In Defense of Showgirls

Time hasn’t been kind to Showgirls. Decried on release as one of the worst films of its year (and subsequently, its decade) at the Golden Raspberry awards, and actively ignored at the box office, the vitriol that it generated back in 1995 only seems to have built momentum as time has passed.

Searching online, it’s hard to find a ‘worst films’ or ‘biggest flops’ list that doesn’t include Showgirls, often citing little more than the dull mathematics of its commercial failure to justify continued scorn. Even at its most revered it only seems to have found reprieve as a ‘bad-good’ cult classic: a second-spot on the ironic matinee under the likes of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room; watched at a distance and appreciated only for its worst qualities.

If appearances are anything to go by, Showgirls might just be one of the worst films ever made.

Showgirls 4Admittedly I don’t know the exact circumstances that led to Showgirls’ continued status as a terrible film above all others, but I’d imagine they’re based more in internet hyperbole rather than any substantiated criticism. Far from being the worst film ever made, I’d venture to argue that it’s a great film in its own right.

Appropriately, it’s a film about false appearances. A knowingly sleazy traipse into the life of a female cabaret dancer in Las Vegas, Showgirls is an obnoxious and loud exploration of the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ school of show business, with particular sights set on the two-faced nature of celebrity, and the sacrifices contingent to commercial success. It’s a parody of human excess, delivered from within the belly of the beast, one that goes to equal lengths to both endear itself to—and distance itself from—its viewer.

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Although its dramatic beats are laid on thicker, Showgirls bears close resemblance to two films that would come out in the following millennium: American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street. Like Mary Harron’s dry adaptation of the equally dry Bret Easton Ellis novel, or Martin Scorcese’s grandiose portrayal of Wall Street stockbrokers, Showgirls doesn’t deal in subtlety, but instead brings its point home and then bulldozes it. In the maximalist tradition, Director Paul Verhoeven probes at the excesses of late-90’s Las Vegas by piling on even more excess.

Lengthy dance routines and strip-teases are laced with fireworks and neon, and every performance seems to end with an overt happy ending or a bloodied body. Showgirls doesn’t operate in fine degrees, nor does it necessarily desire to, but instead opts to consistently pile on dumb, violent, naked spectacle. It’s extremely silly, and it knows it. Take, for example, one of the film’s most enduring moments, a sex scene in a swimming pool in which—after leading Kyle MacLachlan’s token Rich White Man through a kiss-chase in a mansion backed by light-up palm trees—our protagonist chooses to pin him down and flail against him in a sex act closely reminiscent of the death of a dolphin.

Showgirls is melodramatic and fake, and gets away with it because it is as comedic as it is self-serious. There are few ‘jokes’ throughout the film—at large it’s a sombre, downbeat affair— yet it succeeds because of its consistent comedy of escalation; attempting to stage increasingly silly human dilemmas against the backdrop of a city that is clearly to blame.

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Whereas American Psycho finds its comedy in the dry machinations of yuppie culture (as in the famous scene in which its self-obsessed and yet ironically self-less protagonist panics when confronted with a colleagues’ superior business card), and The Wolf of Wall Street finds its own in the grandeur and eccentricity of America’s 1% (as in the ‘dwarf darts’ scene), Showgirls finds its comedy in the camp and kitsch of sleazy show business: the unexpected frankness of sexuality and the carnivalesque convergence of bodily function and status inherent to cabaret.

It’s a film that simultaneously glamorises and admonishes a way of life, painting people who are sexy and strong but also rash, violent, and reactive, all as products of their dominant culture. Our protagonist only learns to hurt others for example, because it’s proven to her that those around her will benefit from it. Accountability is portrayed as more than an individualistic attribute, and this is the strongest element of Showgirls: in portraying the complicated relationship between people and place it eschews binary ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, effectively exposing and targeting the cultures beneath.

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Unfortunately, there are casualties to Verhoeven’s maximalist approach. As with American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street, women characters are frequently victimised, epitomised in a lengthy sequence of assault in the film’s latter half, one that is shot with an unmerciful, and—when held against the rest of the film’s titillation—uncomfortably sexual gaze. The reprisal that follows, on the other hand, a violent act of revenge against the male perpetrator, is held away from the camera’s view. Showgirls only lingers on the suffering of its female characters, and the extent to which this can be justified as a critique of societal misogyny remains up in the air.

This is the film’s biggest problem: ironic representation still requires representation, and two hours of Vegas’ excess can easily become grating. To suggest that this makes for a bad film, however—let alone one of the worst films ever made—does a great injustice to a work that is at once challenging and wryly comedic. There’s an ease to Showgirls’ parody, and a subtlety in its reflections on the natures of exploitation and excess that’s lacking elsewhere, even if it does outstay its welcome.

Ultimately, Showgirls is a flawed experience, and there are myriad reasons why it could persist in the public eye as the ‘worst film ever’. It’s loud, confusing, and oftentimes offensive, sure, but contradictorily, it’s these qualities that break down the binary oppositions that so often stifle films of its scope, and allow it to tell a unique and troubling story. You can’t call its characters ‘good’ or ‘evil’, nor can you pin it down as ‘comedy’ or ‘drama’, and perhaps, in this vein, the film is neither good nor bad, but spectacularly occupies both poles at once.