spectator whom the authors
best friend by an idolized pop star. are addressing, the film is criticizing the “gender-
It is Nomi herself who demonstrates the principle nomics” of that same mass culture. No feminist, or
of “every man for himself” which presides over this male feminist sympathizer, to whom I have shown the
world and over American society as a whole when she Ž lm has failed to see that here Verhoeven is not play-
pushes the current star down the dressing-room stairs ing the ambiguous game between the sneering con-
so that she can take her place. She is acclaimed by the tempt for mass culture and the complacent exploitation
well-heeled audience of a fashionable night-spot, but of its codes which characterizes both of the Ž lms writ-
this success is then doubly ironized by the star’s un- ten for him by Edward Neumeier: Robocop and the
expected gratitude—at last she can quit the rat race, revolting Starship Troopers. In France, at least, the
she tells Nomi from her hospital bed—and by their celebration of these last-mentioned films as Ver-
boss’s contempt when he ferrets out Nomi’s shady past. hoeven’s finest is intimately linked to the way they
His new star spits in his face, pretends to accede to the continually nudge middle-class adult spectators over

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the heads, as it were, of the juvenile target audience. of exploitation. Typically enough for France, although
Showgirls, on the contrary, takes mass culture seri- this magazine is aimed at a mass audience, the values
ously, as a site of both fascination and struggle. And it of cinephilia prevail, with the tribute to Verhoeven’s
takes despised melodrama seriously too, as indeed an auteurist mastery compensating for the lowly category
excellent vehicle for social criticism. of value (one star) to which the pundits have consigned
The French response to this Ž lm has been highly this Ž lm.
signiŽ cant of a certain backlash strategy, as in this com- Of course, gender consciousness is not a very
ment from Télécâble Satellite Hebdo (December widely shared quality among the critics of France, male
22–28, 2001): “Verhoeven delights in this plunge into or female. But neither is it as universal as we might
bad taste. . . . His [directorial] talent redeems a stupid believe in countries where feminism has had more suc-
screenplay signed by Joe Eszterhas, who specializes cess. In Sight and Sound, one British critic (Linda S.
in heretical, falsely provocative subjects.” A Ž lm about Williams) faulted the Ž lm for not being sexy enough!
the exploitation of female, proletarian bodies is tarred Which all goes to illustrate a broader truth: the poly-
with the brush of the abjection it denounces, in order semic nature of Hollywood movie discourse, from
precisely not to have to come to grips with that form D.W. Griffith to the present day.

Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls is something of a novelty. . . . this is not the case with Showgirls, critics often took the
There is not a whisper of satire in this movie. Ž lm as equivalent to or of a piece with its subject mat-
ter. According to Lane, if not most reviewers, Show-
— Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
girls “has the distinction of being the Ž rst movie about
Near the end of The Questor Tapes (1974), the last in Las Vegas that is actually more vulgar than Las
a series of androids that have served as guardian angels Vegas.” 1 In this view, the Ž lm exempliŽ es rather than
for the human race is fatally shot by an agent of the exposes human vice and folly.
state. The assailant, who thought he shot a human, The production team embraced this ambiguity and
notes that there is no blood, whereupon the scientist the attendant controversy in an effort to exploit the
who has befriended the android cradles him, shouting, Ž lm’s NC-17 rating.2 In fact, screenwriter Joe Eszter-
“What do you mean? There is blood everywhere.” has and Paul Verhoeven played the press like an old
It is one of the most chilling moments in made- vaudeville team. Eszterhas took the high road, cloak-
for-television movie history, because we do not see the ing the Ž lm in the aura of post-civil rights rhetoric—
blood, but we know it is there all the same. If we were perversely in ected with his own sense of ressentiment
to reconsider Show girls through the filter of The —in an open letter in Variety: “Society will never
Questor Tapes, film critic Anthony Lane is the as- change if we stick our heads in the sand and pretend
sailant, director Paul Verhoeven is the android, and that abuses to women, blacks, Jews and gay people
I-the-academic am the sympathetic scientist. Satire is aren’t happening everyday.” 3 Verhoeven took the low
the blood that we do not see, the effect Lane cannot road—“I love to look at naked girls” 4—but he contin-
hear, but it is everywhere in the Ž lm’s tale of a troubled ued his ongoing investigation of authoritarianism, al-
woman coming to Las Vegas in search of stardom. beit here within the capitalist logic of the state rather
One reason why we do not see the satire in Show- than with the state itself. Both men did extensive re-
girls is that the film lacks the usual coordinates and search in a “private dancing” session with a nude strip-
signposts for a critique of human vice and folly pro- per at the Palomino Club in Las Vegas. 5
vided by sarcasm, irony, and caustic wit. Such overt While we do not see the blood of satire, its signs
satire is safe because we “know” what is implied be- run throughout the Ž lm. The Ž rst one is a destination
tween the scare quotes and to whom it applies. Because marker 342 miles east of Las Vegas, a city whose Span-

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ish-language name translates as “the fertile plains,” ers do not get to have it both ways, the narrative justi-
surely ironic for a desert resort. But by the 1990s, Las fying the erotics. Instead, they get neither; hence, the
Vegas had become America’s fastest growing city and critical heteronormative rage as blood drained from
was launching an advertising and public relations cam- erections. . . .
paign to redeŽ ne its gambling-based fecundity around The Ž lm exposes the grounds for its satire when
the image of the family-as-consumer. Showgirls regis- the show producers brie y consider replacing Cristal
ters the effects of this shift, but allegorizes them within Connors (the star of the show, Goddess, played by Gina
a pornograph ic mode that inverts them: in the class- Gershon) with Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul. This ref-
based distinction between the Cheetah Club (strippers) erence to actual entertainers is downright perverse,
and the Stardust (showgirls), the former presented as pulling the viewer out of the diegetic frame for the Ž rst
a “family” of outcasts and the latter as a “classier” cor- and only time. When the show producers announc e
porate ladder to be climbed; and, in the racial seg- that Jackson and Abdul have been passed over in favor
mentation of labor (blacks provide the key service and of Nomi, they do so at a press conference, as if the
servant roles). Contextually, then, Las Vegas represents casting of a Las Vegas show were a newsworthy event.
the new frontier for family settlement, its racial prob- As with Verhoeven’s sci-Ž Ž lms, the satire derives from
lems now internal and labor-based. receiving such exaggeration-cum-exposition through
The second sign is the name of the protagonist, the Ž lter of a television camera.
Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), who is hitchhiking Even so, the scene strains credibility. Madonna,
to Las Vegas to become a dancer. While everyone perhaps, but Jackson or Abdul? Their discursive
around her there reduces their identity to “whore,” un- presence serves another function. In the Ž lm, all the
derstood in terms of labor-as-commodity, Nomi insists black characters occupy subservient roles: seamstress,
on the ethical and aesthetic gradations from whore to bouncer, bellhop, bodyguard, attendant. The two main
lap dancer to stripper to showgirl. But the Ž lm lets us black characters—Nomi’s roommate Molly Abrams
know that she is wrong. At the end, as she is leaving Las (Gina Ravera) and Nomi’s erstwhile love interest and
Vegas and her life as a showgirl, Nomi (no me/know a would-be modern dance choreographer James Smith
me) is asked if she won anything. Her answer is sim- (Glenn Plummer)—represent Hollywood’s usual non-
ple: “Me.” (Beneath this allegorical tale is an insider’s white Good Samaritans. Their misfortunes— Molly is
joke: Nomi is also the name of Joe Eszterhas’s wife.) raped and her nose broken, James gets his girlfriend
What makes Showgir ls unique as a satire is the pregnant and becomes a grocer’s bag boy— frame
way in which Verhoeven collapses the Lumière and Nomi’s redemption and escape. Jackson and Abdul
Méliès traditions. The film has the strange sense of upset the Ž lm, imposing an extradiegetic signiŽ ed that
being an actualité for Elizabeth Berkley’s performance. renders the narrative Ž ctional by comparison. Here is
This performance consistently stands out from the nar- the Hollywood corollary to “suicide by cop”: re ex-
rative proper: we are aware of watching a former tele- ivity via blackness.
vision child actor do her own dance, lap dance, and And herein is the “moral” of the film: the sub-
striptease numbers. But we are also aware of watch- servient character will redeem “us” from ourselves,
ing her act. Lane is right in this respect: “She can’t act, then leave or be left behind— a morality that conjures
but the sight of her trying to act, doing the sorts of up the “you’re my best friend” ending of Driving Miss
things that acting is rumored to consist of, struck me as Daisy (1989). While Eszterhas is liberal in his charac-
a far nobler struggle than the boring old I-know-I-can- terization of the oppressed—“women, blacks, Jews and
make-it endeavors of her Ž ctional character.”6 gay people”—the Ž lm itself is more precise in its ob-
We end up with a rupturing of cinema’s sign sys- ject: a white heterosexual woman. In the Ž lm, her re-
tem: character without characterization, method acting demption comes from blacks and lesbians. But while
without interiorized motivation, and the blurring of the underlying moral may be the same as in Driving
realist and histrionic acting styles. The effect is dis- Miss Daisy, Showgirl s rejects Hollywood sentimen-
turbing when put into relationship with the film’s talism in favor of a perverse satire that offers nudity
baroque visual style (vivid colors, a symbol-laden and banality in equal measures. Its satire comes by way
environment), not to mention the subject matter. Most of camp rather than sarcasm, while its identiŽ cation is
reviewers noted the “absence of both drama and anchored in female-to-female gazes and Nomi’s un-
eroticism,”7 the “lack of characterization and narrative canny mimesis of Cristal’s mannerisms (and not just
tension,” 8 and the film’s dubious achievement of her dance moves). Not surprisingly, the Ž lm’s own re-
making “excessive nudity exquisitely boring.” 9 View- demption came from drag queens, who began hosting

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“Showgirls” parties and who inspired the return of the abeth Berkley, it is another story. Her debut paid just
Ž lm in midnight screenings. Even so, the adoration and $100,000, a mere Ž ve percent of Verhoeven’s reduced
imitation of hyperperformative white female stars tends directing fee. Soon after the Ž lm, Berkley was dropped
to obscure the racial foundation for such objects of de- by her agent, and she has only recently re-emerged on
sire. Thus, the moral itself does not become manifest; the silver screen. In the end, the brutality that the
or does so only  eetingly. screenwriter and director claimed as their topic became
The last two signs in the Ž lm announce the past an “allegory of cinema,”10 wherein the celebrity of the
and the future: “Nomi Malone Is Goddess” (billboard) production team crushed the rank-and-Ž le actress who
and “Los Angeles 280” (highway sign). Marriage is im- did what she was paid to do. Sincerity is the sacriŽ cial
plied: Nomi is heading back to Joe Eszterhas. For Eliz- lamb of satire. In Showgirls, her blood is everywhere.

It is a much celebrated phenomenon that cult audiences guilty pleasure this side of postmodernism. In the un-
form interpretative communities around degraded dergraduate course on Trash Cinema that I taught in
texts. The existence of the cult Ž lm, or midnight movie, the summer of 2001 at U.C. Berkeley, even my most
fascinates theorists from an abstract, sociological point devoted “trashaholic” students found it utterly loath-
of view. Generally, in these cases, the devotional prac- some that Showgirls was on the syllabus.
tices of the audience make the Ž lm interesting by be- When one’s reputation on campus is made by
latedly bringing the degraded object to life. The text championing “bad” Ž lms in an academic environment,
itself, however, becomes quite unimportant. as mine has (for better or worse), there seems little dan-
The notion that “bad” films som ehow increase ger that it can be destabilized by liking som ething
their shelf life by affirming a marginalized community outside the norms of good taste. But this assumption is
is very attractive. As critics, we are forever delighted pure fallacy. All semester, Showgirls hovered on my
when spectators demonstrate agency by reading against screening list as the Ž lm that could make or break my
the grain; as historians, we are tickled by the idea that perceived expertise in matters of bad taste. If I failed
the most peripheral piece of rubbish can be reborn with to make Stardust-worshipping converts of my students
the passage of time as an important artifact. by the end of the term, my entire project of redeeming
Unfortunately, there is a tendency to abandon the “cinema detritus” from the trash heap of culture was
text entirely. It becomes a startling vacuum, an un- threatened with collapse. (At this point I feel obliged
fathomable gap around which the most extraordinary to state, perhaps unnecessarily, that I do not think that
rituals develop. The desire of cult audiences to em- Showgirls is an excellent movie, or even a good one.
brace the worst possible text, and resignify it, func- Aside from my intrinsic ambivalence about the Ž lm,
tions as a kind of Midas touch. In seeking out the texts however, I believe it is worth watching, and I am
with the most pronoun ced negative cachet, the cult prepared to defend it as a misunderstood camp
audience strives to transform the worst piece of trash extravaganza.)
into gold. However, critical discourse can only par- Surprisingly, Showgirls is extraordinarily complex,
tially accommodate this kind of alchemy. Some movies and much more difficult to analyze than any of the
are such disasters that even the bad-object-seeking cult other “trash” Ž lms that I have presumed to be its kins-
audience fails to justify their appeal. men. One aspect that never fails to perplex a virgin
In an era where the appreciation of pornography, audience is its tone: it appears to connote a type of
bad television sitcoms, and the weepiest of mid-century mainstream directness and sincerity. The Ž lm’s rela-
melodramas has become the sign of hipness among tively large budget and seemingly high production
cinephiles, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls may be the last values, as well as its then A-list director and writer

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team, suggest that it intends to satisfy its audience not ence on. If the success of both melodramas and soft-
as a conspicuous piece of trash, but as a scintillating, core porn can be measured in relation to how many
if disposable, blockbu ster. One of the many ejacu- tissues spectators consume in order to rid themselves
lations I had to contend with when teaching the Ž lm of unseemly bodily  uids, then Showgirls—in failing
was the accusation that Verhoeven didn’t intend it to be to necessitate this kind of clean-up—appears to fall
read as a radical piece of trash filmmaking or as a short of its “straightforward” objective.
masterful, ironic parody. As unintentional debauchery, There is, however, another way of looking at this
Showgirls somehow didn’t “deserve” the subversive intensely problematic Ž lm. Although I am not as in-
status I was attempting to bestow upon it. If we were vested in questions of intent as my students are, there
laughing at Showgirls —and dear God were we laugh- are a few key moments in the Ž lm that stand out as the
ing—then it appeared that we were laughing at it, not markers of good camp. Putting aside some of Sontag’s
with it, and this distinction made all the difference in more dated and disturbing claims, it can be agreed that
the world. one of the integral hallmarks of camp is the love of
Rather than discarding the question of intention artiŽ ce that the camp text evinces, the “relish for the
for its ultimate indecipherability and naïvete, it is im- exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality
portant to acknowledge how utterly central this ques- mannerisms.” 12 Showgirls delivers this kind of self-
tion has been to historical formulations of camp. By conscious  amboyance at a breakneck pace. Set in Las
disregarding Showgirls because of its perceived lack of Vegas, the privileged site of American excess, it man-
ironic intent, my students were dialectically reversing ages to exceed even the most liberal standards of taste
Susan Sontag’s dictum that the best or “purest” kind of and credibility. Unfortunately, there is not space
camp was naïve rather than deliberate. Although she enough here to rhapsodize over the scene where Nomi
claims that the “essential element” in naïve or pure and her arch-rival Cristal reveal to each other their love
camp is “a seriousness that fails,” my students had of Doggie Chow, nor where any one of Nomi’s seizures
seized upon Verhoeven’s failed seriousness as the very on the dance  oor is referred to as her possession of
factor which eliminated the Ž lm from any valid camp real talent. Nor is there time to discuss the placement
appreciation.11 Had Verhoeven been trying to create a of the ejaculating dolphins in the swimming pool, or
text saturated in chintzy artiŽ ce, histrionic affectation, the way that Nomi’s eyes are consistently made up to
and absurd sexual display, then it would have been the resemble the glass peepers on a trophy deer head.
most brilliant piece of camp they had seen. Without Whether or not it is intended as a piece of camp
this trace of distanciation, Showgirls was doomed, and wit (though I think that the infamous “Versayce” se-
so, it seemed, was I. quence cements the fact that it is, indeed, deliberate),
Showgir ls proposes to incite the extremities of the Ž lm’s outrageous sense of humor certainly demands
emotional and physical affect, but delivers a series of at least a few tissues to wipe away the tears of guilty
empty cues. Although its dramatic and narrative con- pleasure that it inspires. I must admit that the Ž rst time
ventions participate in the melodramatic tradition, the I watched it, I was too mortiŽ ed to laugh. Of course, in
Ž lm ultimately fails to move its audience to pathos or those stone-faced days of pious Antonioni cinephilia,
sympathy. Certainly our heroine suffers, and is com- I had not yet learned to delight in the joys of bad
pelled to make decisions of dubious morality in order cinema. I thought that I was too sophisticated a Ž lm
to overcome hostile external circumstances that are at student to enjoy such a farce.
least partially determined by her class and gender. But One of the true challenges of appreciating a Ž lm
aside from a modicum of sympathy evoked by Nomi’s like Showgirls is that as a piece of camp, it is decidedly
under-appreciated African-American seamstress buddy, middlebrow. It is much easier to appreciate a “bad”
the characters in Showgir ls are so uniformly idiotic camp film like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, in-
and their plights so ridiculous that we cannot help but tended for an already marginalized audience of un-
laugh, with Oscar Wilde at Little Nell’s death, at their derground artists and hom osexuals, than it is to
downfall. excavate a bit of parodic truth from a lesbian fantasy
Showgirls also boasts of being an intensely erotic, marketed to a mainstream, compulsively heterosexual
soft-core exploration of the Vegas nightclub scene, in audience. If every blockbuster teen horror film, sit-
which tits, ass, and even a bit of beaver are lavishly com, and advertising campaign threatens to steal the
displayed. Yet its presentation of the bodily spectacle signs of “being-as-playing-a-role” from the commu-
is so grotesque that, despite its long-sought-after nity of outcasts who Ž rst exalted it, then the political
NC-17 rating, the Ž lm seemed to fail to turn its audi- significance of camp begins to recede. The anxiety

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Showgirls created, and continues to create, among left- (As my Ž nal aside: on a questionnaire that I created
ist intellectuals stems from the fear that camp, like for the Ž lm theory course that I taught in fall 2001, one
everything else remotely subversive, is in danger of of my former students from the Trash seminar wrote
being coopted by “the Man.” For me, the desire to steal that her new favorite Ž lms were Kenneth Anger’s Kus-
camp back, wherever it may be located, has become a tom Kar Kommandoes and Showgir ls. So I suppose
kind of categorical imperative, a yearning to redeem my reputation as the missionary of bad taste lives on,
that which seems irredeemable. for better or worse.)

“Tasteless,” “vulgar,” “exploitative,” “tawdry”—these vulgarity of the tradition it updates, only American crit-
are the terms that were most frequently used to con- ics seemed too puritanical to embrace it.
demn Showgir ls upon its release. Yet I loved every Consider Anthony Lane’s derogatory quip that
tawdry minute of it. Could it be that I just have bad Showgirls turns its title from a noun into an impera-
taste? One common way of defending oneself against tive. The Ž lmmakers, he writes, “have a story to tell,
such a charge is to argue that what others see as bad even a moral to expound, but their deepest wish is to
taste is actually the prescient recognition of a cult clas- get the girls to show. When Tony, who runs the dances
sic, in the grand tradition of J. Hoberman’s “bad at the Stardust, auditions a line of hopefuls, picks three,
movies”—movies that are so bad that they are good, says ‘Show me your tits,’ and hands one of them a
failures so dire that they succeed. Such movies are usu- helpful cluster of ice cubes, he is acting on behalf of the
ally low budget and made by outsiders; the problem entire film” (The New Yorker, Oct. 9, 1995). Lane
with Showgirls, however, is that it is a very big-budget means to condemn this injunction to show tits. But
production made by quintessentia l insiders that is sim- what else have the movies or stage shows in this tra-
ply not that “bad,” and certainly not all that alien to dition ever done but “show” the anatomy of “girls”?
the Hollywood mainstream. It really won’t do, then, The fact that these tits are now acknow ledged to be
to defend my bad taste by celebrating this Ž lm as rad- surgically enhanced and made erect by ice cubes is the
ically “other.” Ž lm’s way of modernizing the tradition that once fo-
Rather, I want to argue that Showgirls is part of an cused more exclusively on legs (or gams). Is it possi-
important and longstanding tradition of enduringly ble that what Lane and all the other critics so horriŽ ed
trashy—though never really “bad”—American movies by the bad taste of this Ž lm were really reacting to was
whose tawdriness resides in the vulgar status of its its contemporary updating of a showgirl tradition that
primary subject: the showgirl herself. She is a Ž gure makes no bones about both the prurient appeal and the
American culture has both celebrated and despised as artiŽ cial constructedness of what it shows?
the quintessential commodification of womanhood. If we look again at the Depression-era Busby
Her roots go back to vaudeville, Tiller girls, Ziegfeld Berkeley showgirl musicals, we Ž nd that their “shows”
girls, and early sound movie musicals immortalized were always about prurient displays of bleached-
by Busby Berkeley. Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas blonde (chemically altered) “dames” and the ambiva-
enthusiastically sought to update this Ž gure in a post- lent moral status of a girl who earns her living by
Code, post-feminist and post-Stonewall era in which it showing her body through questionable forms of
is permissible to foreground (and of course to exploit) dance. In Showgirls, that dance consists of lifting a
the new forms of vulgar sexual display made possible bare-breasted (erect-nippled) woman out of an ex-
by such cultural innovations as the lap dance. The vul- ploding papier-mâché volcano, a sadom asochistic
garity of this update is perfectly in keeping with the black leather dance of lesbian eroticism consisting of

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a few provocative tribadic thrusts, and several varia- whose sublimation creates the whole gaudy show. Les-
tions of a lap dance. bian sex and female solidarity give a new lease on life
In the Berkeley Ž lms, no less than in Showgirls, to the otherwise familiar titillations of the genre.
the girl dancers navigate the shoals of “dance” perfor- As in the earlier showgirl musicals, a principle of
mances that ever since the can can have been uneasily sexual sublimation motivates the musical numbers. It
perched between “legitimate” art and illegitimate pros- is never quite clear what the girls themselves actually
titution. What is simultaneously fun and low-down desire—men or each other—since their dancing bodies
about Show girls is that it takes on this theme as its are so much the source of the Ž lm’s polymorphously
primary subject without insisting, as every Hollywood perverse pleasures. Indeed, what is most striking about
Ž lm made during the reign of the Production Code had this Ž lm is that all sexual clinching tends toward dance,
to insist, that the showgirl who deserves to emerge as just as all dance tends toward sex. I submit that it may
the star must also be sexually innocent. The jaded gold- be this very blurring of the line between dance and sex
digger who knew the score would serve as the foil for that Ž nally set off so many of the critics who hated this
the wide-eyed ingénue who didn’t, but whose inno- Ž lm.
cence would bring her success. We are informed more than once that Nomi’s
Showgirls offers the 90s update of this American dancing is all heat and “pelvic thrust” rather than “true”
showgirl tradition: it abandons sexual morality for a dance. The assistant choreographer of “Goddess,” the
more substantial female solidarity. The ambitious in- opulent Stardust floor show in which Nomi briefly
génue, Nomi, is revealed at the end to have previously stars, tells us, nevertheless, that “she’s got it . . . they
been a hooker; her Ž rst job in Vegas is in a strip joint don’t teach it in any class.” The Ž lm dances literally
with a private room for lap dances; her career takes off and metaphorically around the nature of this “it”: the
first when she gives a lap dance to Zack, the enter- line between fucking and dancing is blurred at every
tainment director of the Stardust, and later when she turn. Whenever Nomi dances she seems to be having
sleeps with him. Though Nomi tries hard to walk the sex, and whenever she has sex she seems to be danc-
Ž ne line between prostituting herself and pursuing the ing; there is no pure sexual desire and there is no pure
art of dance, everyone, including the reigning star, dance anywhere in Showgirls. Perhaps the critics’ ha-
Cristal, who can’t wait to get her hands on Nomi’s tred of the Ž lm was due to the absence of any “pure”
breasts, insists that there is no distinction. Endlessly erotic scene that is not tinged with power or stylized as
bantering about the relative merits of their breasts and dance. Consider Variety’s complaint that the Ž lm “just
nails (not to mention the unspoke n competition be-  aunts sex without eroticizing it” (Todd McCarthy).
tween their equally in ated lips), Cristal and Nomi are Could this mean that to him the Ž lm lacks a properly
richly ironic twists of old stereotypes: the reigning torrid sex scene that is “just” sex and not dance, ex-
bitch (and butch) queen, the ruthless ingénue who will pectations of which were aroused by the Ž lm’s much
stop at nothing to succeed. touted NC-17 rating?
If the moral Ž ne line that makes the ingénue de- It is not fair to judge Showgirls by the standards of
serve her stardom still functions, it is no longer in her a Last Tango in Paris or a Henry and June. But it may
quality as Ruby Keeler trooper, nor in her sexual in- very well be that the portentious European art house
nocence. Rather, in yet another twist on the genre, it is sex of these Ž lms is the only kind of sex American crit-
in grafting the tradition of female rape-revenge vio- ics can accept, while the vulgar, tawdry, showy Las
lence onto the showgirl tradition. When Nomi learns Vegas sex that reworks the more authentically Ameri-
that the one person she will admit to loving, Molly, her can tradition of the golddigger seems just too tasteless
African-American roommate, has been brutally raped for the American critical establishm ent to stomach.
and beaten by a preening rock star, she dances out her More than one review excoriates Eszterhas for enjoy-
revenge in the form of brutal karate kicks into his face ing the titillation of lesbian sex, when it is precisely
and then walks out on everything. Nomi loses stardom, the bad-taste glorying in the bitchy role-playing of that
but gains herself. This happy ending, mixing violent titillation that seems to me to be the great fun of the
revenge on the men who treat women like whores with movie. It is very easy to condemn movies that attempt
ostentatious female solidarity, is no less a fantasy than to have trashy fun with sex. But I predict that Showgirls
the enshrinement of Ruby Keeler as star at the end of will reemerge one day, like Nomi and Cristal from their
42nd Street. But the changes are worth noting: lesbian papier-mâché volcano, in triumphant glory to gain the
sex replaces heterosexual sex as the forbidden act praise that it deserves.

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Some movies are genre killers. Whether it is due to (1965), Julie’s No Angel (1967), Run, Swinger Run
their excess, overreach, or ineptitude, they have the (1967), and Prowl Girls (1968). Most often the nar-
capacity to terminate an entire class of motion pic- rative takes this woman to the big city, where she be-
tures. Peter Bogdanov ich’s At Long Last Love (1975) comes involved in some aspect of the sex trade or in
was the pillow that smothered the moribund musical, a series of sexually exploitative relationships.
and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) Ž nished With its constant references to whoredom, Show-
off the Western more effectively than any showdown girls hammers home an equation between the seedy
at high noon. There was nowhere else to go with the world of exotic dancing and that of “legitimate” en-
disaster picture after Los Angeles was destroyed (in tertainment—in this instance, high-end Vegas floor-
Sensurround!) by Earthqua ke (1974). It’s certainly shows. This less-than-surprising revelation is similar
true that musicals, Westerns, and disaster  icks have to the exposés of various sexually oriented businesses
been made since, but the critical and/or box-office fail- in sexploitation, whether it’s the dirty pictures racket
ure of these genre killers, or the way in which they in Nudes, Inc. (1964), stag movies in Cool It, Baby
exceeded generic limits, represented a symbolic end to (1967), shady modeling agencies in Rent-A-Girl
genres that had once  ourished. The release of Show- (1965), or prostitution in P.P.S. (Prostitutes’ Protec-
girls in 1995 did the same thing for sexploitation tive Society, 1966). Showgirls also includes the re-
movies. Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’s high- venge Ž nale that punctuates many of the sexploitation
budget exercise in low culture was the last gasp of a films, with Nomi “kicking the shit” out of superstar
once thriving form already mortally wounded by the Andrew Carver in retaliation for the brutal rape of her
disappearance of its traditional venues, the prolifera- friend Molly.
tion of hardcore, and Hollywood ’s usurpation of its As with many sexploitation Ž lms, Showgirls gives
once formidable sexual spectacle. With every em- a sexual twist to familiar classics or genres. Pulling to-
phatic thrust of her hips, Elizabeth Berkley helped gether elements of backstage tales such as 42nd Street
drive the nails deeper into sexploitation’s coffin. (1933) and All About Eve (1950), the plot revolves
Surprisingly few people made a connection be- around Nomi’s effort to rise from strip club to glitter-
tween Showgi rls and sexploitation when it was re- ing Vegas stage show. All of the familiar clichés are
leased. Perhaps because critics and viewers were trotted out—the slow grind to the top, the casting couch
blindsided by its $40-million budget, Showgirls could (or swimming pool in this case), the backstabbing, and
simply not be thought of in terms of sexploitation, a the grandstanding. Borrowing from, or sending up, fa-
historically low-rent form. However, having been im- miliar genres was a common strategy in sexploitation.
mersed in sexploitation Ž lms for the past several years, (Showgirls has a more than passing similarity to Star-
I can say with the utmost confidence that Showgirls let! [1969] and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [1970].)
qualiŽ es as the ultimate sexploitation Ž lm. Verhoeven Not only was generic pilfering a shortcut to a service-
and Eszterhas took a modest form, put it on a regimen able narrative, but it could also play into common sex-
of coke and steroids, and ballooned it to a point where ual fantasies or fetishes (jungle sex, vampire sex, prison
it is impossible to imagine its bombast and excess ever sex). EVI was particularly adept at this strategy, with
being superseded. films such as Space Thing (1968), Trade r Hornee
Almost every one of Showgirls ’ characters, plot (1970), and The Erotic Adventures of Zorro (1971).
turns, and generic elements can be located in sex- These formulations continued into the hardcore arena
ploitation Ž lms from the 1960s. Showgirl’s Nomi is a and hang on today, even if contemporary nods to main-
woman “on the run,” escaping from a troublesome stream titles and genres are usually in name only.
past. This is a classic narrative element in sexploita- Along with these conve ntions, Show girls has
tion— at work in, for instance, Bad Girls Go to Hell affinities with sexploitation in dialogue, plot, and spec-

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tacle. The dialogue is awkward: lines vacillate be- explosive “creation” scene set amidst spewing volca-
tween banal observations, vapid pop-cult catch- noes; a motorcycle rally conducted in patent-leather
phrases, and overblown pontiŽ cation. Showgirls even S/M garb. And Verhoeven’s direction is excessively
contains a straight-faced variation on the line, “The obvious. After being raped by Andrew Carver and his
show must go on”—words not uttered in a movie goons, Molly  ies out among the elegant partygoers
without tongue planted firmly in cheek since the like a piece of trash tossed out a car window. She’s
1940s. The plot is thin at best, and motivations are been used up and thrown away. Get it?
cloudy or nonexistent. Upon its initial release, most From the opening shot as she flounces out to the
critics commented on the Ž lm’s illogic and the char- highway to hitchhike to Vegas, everything associated
acters’ lack of motivation. with Nomi is overly intense. As the camera moves
In sexploitation Ž lms we expect everything to take over the dancing crowd at the Crave Club, she is re-
a back seat to the display of nudity and the mobiliza- vealed at the center of the throng, moving as spasti-
tion of sexual situations. And that is exactly the case cally as a rag doll in a hurricane. Even though most
in Showgirls. Berkley seems to spend half the movie viewers will most likely be reminded of Elaine’s clue-
either falling out of skimpy outŽ ts or buck-naked. The less “dancing” in Seinfeld, a friend of wannabe chore-
other supporting actresses and background extras con- ographer James enthuses, “She can dance, can’t she?”
tribute by baring most, if not all. As with sexploita- Nomi literally throw s herself into everything ,
tion, scenes of sexual intimacy are often sublimated whether it’s eating fries, performing a lap dance,
into sexy dances. We are treated to pole dances and walking off a stage, having sex, or pouting. Her lu-
lap dances, as well as simulated swimming-pool sex natic frenzy is evidently suppose d to signal passion,
and the requisite lesbian  irtation. All these moments but her reactions to everyday events and perceived
are carefully spaced throughout the Ž lm to provide an slights mark her as a candidate for Thorazine rather
even distribution of sexual spectacle. than the lead in a show. Berkley’s much-maligned
On a variety of levels, sexploitation films were performance is nothing if not consistent in its glassy-
always about excess. They were about excessive de- eyed aggression.
sire that needed to be fulŽ lled. They were about ex- What made sexploitation Ž lms of the 60s and 70s
cessive display— the skin, the sexual situations. They so interesting, and what continues to attract new au-
were often about fetishism that blossom ed into ob- diences to them on video and DVD, is their excess
session: the Findlay’s “Kiss” series is the archetypal and the many ways in which it is manifested. This
example. And they were about excessive bodies; think same excess is at work in Showgirls , but the fact that
Russ Meyer’s pneumatic women, or sexploitation stars it is so superabundant stretches the form to its break-
such as Marsha Jordan, Dyanne Thorne, and Chesty ing point. As a result, most viewers reject that excess
Morgan. and consider the film a ludicrous failure, although
What makes Showgirls the end of sexploitation is some have embraced it, most often through amusing,
that Verhoeven and Eszterhas wallow in excess in a and at times insightful, camp readings.
way comparable to the later Meyer Ž lms, but without Hollywood drained out whatever life was left in
the varnish of self-parody. Everything comes off as sexploitation during the 1980s with teen comedies
overblown and preposterous. A few examples: Marty, such as Porky’s (1981), arch art Ž lms like Crimes of
the gay stage manager, hollering “Thrust it! Thrust Passion (1984), and politically correct explorations
it!” as Nomi arches her hips off the floor during re- of alternative lifestyles such as Desert Hearts (1985).
hearsal. The flimsy transformation of Al “gimme a The remnants were relegated to the dusty, direct-to-
blowjob” Torres, the sleazy manager of the Cheetah video rental shelves. Showgirls revived sexploitation
strip club, and comedienne Henrietta Bazoom into long enough for one last, extravagant blowout. But
Nomi’s surrogate parents when they suddenly appear like the inveterate partier who leaves his deathbed for
to praise her dancing in the big show. The “social rel- a final fling only to have it kill him, the film’s
evance,” in the form of repeated and crass swipes at overindulgence ends with a  atline for sexploitation as
entertainment and commerce. The stage numbers that a genre.
are outrageous in their conception and execution: an Sexploitation is dead. Long live Showgirls!

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Text of Bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the Wisconsin. For weeks I had been reading the hype sur-
text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of boredom), rounding the Ž lm and its NC-17 rating, and being an
unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological admirer of Verhoeven’s earlier work, I greatly antici-
assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, mem- pated the movie opening at my local multiplex. As
ories, brings to a crisis his relation with language. things turned out, however, the theaters in the Oshkosh-
Green Bay corridor were owned by a conservative
—Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
family that announced it would not book such Ž lth (in
the interests of community standards). Too lazy to
There’s a thin line between stupid and clever.
make the drive to Wisconsin’s Sodom and Gomorrahs
—David St. Hubbins, This Is Spinal Tap of Madison or Milwaukee, I missed Showgirls in its
initial release, which of course only added to its mys-
Before embarking on his now canonical dissection of tique. Snow-blind and a sulking victim of rube censor-
Balzac’s “Sarrazine,” Barthes asked the rather prag- ship, I looked to the promise of raunchy exotic dancers
matic question: “How many readings?” In other words, cat-Ž ghting in the desert utopia of Vegas as a means
how many times should a critic read and reread a re- of almost mythic deliverance.
pressed and repressive “readerly” text before it blos-
som s into the perverse plurality of the “writerly”? Screening One:
Barthes remained cagey in his answer. In the case of
Showgirls, however, I can answer with precision: four. I Ž rst saw the Ž lm a year later, after moving to Cali-
It takes four screenings of the Ž lm to transform it from fornia and scheduling it for a course I was teaching on
one of Hollywood’s most notorious  ops to absolute exploitation cinema at USC. I thought it would be a
transcendence, four screenings to cross the line from perfect addition to a class that considered such cult and
stupid to clever. exploitation favorites as The Rocky Horror Picture
Having seen Showgirls Ž ve times now, I’d like to Show, Glen or Glenda, and Bad Girls Go to Hell. My
devote this brief essay to considering how Verhoeven’s initial response, like that of my students, was one of
Ž lm has changed for me from screening to screening. amazed stupefaction. How could any Ž lm made in the
Unfortunately, like most self-indulgent discussions of era of corporate Hollywood’s foolproof blandiŽ cation
cinematic “guilty pleasures,” mine will also resort to process be this crass, this appalling, this  agrant,  am-
the confessional mode. Showgirls compels one to do boyant, and over-the-top? Showgirls immediately be-
so. It forces viewers to discuss their own personal his- came my Ž lm of choice for teaching the pleasures of
tory with the Ž lm in the same manner that one wants the “bad film.” Students who had previously fallen
to share one’s experience of the Ancient Pyramids or asleep during the older generation’s camp masterpiece,
work through witnessing a horriŽ c car crash. Unlike Plan 9 from Outer Space, hooted and hollered through-
these other arresting moments in life, however, Show- out Showgirls, several of them telling me the next week
girls’ peculiar mix of stately beauty and raw carnage that they had rented the Ž lm again for screening parties
only emerges in full after several viewings. in their dorms, fraternities, and (yes) sororities. This
may alarm some, given the Ž lm’s rather notorious sex-
ual politics. It shouldn’t. Woe to the instructor who
plans to use Showgirls to initiate tiresome discussions
Before seeing any film, we most likely have certain of sexism in the cinema. Your students are way ahead
expectations that will inform our eventual viewing. In of you. They understand, even without a lecture, that
the case of my own experience with Showgirls, the Ž lm this is a Ž lm not about sex, but the performativity of
opened while I was teaching at a remote campus in gender.

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Screening Two: Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan get it. Poor Elizabeth
Berkley does not. There is no empirical evidence to
If you see Showgirls just once, it will linger simply as back any of these claims, but we are now entering a
an exercise in bad excess. Preparing for my second land of critical pleasure where textual “evidence” no
viewing, I was anticipating the stand-out moments I longer matters; indeed, it’s a hindrance. At this point
remembered from the year before: the French fry I’m making my own movie in my head.
scene, the ice cube scene; the swimming pool scene. In
between the laughs, however, I gradually began to ap-
Screening Four:
preciate how well made the film is in terms of style
and technique: the mise-en-scène, editing, and camera- When Barthes wrote “Myth Today,” he believed a pain-
work are  awless. Verhoeven manages to make a visu- staking application of semiotics to capitalist culture
ally stunning Ž lm about Las Vegas with little use of would demystify the workings of bourgeois ideology.
the city’s photogenic architecture and no obligatory By the time he gets to S/Z, Barthes is still interested in
scenes of high-stakes gambling. Instead, he relies on exploring and exploding bourgeois clichés, platitudes,
an adrenalized haze of spangled sleaze and hypererotic and doxa, but crucially, he no longer feels the need to
histrionics. And then it hits you: this “extra-sexy” justify his critical excursions as a path to political en-
NC-17 Ž lm isn’t about sex at all—it’s about all things lightenment. The Barthes of S/Z and The Pleasure of
crass, vulgar, and cheap in America. In this very Euro- the Text is interested in only one thing: the pleasures to
pean take on the United States of Crap, everything is be had when a really smart person visits his or her crit-
surface and sleaze, from the shrill Nomi to Cristal’s ical prowess with extreme violence on otherwise un-
Diamond-Doll Texas shtick, from the desolate desert remarkable and even moronic texts. This is where we
alleyways behind the casinos to the cheesy volcano arrive after the fourth (and possibly all subseque nt)
choreography on stage. The Vegas of Showgirls is the screenings of Showgir ls. Is the film bad? Good?
America imagined by so many Europeans— fast, Racist? Sexist? Brechtian? Radical? Reactionary? Who
cheap, artiŽ cial, transient—a world where stupid peo- cares to answer such unknowable and ultimately un-
ple have moronic dreams of fame and are willing to important questions? It is enough that Showgir ls
cripple their competitors to achieve them. Leaving the exists to indulge our intoxication with its sublim e
theater after screening two, one begins to wonder: Is catastrophes.
the Ž lm bad or just highly, highly stylized? And how And now the epiphany! Media criticism must learn
would I be able to tell the difference? to give up the charade of pompous legitimization
through appeals to social or political utility. It must
Screening Three: reembrace the hedonistic pleasures of criticism as a
worthy enterprise in and of itself. The world must be
At the third screening, Verhoeven’s genius is unmis- made safe again for the aesthete, the world-weary
takable. One feels a sense of shame for not having un- dandy. How many times have we suffered the bromide,
derstood the film in the first place. You emerge “Those who can’t do, teach,” and its equally dim-
convinced that Verhoeven is the Douglas Sirk of con- witted cousin, “Those who can’t create, critique”? I
temporary Hollywood. He has taken Eszterhas’s medi- believe Ž lm educators need to expose this Ž ction for the
ocre, even laughable script, and through strategies evil lie that it is! We must teach our students to be
of irony and intensiŽ cation, created a masterwork of smarter than the texts they consume. We must teach
Brechtian distanciation. By this screening, then, both them that there is ultimately more power in becoming
viewer and Ž lm are released from the burdens of real- a smirking connoisseur of Hollywood’s mass crap than
ism, character, and plausibility— free to engage in pure in landing a sweet gig as the second-unit DP for High-
stylistic play. Suddenly, the film’s reliance on stock lander— The Series. Showgirls can help us do this. It
plots, ridiculous characters, and traumatic art direction leads the way by giving us, in the spirit of Baudrillard,
makes more sense. It’s not bad Ž lmmaking—it’s a bril- the more vulgar than vulgar, the more obscene than
liant savaging of the vapidity of Hollywood’s typical obscene. In the process, it liberates the critic from his
narrative machinery. Deeper now into this maze of or her role as cultural custodian and reacquaints us with
style and absurdity, one begins to play the game of who the long-lost Edenic text of bliss. No longer must we
in the Ž lm “gets it” and who does not. Verhoeven gets apologize for our cultivation, our wit, our condescen-
it, of course, while Eszterhas sadly, really seems to sion. Textual libertines of the new century, unite! You
believe in his parable of Horatio Alger in pasties. Gina have nothing to lose but your boredom.

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Akira Mizuta Lippit is Associate Professor of Film and Notes
Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the
author of Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (2000), 1. Anthony Lane, “Starkness Visible,” The New Yorker, Oc-
and a member of the FQ editorial board. tober 9, 1995, 95.
Noël Burch is a French Ž lmmaker and writer; his most re- 2. See Kevin S. Sandler, “The Naked Truth: Showgirls and
cent book is La Drôle de guerre des sexes du cinéma français the Fate of the X/NC-17 Rating,” Cinema Journal 40.3
1930–1956, in collaboration with Geneviève Sellier. (Spring 2001): 69-93.
3. Quoted in Maureen Dowd, “Liberties: The Rise of the
Chon Noriega is Professor of Critical Studies in the De-
Fallen,” New York Times, September 21, 1995, Sec. A, 23.
partment of Film, Television, and Digital Media at the Uni- 4. Ibid.
versity of California, Los Angeles; he is the Los Angeles editor 5. Joseph Gelmis, “The Joys of Sex on the Screen,” News-
of FQ. day, September 20, 1995, Part II, B03.
Ara Osterweil is a Ph.D. candidate in the Film Studies Pro- 6. Lane, “Starkness Visible,” 96.
gram at the University of California, Berkeley; her dis- 7. Janet Maslin, “$40 Million Worth of Voyeurism,” New York
sertation is entitled Flesh Cinema: The Corporeal Avant-garde, Times, September 22, 1995, Sec. C, 1.
1962–1972. 8. Todd McCarthy, “‘Showgirls’ Takes It Sleazy,” Variety,
Linda Williams directs the Film Studies Program at the September 25-October 1, 1995, 91.
University of California, Berkeley; she is a member of the FQ 9. Kenneth Turan, “The Naked Truth About ‘Showgirls,’” Los
editorial board. Angeles Times, September 22, 1995, Sec. F, 1.10.
10. See David James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in
Eric Schaefer is Associate Professor in the Department of the Sixties (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College and the author 1989), esp. chapter 1.
of “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History of Exploitation Films, 11. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” in Against Interpretation
1919–1959. He is working on Massacre of Pleasure: A History and Other Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 282-83.
of the Sexploitation Film. 12. Ibid., 279.
Jeffrey Sconce is Associate Professor in the School of
Communications at Northwestern University.

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