Lights, Camera, ACTION: “Showgirls”

I was 10 when “Showgirls” strutted into theaters, tits perked, bedazzled and bewigged. And because I watched “Saved By the Bell” on occasion and had caught wind of Elizabeth Berkley’s proto-Miley turn to the naughty, I was curious — especially because kid Rachel wasn’t sure what “naughty” meant outside the context of elementary school discipline. But of course I didn’t bother asking to see it; after all, it bore a prohibitory, if tantalizing, NC-17 rating. And because my personal road to hell is paved with the movies I didn’t see and books I never managed to read, I might have—had it not been for this column—spent the rest of my days meaning to see “Showgirls” and never quite getting to it. Thankfully I have a job to do, and so here we are.

Oftentimes when we talk about “Showgirls,” we talk about camp — and how could we not? The film serves as a perfect accompaniment to Susan Sontag’s foundational text on the concept. It’s earnestly theatrical and ambitiously extravagant. It privileges, as Sontag says, “style over content.”

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Granted, “earnest” does not necessarily apply to every cast member’s performance. Gina Gershon revealed in 2012 that, upon arriving on set, she immediately detected the film’s absurdity and played the role of sexually fluid diva Cristal Connors accordingly. And learning that she was in on the joke is rather a bummer; after all, intentional camp is not nearly so fun. But Elizabeth Berkley? Kyle MacLachlan? As writer Simon Doonan told Rich Juzwiak at Gawker, “the fascinating thing is that they all concur that while they were making the movie, they thought they were just making a really dramatic film about Vegas.”

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I’m delighted by this information because it implies that both Berkley and MacLachlan performed their characters’ sexual interlude and the twisted, transient romance that emerges without irony. Because I defy anyone to claim greater coital finesse than Nomi Malone, thrashing her body like the basket of French fries she so viciously abuses at the start of the film. Earnest sex is unselfconscious sex, which means that if we’re genuinely enjoying ourselves, we probably look like idiots.

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When camp and sexuality meet, we’re forced to acknowledge that we all fail at fucking — at least in terms of delivery. Perhaps we fail spectacularly, like Nomi writhing against the side of the pool, and perhaps the pleasure of it overwhelms us. But sex means simultaneously dwelling in our bodies and forgetting our selves. It means the willingness to be foolish, clumsy, and sloppy.

And yet, when we consider Nomi’s character we cannot regard the sexual encounter with Zack as a mere, unmediated outpouring of desire. Zack, of course, desires Nomi, but this longing originates from hedonistic impulse and a variety of misogyny that propels him to collect pussy like Porsches. The marble dolphins ejaculating water into his luxury pool lay bare his sole object of worship, and it is unsurprisingly attached to his own body.

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Nomi, meanwhile, seeks to please her new lover. She performs underwater fellatio—UNDERWATER FELLATIO!—which I can only assume stems from an urge to demonstrate one’s talents (like, say, not drowning whilst giving head) and maximal erotic excitement. But once Zack has finished with pouring a $200 bottle of champagne on Nomi’s breasts and the two get down to business, Nomi’s countenance no longer registers as playful and aroused. Hoisted onto Zack’s hips, her legs cleaved to his sides, she executes with great solemnity the undulating grind marking the grand finale of her signature lap dance — the same lap dance she performs for Zack earlier in the film (below). The sole point of differentiation: this time, Nomi allows herself to be both touched and penetrated.

Someone once showed me a YouTube clip of this sex scene without providing context and, because the spirit of a 12-year-old boy is strong in me, I dissolved into giggles (I have also not watched a video of myself mid-coitus in some time, so I’ve had the opportunity to forget just how graceful I look). Sex à la salmon-flopping around a boat deck? What fun! So when I watched the film in its entirety I eagerly awaited Nomi and Zack’s dalliance, prepared with rosé in hand to laugh anew.

But this time, despite Nomi’s cries of pleasure, the twists and turns of her body seemed more than anything a somber echo. Let me be clear: my grave reaction had nothing to do with Nomi’s chosen profession; it does not trouble me that Nomi’s consensual intercourse mimics a lap dance. It troubles me that she did not want to perform that particular lap dance, that she was compelled by her boss and manipulated by Cristal. And while perhaps Nomi turns to this choreography because she believes it will give her pleasure, her face betrays the expression of a professional doing a job. It may be that Nomi knows of no other way to make love — and that the men she has encountered have not been the sorts to prioritize a female partner’s sexual enjoyment.

The specter of rape looms large in “Showgirls” until, of course, director Paul Verhoeven makes the ill-conceived decision to incorporate an actual—and extremely brutal—rape scene. We don’t need to see Nomi’s best friend beaten and viciously violated to understand that the men of the Vegas entertainment scene are scum. Nor do we need to be reminded of the cruelty any woman can experience at the hands of a man. It is stitched into Nomi’s personality — her skittishness, her impatient temper. Though she attempts to annihilate it, she wears her aching history each time she slips into her rage. She has had reason to defend herself before. Her fury belongs to a woman who understands that men wield too much power in this world, and she can only just cooperate until it sickens her. For this reason (among superficial others), I appreciate Berkeley’s clunky bombast, her inability to convey nuance. Sometimes I am most inspired by a woman who conceals everything but her rage.

But I would not sign off with the intimation that “Showgirls” is a tragedy, for it absolutely is not. Camp, after all, is never tragic, though it may appeal to pathos. Despite rising to fame in Las Vegas, Nomi skips town after walloping her friend’s rapist to a bloody pulp and, more fundamentally, deciding that she can no longer participate in a show engineered by male lust and corruption. Her last moments in town are devoted to bidding her friend farewell and reaching an understanding with Cristal. By the time the credits roll, men provide Nomi with just one solitary thing: a cheap ride out of Vegas.

Each month in Lights, Camera, ACTION, Rachel Vorona Cote chooses an erotic scene from film or television and walks you through its quirks and kinks, particularly as they pertain to female lived experience.

Rachel Vorona Cote is a contributor and columnist at Jezebel, but she has a tendency to write all over the Internet. You can find her on Twitter here.