Showgirls Comes of Age /pt. 2
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In contrast to the readings of Showgirls in the first part of this essay other approaches can be taken when analysing the film, and here it will be argued that the film is a critique of various aspects of American culture. Whilst perhaps not immediately appearing as a text which is making political statements, part two of this essay will analyse the film in terms of its commentaries on exploitation, artificiality, stardom, and the overarching hegemonic structures in America.
AN INDICTMENT OF EXPLOITATIVE AMERICA
In terms of reading Showgirls as an indictment of the exploitation which exists in America, many of Nomi’s relationships in the film exist due to her naivety about the exploitative nature of the world she is entering. The film makes a link between career progression (and its inevitable increased wealth) and an increase in exploitation. It is revealed that Nomi used to work in the exploitative world of prostitution, then “progresses” to be a dancer at the seedy Cheetah’s club, where she is forced to forsake a sizeable amount of her earnings to the sleazy manager, Al. Of course, the plot of Showgirls follows Nomi’s journey further still as our heroine pursues her dream of appearing in Goddess, the big show at the Stardust casino starring Cristal Connors. When Nomi’s career progresses beyond Cheetah’s club—initially as an understudy to Cristal in Goddess but later to lead showgirl—Nomi is exploited for sex by Stardust’s entertainment manager Zack, and further still by the casino owners who will be earning a vast amount more from their star’s performance than she will. There is a sense, however, that Nomi becomes aware of the exploitative nature of being a Las Vegas dancer, yet starts to accept it as a necessary evil. This is shown at the audition for the Goddess understudy role, during which it is suggested that Nomi’s dancing abilities are no better than those of her rivals. As Goddess’s director Tony circles the three final candidates he yells “Come on ladies! Sell your bodies!” However, Nomi gains her success not through talent, but through the willingness to do what it takes, including accepting daily sexual objectification, the loss of dignity, and the later “selling” (or giving away) of sex to Zack, which results in her being offered an audition.
Exploitation is further shown by people in positions of power (exclusively wealthy white men) using any opportunity to exploit those who are considered as inferior (such as Nomi, and her friend Molly). Here we can apply an allegorical reading of America’s ruling class (embodied by business owners, politicians) exploiting workers (for example through a low level of minimum wage, harassment in the workplace, or substandard working conditions). During a scene towards the end of Showgirls, two of the film’s working-class characters, Nomi and Molly, are manipulated (in completely different ways) into being exploited by wealthy white men with power. By cross-cutting back-and-forth between the two events at the same party—Molly upstairs with her crush, the famous musician Andrew Carver, and Nomi in the main party room being charmed by the powerful Zack—Verhoeven highlights the simultaneous exploitation of the working classes, and of women. Whilst Nomi is being disingenuously serenaded by Zack’s shallow words, Molly is gang-raped by Carver and his entourage. The scene shows the destruction of two myths: Nomi’s dream of stardom and Molly’s dream of love. The rape of Molly is brutal and shocking, whereas Nomi’s violation (through Zack’s exploitation of her) is more discreet and will occur over a longer period. When learning that the Stardust casino would rather protect Carver than get justice for Molly, Nomi decides to leave the exploitative world of dancing in Las Vegas, knowing only those who are willing to be exploited can thrive there.
AN INDICTMENT OF ARTIFICIALITY AND THE QUEST FOR STARDOM
In addition to (or instead of, if the reader prefers) analysing Showgirls as an indictment of the exploitative nature of America, it is possible to read the film as a warning of the perils of pursuing stardom, so often associated with and Hollywood. Perhaps one of the most recycled stories told by Hollywood is the “star is born” narrative, whether that is precisely one of the A Star Is Born films (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018) or another close variation on that theme. Much of Showgirls uses this narrative until it is bluntly halted by Molly’s rape and Nomi’s subsequent decision to reject the exploitation she is suffering. The rape scene serves to draw a connection between Nomi’s increased stardom and a consequent reduction in her morals and ethics. Nomi, however, having introduced Molly to her rapist, is complicit in the violation to an extent.
Normally, the journey towards stardom is considered as an ascent; however, as discussed above, if we accept that the further Nomi’s career progresses (and the greater the stardom) the more exploited she becomes, then the trajectory is in fact a descent to stardom. In this reading, Verhoeven and Eszterhas are not only attacking Hollywood (as well as its artificiality and obsession with image), but specifically the types of stories that it so regularly produces. Typically, a Hollywood narrative is one in which the hero defeats a seemingly impossible task or enemy against unlikely odds. Here, the setting of Las Vegas—famous for its games, odds and gambling—is allegorical by serving as the backdrop for a game which is impossible to win. To use gambling parlance: the game is rigged, and the house always wins.
Showgirls, of course, does not claim at any point to be “based on real events”—it is very much a fictional story. It is quite conceivable, however, that many of the people in reality who have dreamt of stardom and have followed their dreams to places like Las Vegas or Hollywood, have suffered a plight not too dissimilar to Nomi’s. Early in the film when Nomi first meets Molly, the latter asks “Where you from?”, with Nomi’s dejected response being “Different places!”. This suggests she is an embodiment of the different people who have followed their dreams of stardom—whether to Las Vegas, Hollywood or anywhere else—only to be rejected, or perhaps even worse.
The setting of Las Vegas is crucial in highlighting the film’s themes of gambling, winning/losing in the “game of life”, and facing impossible odds. By the film’s close, Nomi has decided to cut-and-run from the rigged game that Las Vegas offers, having been left both literally and emotionally penniless from her experiences there. She decides to quit Las Vegas’s games in exchange for those in Hollywood, which she hopes will be more lucrative. The film’s final shot points towards Verhoeven and Eszterhas commenting on stardom and America’s entertainment industries, especially Hollywood. Starting as a tracking crane shot of Nomi in a pick-up truck speeding along the highway (having just hitched a ride out of Las Vegas), the camera pans to reveal a huge billboard sign declaring that “Nomi Malone is Goddess”. However, the crane continues to push-in towards the billboard, eventually going over it to reveal another sign—”Los Angeles 280”, informing the audience of Nomi’s destination and foreshadowing a potential next career for her. In Los Angeles—or perhaps more likely, Hollywood—one wonders what the future might hold for Nomi, and all the other people who have followed their dreams there. Perhaps Nomi will use her experiences in Las Vegas to her advantage, avoiding exploitation, if that is possible. Nomi could explore the worlds of acting, modelling or anything else that Hollywood offers, however, given what the mass public has always suspected about the morals and values of Hollywood—and what has since been revealed by the #MeToo movement—reaching stardom might require many dreadful sacrifices.
If we choose to read Showgirls as a comment on these elements of American culture, it portrays stardom (in Las Vegas at least) as something which will inevitably involve exploitation and regret; this is a remarkable attack for a Hollywood studio film to make. Of course, Showgirls is not the first film to make such comments on stardom and Hollywood, but it is perhaps one of the most mainstream films to do so. Another film which addressed the topics of stardom and Hollywood—albeit a completely different type of film, it must be said—was David Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Dr. (2001). What a great theatrical double bill that would be: Showgirls alongside Mulholland Dr. In a strange coincidence—or perhaps not-so-strange, considering this is David Lynch—Showgirls’ Penny, the innocent newcomer dancer who is soon shown naked on all-fours whilst performing her routine at Cheetah’s, is played by Rena Riffel. Six years later, Riffel appeared in Mulholland Dr., this time as a washed-up and drug-addicted actress, a version of her former beautiful and popular self. Having witnessed her demise in Showgirls, it is almost as if Riffel is still playing the role of Penny in Mulholland Dr., someone who was chewed up and spat out by Las Vegas, and then again by Hollywood. If this reading and supposition are adopted, it makes Nomi’s decision to head towards Los Angeles all the more worrying.
AN INDICTMENT OF CAPITALISM, POWERFUL MEN AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
An alternative (or additional) reading of Showgirls to the aforementioned critiques of exploitation or stardom can be found by understanding the film as an indictment of the values at the very core of America: capitalism, power and the American Dream. The latter of these, of course, suggests that anyone can gain success through hard work, and given that all people are created equally, the same opportunities are offered to everyone.
Nomi’s journey in the first two acts of Showgirls is a direct representation of the American Dream. Arriving in town penniless, she has dreams of making it big as a dancer in Las Vegas and of all the riches that will entail. This town, however, is a savage, animalistic place—a land of dog-eat-dog—where people only look out for their own interests. Nomi learns this immediately, being duped by James, who steals her suitcase after giving her a ride. Undeterred, Nomi sticks to the principles of the American Dream by working hard and wanting her dream badly enough, eventually achieving her goal as a showgirl in a big Las Vegas production. However, Nomi has needed to make many sacrifices to achieve her American Dream: She rejects the help of professional dancer James, who offers to train her. She sleeps with the wealthy Zack, which leads to his offer of an audition for the understudy role in Goddess. She pushes Cristal down the stairs, breaking her hip and ending her career, in order to be promoted to lead in Goddess. The results of Nomi following her American Dream are rejection, exploitative sex, rape and career-ending injury. Finally, she introduces Molly, her only genuine friend, to someone who gang-rapes her. Verhoeven and Eszterhas’s critique of the dog-eat-dog nature of Las Vegas (and by extension, America too) through Nomi’s individualism serves as an allegory for the condemnation of capitalism and the American Dream.
Throughout Showgirls Nomi is called a “whore” multiple times, a branding she always forcefully rejects. The concept of being a whore—not necessarily a prostitute—is raised by Cristal during her lunch date with Nomi, who says “you are a whore, darlin’. We all are. We take the cash, we cash the cheque, we show them what they wanna see”. In the world of Showgirls and Las Vegas, desirable items are constantly for sale: tickets, shows, sex, and dreams. Everyone—except possibly Goddess costume designer Molly—is always selling something. However, it is only the few people at the very top who will benefit in the long term, and they are certainly not getting exploited. These people might be Americans, or they might be from somewhere else (a wealthy group of Japanese businessmen appear in the film), but these uber-rich and powerful people will certainly be capitalists, and they will definitely be men. Showgirls, of course, is a film about men and women, and a world in which the roles and expectations for men and women are completely different to each other. The positions of power—the show directors, the casino owners, the business people—are held by men, whereas women are marginalised. The male-dominated world of the Las Vegas shows are only available to women if they are willing to sell sex and be objectified.
By following her American Dream, Nomi gets corrupted by her immoral surroundings. At an audition for Goddess she draws the attention of the show’s producers because of her responses to their interrogations. Another auditionee is asked for her credentials, to which she gives a list of training classes she has attended, which are not relevant for this position and she gets rejected as a result. However Nomi gives the opposite response—“I haven’t had classes. I’m watching you be a prick” proclaims Nomi proudly, impressing the show’s producers. By adopting this approach, Nomi embraces the aggressive and thick-skinned persona required to survive, as well as demonstrating her naivety to the world she is entering into. This scene suggests that the immoral, voyeuristic and exploitative world of Las Vegas shows do not require useful skills or experiences, they want women who are complicit in their objectification and who are willing to sell sex in the name of making money. Nomi’s transformation from broke but innocent nobody, to (relatively) wealthy and successful star continues further in later scenes. After sleeping with Zack, she is shown replicating his drug use by starting her day by sniffing cocaine. By the time she pushes Cristal down the stairs in order to take her role in Goddess, Nomi’s full transformation is complete: The innocent “white swan” Polly Ann Costello (her former name) has become the “black swan” Nomi Malone.
The relentless and infinite nature of capitalism is shown by newcomer Nomi arriving in Las Vegas and succeeding the older star Cristal. It is suggested that Cristal succeeded her own predecessor in similar circumstances to those which allow Nomi to succeed Cristal, when she says “how do you think I got my first lead?”. The linking of, and then transition between, Cristal and Nomi is suggested in a number of ways. When Nomi initially sees Cristal performing in Goddess, she is star-struck, mimicking Cristal’s dance moves from afar, demonstrating her desire to fill that role. After the show, when Nomi approaches Cristal in her dressing room, both characters are shown in the reflection of a mirror, linking them by being framed as a two-shot together within the reflected image. The mirroring and reinforcement of the visual metaphor of duplication are used again during the scene in which Nomi gives Zack a lap dance. The voyeur in the audience this time is Cristal, who replicates Nomi’s earlier mimicry by acting out the lap dance. Furthermore, mirroring occurs yet again when Cristal is shown receiving a toast by the gleeful owner of the Stardust casino, a scene which is replicated later in the film when Nomi becomes the lead star and receives the owner’s praise. The links between Cristal and Nomi are further visually reinforced during the lunch date scene, with both characters being costumed in black leather jackets, whilst also eating the same food items simultaneously. By using these examples of mirroring and replication—the costumes, mimicking of dances, reflections, two-shot framing, and casino owner’s toast duplication—Showgirls is suggesting that the hegemony, those structures which create the cycle of dreams, exploitation and profit will be uninterrupted, allowing capitalism to prevail.
SHOWGIRLS: A CRITICAL RE-ASSESSMENT
The purpose of this essay has not been to proclaim that Showgirls is a “misunderstood masterpiece”, or to allocate a trivial star-rating, nor to adopt an attitude of “it’s so bad it’s good”. Instead, the intention has been to approach the film with fresh judgement, forgetting the hyperbolic sensationalism which critics seemed so keen to write a quarter of a century ago.
Through the above analysis, it has been argued that Showgirls comments on various aspects of American culture, all have inter-connected associations with one another. The film also demonstrates a consciousness through its self-criticism, and it is through this reading that the audience is implicated in the exploitation, aiding the perpetuation of America’s hegemony, along with the cultures of sexual objectification and commodification of women which permeate the entertainment industries. Verhoeven and Eszterhas are suggesting that what happens in Las Vegas is just an exaggeration of what happens everywhere else in America.
Showgirls should not be criticised for being badly made in terms of its production values. It demonstrates high-quality cinematography, well-choreographed dance routines, as well as excellent costuming, hair and make-up design. Any criticisms of the direction, script or overall purposes of Showgirls are potentially problematic, as perhaps more relevant in that discussion is the consideration of the film’s audience, who were possibly mis-sold the film. In terms of the performances, whilst they understandably did not win awards, the casting choices were astute, particularly Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone.
Verhoeven stated his disappointment at the reception which Showgirls received. In an interview with Linda Ruth Williams for her book on erotic thrillers, Verhoeven said: “Basically to make that movie more successful we should have just had a murder mystery and situated it in Vegas, and it would have been fine” (2005, 175). Perhaps the film was also misunderstood by audiences who were expecting a Basic Instinct-esque thriller from the previously successful writer/director partnership. Showgirls is simply not that film; in every sense, it bares everything, and therefore there is no mystery left to discover. However, in terms of reflecting various aspects of American culture—namely exploitation, the quest for stardom, capitalism and the American Dream—Showgirls can be anything you want it to be.
BIBLIOGRAPHIC REFERENCES (PT.1 AND PT.2)
Barthes, Roland. 1957. Mythologies. Paris: Seuil.
Bonnaud, Frédéric. 2001. “The Captive Lover – An Interview With Jacques Rivette.” SensesOfCinema.com. [interview originally appeared in Les Inrockuptibles, March 25, 1998]
Burch, Noel et al. 2003. “Embarrassing Showgirls.” In Film Quarterly 56(3).
Henderson, Eric. 2004. “Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.” SlantMagazine.com. 18 July 2004.
Howe, Desson. 1995. “Showgirls.” In The Washington Post. September 22, 1995.
Lane, Anthony. 1995. “Showgirls.” In The New Yorker. October 9, 1995.
Maltin, Leonard. 2008. Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide. New York: Penguin.
Maslin, Janet. 1995. “$40 Million Worth of Voyeurism.” In New York Times. September 22, 1995.
Williams, Linda Ruth. 2005. The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Wood, Jennifer. 2015. “Showgirls: Paul Verhoeven on the Greatest Stripper Movie Ever Made.” In Rolling Stone. September 22, 2015.
FILMS REFERENCED (PT.1 AND PT.2)
Lynch, David, dir. 1986. Blue Velvet. Wilmington, NC: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.
Lynch, David, dir. 2001. Mulholland Dr. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures.
Marquand, Richard, dir. 1985. Jagged Edge. Culver City, CA: Columbia Pictures.
Noyce, Phillip, dir. 1993. Sliver. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures.
Verhoeven, Paul, dir. 1987. Robocop. Los Angeles, CA: Orion Pictures.
Verhoeven, Paul, dir. 1990. Total Recall. Culver City, CA: Tristar Pictures.
Verhoeven, Paul, dir. 1992. Basic Instinct. Culver City, CA: Tristar Pictures.
SUGGESTED CITATION: Hobbins-White, Phil. 2020. “Showgirls Comes of Age.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published June 12, 2020.