Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Physical Empowerment: Showgirls & Sexual Politics

Women retaking their bodies from the male gaze.

Showgirls was famously misunderstood on its release, interpreted by critics as shameless male fantasy when in reality it's almost the complete opposite. Director Paul Verhoeven is famous for creating satire which embodies the thing it is meant to criticize so precisely that the critique often goes unnoticed. Starship Troopers was also notoriously misunderstood, with most critics missing the way the film attacked the militant jingoism it portrayed. With Showgirls, Verhoeven turns his attention to the entertainment industry and its contradictory exploitation of and dependence upon the female body.

Elizabeth Berkley plays Nomi Malone, a young woman on her way to Las Vegas to become a dancer. Without references or much of a work history to recommend her, she has to start in a strip club where her talent is unappreciated by her audience and her body is objectified by her boss (and, let's face it, probably by the audience too). But she has talent, and more than that, she has an unrefined, soulful energy that gives her dancing something special, something unique to her. Her abilities are eventually recognized by the lead in a local production called Goddess, and she gets an opportunity to join the big leagues. Unfortunately, the more time she spends there, the more it looks like the top isn't much different from the bottom.

The story starts out on a common trajectory: we see our hero at the bottom, and hope for her to get to the top. Nomi starts as a stripper (which, if we didn't assume was the bottom, we figure it out when her boss demands a blow job from a new dancer) and eventually climbs up into the stardom of "real" dancing (with its associated fame and fortune). But once she gets there, we see that the top is actually just as exploitative as the bottom, if not worse. Nomi is still coerced into sexual acts, with the men (and women) around her assuming that, just because she makes money using her body, she is therefore an object to be utilized outside of work by anyone who feels the need.


As her friend tells her, whether she's stripping or on a big production like Goddess, all the audience wants is tits and ass, and at least with stripping they're being honest about their desires. And yet, even though this message is spoken directly in the film, it's easy to miss because of the way Nomi's character interacts with the world. She believes in dancing the way romantics believe in love, and she's willing to do it even if it means showing her body on stage because it's what she wants to do. I can see how easy it is to see this as a movie wanting it have its nude cake and have sex with it too, but for me the nudity was shot in a way that was fundamentally unerotic.

So I can understand that some viewers just didn't "get" it. What I can't understand is how Showgirls was so widely panned when Nomi is such a great character. She's so sincere in her passion for the world that it's impossible not to fall in love with her. All of her emotions play out completely on the surface of her performance not because Berkley is a bad actress, but because that's who her character is. She completely lacks that psychological barrier that prevents people from saying what they mean, and that makes her incredibly endearing. She puts everything up front in such an adorably honest way. I smiled so big every time she got an audition or won the praise of her peers. She's just a lovable person.


Unfortunately for me, it's also in her character when the movie has her take revenge for the abuse done to her best friend. That's totally something I can see her doing, and I understand that thematically the film is trying to portray her as an empowered woman, but it just doesn't work for me. I can even buy into the harassment her friend has to put up with, particularly since it functions so well as a representation of the unspoken violence of the male gaze, but casually glorifying revenge is something I always have trouble investing in emotionally. The moment is definitely earned, so maybe this is my own baggage, but it kept me at a bit of a distance from completely embracing the film.

Still, it took me a while to warm up to Starship Troopers like I have now, so maybe it'll just take a few more viewings for me to fall in love with Showgirls. There was a lot I liked about it this first time through, and I'll definitely be taking up its defense the next time I hear someone attacking it.

Paul Verhoeven | Girl Power
Tell Me What to Watch Again! #8

PS. This has to be one of the weirdest films to double feature with Shame, which I watched yesterday. Sexuality first as male impotence, now as female empowerment. Such a weirdly serendipitous pairing.

PPS. "But I do wonder as a third-wave feminist if it's even possible for women to reclaim their sexuality in this deeply entrenched patriarchal society, or if claiming to do so is just a lie we tell ourselves so we can more comfortably cater to the male gaze."

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