I finally got the opportunity, if it can be so called, to watch Showgirls last night. My very limited knowledge of this movie was limited to 1. its being unstoppably awful, and 2. its being a cult classic, especially admired by the drag queen set. My boyfriend has a habit of having the TV on all the time – a habit I do not share – and decided to select this cinematic gem from On Demand to watch while we sat and did work.
My boyfriend’s wife and I sat there with our laptops, she cruising LiveJournal or FetLife, me attempting to write a very serious blog post about race play. But to no avail: however many times our jaws dropped at the incredible shitpile that is this film, however many snarky remarks we made about the Z-movie dialogue, we could not take our fucking eyes off this movie. It’s like a train wreck with tits. Lots and lots of tits.
I poked at my computer. I wrote some desultory emails and tried to find good news coverage of the Craigslist murder. But my eyes just kept wandering upward, to gaze once more on the marvel of horrid dancing, plastic nudity, and bad sex. It was mesmerizing.
I looked at IMDB just to get some info to write this review, and got sucked into the user comments. Some of my favorite lines:
“[I]t’s the kind of world where we, the audience, are expected to be emotionally invested in the trials and tribulations of a knife-wielding, doggy chow-eating, bipolar crack-whore with aspirations to radically improve her life by becoming a titty dancer.”
“If I remember correctly, Joe Esterhaus [sic] was paid a ridiculous amount of money for the screenplay for this film. As penance for creating this abomination, he should be required to wander the earth, giving money to anyone who sat through it.”
“I guess that Joe [Eszterhas] and I must have different ideas about female empowerment because his idea seems to be to portray women as hookers, strippers, killers and raging lesbian predators (anything outside those four categories and they’re fishfood). He apparently thinks that their best activities for empowerment are knives, lesbianism, sex for cash, violence and nasty sneers.”
That last quotation struck me especially, since I agree with the sentiment that creating female characters that are just as violent, vindictive, petty and power-hungry as the male characters does not a feminist movie make. However, I am curious about the complexity of the empowerment (or disempowerment) of sex workers, and the complicated yet ham-fisted way in which this film treats it. It’s one of my pet peeves when people – especially sex workers themselves – put sex work in a hierarchy of legitimacy: “Oh, I’m a dominatrix – I’d never be a prostitute, or, “She’s not a real domina, she’s just a stripper with a whip.” Well, what’s wrong with being a stripper, or a prostitute for that matter?
A good friend of mine, years ago, told me that if I was going to do this work, I’d have to accept that I was a sex worker. I tried on that moniker and found I didn’t mind it. While I personally would never be able to have “actual sex” for money, I respect those women and men who can and do. And I accept that what I do is a kind of sex for money, though I don’t have what the law calls sexual contact with my clients. For me to look down on strippers or escorts would be hypocrisy of the highest order.
This film, in the midst of all its other faults, manages to bungle this one as well. It attempts to glorify the main character’s goal to become a dancer (why she didn’t move to New York instead is a total mystery), and in spite of the horrid audition process, clearly sees dancing in a topless hotel show as a big step up from doing nude lapdances at a strip club. Yet the one thing the main character, Nomi, will not “stoop to” is whoring. When Gina Gershon (the only character in the whole damn thing with no illusions, and who plays her role with relish) tries to prove to Nomi that she is a whore – not because she literally has sex for money but because she sells her sexuality – she will have none of it. A nude lapdance to climax for $500 is one thing; fucking for cash is quite another.
Now granted, since the movie is so blantantly awful, it’s hard to tell exactly the point that is being made. That Nomi, in spite of being a sociopathic screwball who steps on everybody who gets in her way, is still redeemable because at least she doesn’t fuck for money? That she is actually a whore and that makes her, and everyone else in the film, part of a huge, corrupt, horrible industry? Or the old saw that every sex worker is actually a victim of a male-dominated system that seeks to chew up the best part of your life and them spit you out – to hell if you survive or not?
It’s kinda hard to tell.
But wait, there’s more.
- The rape scene. OMG the rape scene. I could forgive almost everything in this movie up to this point as over-the-top camp, complete with catfights, casual sexual harrassment, horrifying lapdances, and women throwing shiny marbles on the floor for fellow dancers to slip on. But when one of the only African-American characters in the movie, and possibly the only sympathetic character, gets brought to a room and gets beaten and gang-raped – and yes, we have to endure the entire scene – that’s where the whole thing falls off the cliff.
-The “eroticized” bad stuff. There is scene after scene in this movie where the corruption, misogyny, backstabbing and general horror of Vegas is meant to be revealed, in some sort of pastiche of the “corruption of the innocent in the name of fame” theme. The result of these scenes is doubleplusungood: first of all, each scene is played slow, for the greatest possible erotic effect. Witness the scene where the director tells Nomi to put ice on her nipples to make them perky for the dance number. The whole thing, meant to invoke disgust, succeeds admirably not by actually making it uncomfortable, but by attempting to eroticize the moment and yet managing to make it entirely unsexy.
Which brings me to my next point:
-The general unsexiness. Oh dear gods, is this movie the opposite of hot. Cold, clinically gyrating robot-girls. Ridiculous costumes. Horrific sex scenes. So much nudity that it loses all novelty and appeal. There is a continuous debate amidst the user comments on IMDB as to whether the movie is intentionally bad, intentionally funny, a satire, and so on. This is one instance in which I may agree: if you’re going to make a satire about the merciless world of Las Vegas showbiz, it might as well be completely unarousing.
There are a million more things I could say about how the idea that this is a depiction of female empowerment is a huge steaming pile of fail, how sad I was to see my secret boyfriend Kyle MacLachlan starring in this piece of trash, and how unfunny even some of the moments that were supposed to be funny were. But I don’t feel like wasting even more hours on this crap.
Instead I’ll just finish with the main thought I kept having every time the luminous Gina Gershon appeared on screen.
Now if only her character, instead of a creepy, predatorily bisexual “star” trying to drag a young fresh piece of meat down to her level, were actually a nurturing dominant woman seeking to mentor her replacement using the model of leather D/s…ooo, now that’s a movie I ‘d pay to watch. I’m just damn glad I didn’t lay out any money for this one.
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