Why Paul Verhoven’s "Showgirls" is the satire we want, deserve and NEED (Maybe)

Written by: Lillith Sinclair

Tell me there is such a thing as Santa Claus. Let me know that honey badgers tap dance. Indulge me on how we all have black holes in our room to account for all of our missing underpants. You can tell me any of these things and I will be inclined to believe them. What I would not believe is that you told me that Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven’s infamous 1995 so-called ‘erotic thriller’ is not a satire. It absolutely has to be. Verhoeven has made a sizeable filmography that focuses around the quirks, differences and absurdities of Western culture and its people. Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man all have elements which thumb the nose at the ideals, expectations, pressures and concerns society puts upon those who live within it’s confines. To me, ‘Showgirls’ is no exception. Yes, I am well aware Mr. Verhoeven himself has stated that he was confounded about how his film was not taken seriously, but I think it is all part of an elaborate ruse that he has retained over the years. He wants us to figure out that ‘Showgirls’ is him taking the royal mickey out of fame and the people who are shackled down by it’s elongated, poisonous claws. Why? Allow me to explain.

It satarizes sexual objectification

This is the biggest element a lot of the film’s detractors took issue with upon its release. Make no mistake, there are thousands of pounds of X-chromosome flesh on show in this movie, but the core element is, once you get your first few doses of Elizabeth Berkley and co. in the buff, you practically become desensitized to it. The amount in nudity in this film is overwhelming, not because it’s erotic, but because it’s quite the opposite. The way their bodies are filmed, Verhoeven is making a blunt statement that female flesh, any flesh when thrown around so liberally and with no regard for human connection, comes off as the equivalent of seeing an inanimate statue in a museum. You may marvel at its beauty, but there is no sense of interpersonal desire. They are just there to be looked at and commoditized solely based on the value of their appearance. In the famous scene where Cristal Connors (the fabulous Gina Gershon) and Nomi Malone (Berkley), Cristal blatantly tells it how it is in showbiz.

Cristal Connors: You have great tits. They're really beautiful.
Nomi Malone: Thank you.
Cristal Connors: I like nice tits. I always have, how about you?
Nomi Malone: I like having nice tits.
Cristal Connors: How do you like having 'em?
Nomi Malone: What do you mean?
Cristal Connors: You know what I mean.
Nomi Malone: I like having them in a nice dress, or a tight top.
Cristal Connors: Mmmm. You like to show ‘em off.
Nomi Malone: I didn't like showing them off at the Cheetah.
Cristal Connors: Why not? I liked lookin' at 'em there. We ALL liked lookin' at 'em there!
Nomi Malone: It made me feel like a hooker.
Cristal Connors: You *are* a whore, darlin'.
Nomi Malone: No I'm not!
Cristal Connors: We all are. We take the cash, we cash the check, we show 'em what they wanna see.
Nomi Malone: Maybe YOU are a whore, Cristal, but I'm not.
That in a nutshell explains one of the central notions of sexual objectification- it’s not about the desire to interact or to know a person as a thinking, feeling human being, but as a piece of profit.

 The absurdity of competition and fame

There is a difference between a friendly rivalry between mutual, well-balanced individuals and then there is cutthroat one-upmanship. Or womanship in this case. The main point of this is the dynamic between Nomi and Cristal. Cristal is the Queen Bee (not the same as Queen Bea) who IS the show. She knows how the business works and will do anything to stay on top. Nomi, who starts at the bottom realises that she must be a beast if she wants to achieve her goal of being the headlining act in ‘Goddess’, and thus becoming a famous face, all of which amounts to her pushing Cristal down a flight of backstage stairs after a performance. When Cristal is wheeled away to hospital in a gurney out of the Stardust, Nomi has a look of cold triumph when she sees her main threat being taken out of the picture. However, with this attitude comes a massive price- Nomi has had to sacrifice any common decency she originally had (yes, ha-ha, what common decency would that be?) and has had to put her own virtues on the backburner (again, ha-ha). It all comes back to bite her when her past is revealed thanks to Zack Carey and some of his cohorts digging up the bones of Nomi’s life before she came to Las Vegas- in short she was a drugged-up prostitute who came from a broken home with multiple past offenses. When Zack whales on her, she spits “I did what I had to!” All Nomi has known during her life is that in order to survive you have to steamroll everybody who get in your way no matter what the cost.

 Conformity will always be a part of your life no matter how individual you think you are

This is more of a home truth than a strictly satirical element, but regardless of who you are and what you do in life, chances are somebody before you has done it. Now, that is not to say you are doing it the absolute same as them, but humanity is at a point now that nothing is absolutely, soul-blindingly original. One way or another, we are all going to homogenously follow an element in our existence and we will never be able to break its hold. We may have better variations, but they will always be based on an older blue print that germinated the idea. And you know what? That’s okay. There is nothing wrong with being unoriginal so long as you put your very own personal statement in it. Brown rice and vegetables are the token staple of a Vegas showgirl diet, but Nomi says “Fuck that” and stuffs her face with burgers, fries and soda. I’m fairly certain this character trope has been done numerous times in the past, but the character of Nomi is so…SINGULAR despite her unoriginality that is brings home the fact that just because you didn’t do it first doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.

 It emphasizes the importance of being a good person

Let’s face it- almost every character in ‘Showgirls’ is a reprehensible, fabulous arsehole. All of them are nasty, terrible human beings with filthy attitudes and a myopic world view that only includes themselves and nobody else. The only truly character in this movie is Molly, the lovely young Stardust seamstress who took Nomi in even though when she first met the irate blonde when she was abusing the ba-ba-booey out of Molly’s car. Molly is a kind, sympathetic and reasonable individual who does honest work in an honest manner. She is not at the top of the food chain, not yet, but she knows the value of hard work rather than fucking everybody over. She is an honourable human being who does not deserve the horrible fate that befalls her in the last section of the movie and when it does, we feel no contempt, but sympathy. I won’t argue the entire sequence is COMPLTELY mishandled (rape scenes should always be treated with some degree of maturity and sensitivity), but it’s enough to make you flinch from the trauma she suffers and not just from the laugh-inducing film making. What’s all the more heart-breaking is that although Nomi beats the SHIT out of Molly’s rapist, the poor girl still does not receive the closure she deserves.

 There is more to business than show business

Although Showgirls is positively laden with rib monkeys, rumps and roo-roos, an interesting element of the film comes from the politics that run through the veins of entertainment. A lot of it is heavily exaggerated for the benefit of entertainment, but we get to see how the bigwigs treat the performances they manage. It is all money to them and they take their positions (ha ha) very seriously. The character of Tony Moss states as clear as day that ‘Goddess’ profits from how the players present themselves in terms of appearance and talent. He has a very particular set of rules because he knows what sells and what does not. During Nomi’s first big audition for the show, Moss dismisses half of the dancers before they even get the opportunity to show what they can do in choreography. Here’s an example from the clip below.

Those who run ‘Goddess’ and the Stardust are in the business of making a profit, and almost all of them wield a halfway clinical point of view in order to keep the cash rolling in and keeping their corporate professions above water. Although they resort to morally questionable tactics (i.e. Essentially pimping out their dancers to sleep with investing clients which Nomi finds out at a ‘boat show’ where she and another female dancer perform), it’s not about desire for them- it’s all about making it rain and reaping in that sweet cheddar for them to grow fat on.

 It pokes fun at the ‘hysterical female’ conversation

Showgirls is positively littered with dialogue that reeks of over ripe gourd and monkey faeces, but I feel it was made that way for a reason. Considering the ratio of female characters far out-weigh the ratio of male players, I feel Verhoeven was actually ribbing on the misogynistic view of how women converse. At The Cheetah where Nomi works to get by, we are privy to all manner of conversations between the female dancers regarding health, hygiene, period and pregnancy. These topics feature a lot in legitimate romantic comedies aimed toward women, you know, the over-saccharine, insultingly simple type of film where the gorgeous girl doesn’t know how gorgeous she is until she meets a guy who she thinks is way out of her bounds (or she out of his) until she realises that they were just MADE to be together. Verhoven takes this approach, slaps it across the face and presents it in a stark, hilarious fashion that you can’t help but laugh at. I don’t think I have ever spoken about JUST those four topics with my girlfriends, in fact, I can’t think of any woman I have met who spends all day focusing on those four sole elements. To go a little further, you could perhaps say this was Verhoven cocking an eyebrow at writer Joe Eszterhas’s sloppy writing of female characters were and deciding to throw it back at him in the way he knew best.

 It shows exploitation for what it truly is

Which would be precisely that- exploitation. Exploitation abides in the basic idea that sensationalism creates interest, suggesting human beings have the attention spans of goldfish. One way or another, society and its commanders influence how they want us to think and it is through exploitation they do so. When we see newspapers, they tend to have incendiary headlines talking about terrorism plots, scenes of bombastic violence, enormous controversy and almost ridiculous circumstances. The things that truly matter get regaled to small print and thus are not immediately recognized. It’s a sad truth and Verhoeven savagely takes advantage of this by exposing us to copious nudity, sexual activity, profanity and horrendous acts of violence. We know how absurd it is, but we can’t stop looking because our brains have been trained to respond to this. He is not entirely blaming us, but he isn’t exactly patting our heads and saying “There, there” either.

I could perhaps go on forever about how scathing and clever this film is because I feel it presents a lot of valid points that has come to be expected from Verhoeven’s expansive and explosive filmography. Dare I say, I think this film should continue to dig deeper into the circles of media study because there is so much to unpack and appreciate…

Or perhaps I’m fooling myself and this is just a sensationally terrible film.

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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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