‘Showgirls’ and the Panopticon of Patriarchy

Showgirls (1995). Nomi, a blonde white woman and Las Vegas showgirl, sits at a dressing table in front of a large mirror with light bulbs around the edge. She wears a pink robe over a transluscent glittery body suit, studying her reflection. The desk is littered with makeup and tissues and photographs.
United Artists

There is essentially no way one can look at Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 film Showgirls without considering the repercussions it had on the careers of those involved. In particular, the lead Elizabeth Berkley was dropped by her agent after its release and other agents refused to take her calls. This is typical of a long-standing tradition in Hollywood where women displaying nudity and sexuality on screen are punished more harshly than the likes of male sexual abusers, who tend to get countless opportunities to star or direct even when their allegations come to light. The near-ritualistic punishment of female sexuality in the film industry does not stop at Hollywood, another example being Canadian actress Sook-Yin Lee nearly being fired from her job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation due to her partaking in unsimulated sex scenes in the film Shortbus, a serious and non-exploitative examination of the way sex intersects with aspects of community. Showgirls was spawned from a culture which punishes female sexuality and confines it to the margins, putting male pleasure at the forefront regardless of consent, so naturally the response to it reading this culture for what it is would be a continuation of that culture.

The stigmatisation and hatred of sex workers is one rooted in a deeply irrational misogyny: the men who consume free pornography for their sexual pleasure will shame women for making money from sex work, which displays a deep-rooted and crassly entitled cultural notion that women’s pleasure of men should be a matter of fact, and that any attempt at monetising this objectification, of the woman gaining more materially from the experience than the man, is an aberration. Showgirls dares to ask what exactly counts as “sex work” under patriarchy, since in any media industry that creates material for male consumption, there will often be the aspect of the female performer having to sexualise herself. There are many rungs of occupation in the film: the strip club which Nomi (Berkley) initially works at; the more elaborate stage shows she strives for; and the Hollywood stardom that the characters are in constant close proximity to yet never experience, which also works on a metatextual level since the entire film is a Hollywood production so every action taken is informed by this. Characters have a sense of elitism depending on which of these occupations they find themselves in, denigrating those not making as much money for being “whores” despite the fact that they do the same as those they look down upon but on a bigger stage and to a larger audience. Showgirls posits the imagined difference between a “whore” and a showgirl as being one rooted in classism and sexism, that both deprecates sexualised labour by women as a whole due to the misogynistic notion that sex is something men are entitled to, and also deems sexualised labour as something that can inherently only gain value if it produces a large salary and is engaged with by a certain kind of person with more social and literal capital.

Showgirls (1995). Nomi, a blonde white woman stands on the side of a highway, her thumb stuck out to gesture that she wants to hitch a ride. She wears a shiny zebra-print shirt unbuttoned almost to her waist, and a black cowboy hat. She has a bag slung over her shoulder.
United Artists

Showgirls understands the nature and conditionality of consent and how it intersects with sex work, as too many believe that any kind of unwanted sexual advance is simply “part of the territory” of sexualised labour, a notion which contributes heavily to rape culture and men’s envisioning of women as commodities. Nomi is portrayed as comfortable with performing suggestive routines and even lap dances at strip clubs and stage shows, but draws a fine line when any man who has appointed himself as “in charge” conducts himself in a manner that is non-cognisant of her humanity and consent. These violations of consent, that range in magnitude from objectifying comments to rape, occur more frequently the more the protagonists interact with characters of palpable power and wealth. The text of the film evidently displays that this egocentric masculinity that any woman in proximity to stardom has to constantly contend with is specifically driven by the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, in which male predators will specifically seek out those who they see as subordinate in terms of both gender and class. To add to this, the fact that so many of these predatory characters have wormed their way into positions of leadership adds a third layer of subordination to the women who have to face their abuse, one of occupation. Clearly, it is predicated by Showgirls that the American Dream is an androcentric, white, cisheteronormative dream; the dream of the abuser who wishes to live in a state of perpetual absolution, who wishes to make a leap from the marginalised to the marginaliser.

It goes without saying that Showgirls is a product of patriarchy, but no more so than any other Hollywood movie is – even films created by women within this system are filtered by male producers to better fit normative ideals, an example being Julie Taymor’s Frida, upon which Harvey Weinstein insisted on Taymor adding more sex scenes to the final cut, as well as creating a larger focus on Kahlo in terms of her relationship to Diego Rivera, rather than to herself and her art. However, Showgirls is unique in that it is unapologetically a Hollywood exploitation film, instead of a Hollywood exploitation film pretending to be an Oscar-ready biopic or a melodrama or a cautionary tale. The film plays as more of an acidic death rattle than a narrative feature; viciously throwing signifiers of the musical, the rags-to-riches narrative, the rise-and-fall narrative, the erotic thriller, and even the queer film at a wall until they split open and bleed into one another, creating something that feels as if it exists both purposefully and accidentally, something that feels as if it exists both of its own volition and by means of tight control. An outsider’s view of the blockbuster; it taunts the viewer who expects a titillating spectacle through the aspect of the nude scenes being filtrated through camera angles that are above all ambivalent at the proceedings, largely wide shots. Any sexualisation is strictly employed through the routines themselves, and images of the audience engaging in their own objectifying comments and gazes fill the spaces where the camera would typically objectify; in turn our perceptions of our engagement with this material are shifted from passive to active – the viewer is asked whether they are an observer or a voyeur by the question of whether they have a more visceral, offended response to the sexuality of the dance routines or the reductive manner in which the men in the audience perceive them.

‎Showgirls (1995). Nomi, a blonde white woman with her hair curled, hangs from a pole during a performance, one of her legs stretched into the air. She is wearing a red lacy outfit with a black trim, and heavy makeup.
United Artists

The heterosexual sex act in Showgirls is an exclusively transactional one; there are only two instances of sexual activity in an entire film motivated by the politics of sexuality and visibility, and both are between Nomi and a higher-up named Zack (Kyle MacLachlan) in order to secure positions and roles slightly easier. These scenes are comically stilted and convulsive, a pantomime of heterosexuality rather than a display of it, which is contrasted by the manner in which every interaction between women is coated heavily in suggestions of latent lesbian desire, a desire they are systemically blocked from exploring to its fullest extent due to the fact that their ability to subsist themselves depends on the routinisation of their performing for men. The poolside gyrations of Nomi and Zack can be laughed off, but the final, complicated kiss between Nomi and Cristal (Gina Gershon) lingers, even though a culture that imposes constructs of virginity and “bases” of intimacy would deem the latter to be of far less importance. The notion of an idealised, universal womanhood is called into question as a whole by Showgirls, which links dysphoria and performance of femininity since both have to be mediated through the male gaze in order to have a socially-accepted form. 

A concept by social theorist Jeremy Bentham of an “ultimate” prison structure known as the panopticon is relevant to how Showgirls portrays the patriarchy: it is, in design, a rotunda of prison cells with an inspection house at the centre, from which the prison guard(s) can surveil all the prisoners. The prisoners cannot all be watched at the same time, but due to the fact that any of them could theoretically be under surveillance at any point based on what the panopticon structure allows, they are compelled to regulate their own behaviours as if this was the case. Many 20th century theorists metaphorised the panopticon, Michel Foucault stating that it should not be seen as a building but as a mechanism of power and social control in any environment. In terms of Showgirls and the facets of culture that it comments on, patriarchy is posited as a panopticon that enmeshes women in varying states of surveillance and punishment in order to compel them to perform a model femininity at all times, one that does not threaten existing power structures. In spaces where women would typically have each other’s backs as a survival method, the use of the panopticon as a means of behavioural regulation breaks apart these mechanisms of solidarity and instead leads to infighting, because as established through disciplinary routine, attempts at organisation are surveilled. 

Showgirls (1995). Cristal, a brunette white woman in her early thirties, reclines on a chair in the dressing room, a cigarette holder in her hand. She wears a feathery purple top and has immaculate makeup. She looks intrigued, regarding something out of the frame.
United Artists

Artifice as a narrative and didactic tool has a pivotal place in Showgirls, shining a light on its commentary on Hollywood by making the viewer constantly aware that they are watching a film. This artifice is achieved through exaggeration of every aspect, from the acting to the sets, an opposite form of distancing device to Brecht’s austere minimalism but one that politicises the frame to an equal extent. However, the seemingly hyperbolic and brash nature of the film is bristling with irony in that it is far from an unrealistic look at the manner in which materialistic cultures found in places such as Vegas and Hollywood operate, and as such may be the only way to do justice to what lies there. Another example of a film that uses aspects of camp and signifiers of “baser” entertainment such as pornography within the traditional structure of an epic, therefore denaturing it, is Caligula, a film that has its commentary on precarity of leadership and decadence strengthened by the fact that its production history is a perfect example of what is at its thematic core. The gleeful opulence on show in both films does battle with their disturbing displays of misogyny, implying that capitalist patriarchy cannot have one without the other, that it must have a permanent underclass to continue its yield. A work which parallels Showgirls in how it illustrates the idea of “accepted oppressions” in order for a subset of the population to live fruitfully is Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, which maps out a utopian society, but one whose prosperity depends on the endless suffering of one child. The majority of the population of Omelas know this but see it as a fair price to pay for the sake of their own happiness, whereas there are a few that, titularly, walk away. Nobody knows where they go, but they do walk away.

Showgirls’ Vegas operates on Omelas’ principle too, as the road to the big leagues is paved with the notion of becoming directly complicit in gendered violence, and upon bearing witness to this violence at its most inhumane perpetuated against the person she cares about the most, Nomi too chooses to walk away. We, as viewers, do not know where she chooses to go either, or what space the world will have for somebody like her, but the ouroboric, cyclical structure of Showgirls’ opening and closing scenes, in which Nomi hitches a ride with the same driver, indicate some level of recursion, that she will again see dreams deferred by the panopticon of patriarchy – but maybe she is going somewhere better. It’s always good to look, regardless.

Of all the guys and the signori / who will write my story?

Karin Dreijer

by Christie Evelyn

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