I don’t recall the exact date when my love of Showgirls turned into an obsession, but I do know I wasn’t alone.
Like many 90s kids, I knew I had seen at least parts of the infamous film, but whether it was a late-night screening of the newly released DVD at a sleepover or glimpses of the nightmare-inducing VH1 edit complete with floating bikinis, I can’t seem to remember.
I remembered images from it, but I knew that I hadn’t really seen it.
That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the film’s legends. It’s “so bad it’s good.” It has a scandalous amount of nudity, most involving the then 23-year-old Elizabeth Berkly of Saved by the Bell fame. Agent Dale Cooper is a creep in it with bad hair, and the Joe Esterhause script is as quotable as it is cringe.
But seeing is believing, and it wasn’t until I watched the movie as an adult that I truly came to appreciate what a special gem Showgirls really is. Because for all of the camp, for all of the thrusting, and for all of the sexy glancing, the one thing that truly sets the film apart is its complete commitment to subverting its genre.
Showgirls is an unparalleled exercise in subversion.
The most subversive pieces of art choose an aspect of storytelling to turn on its head with narrative structure, visual storytelling, or character development being the most common. These films funnel their energy toward the subversive aspect and let the rest of the film act as a counterweight by following traditional movie rules.
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is an antihero at best and a villain at worst, but director Martin Scorsese’s film gets us to care about him because the rest of the film follows a traditional story structure. Whether we condone his actions or not, he’s still our point of view character, and as such, we’re kind of rooting for him. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse leans more experimental, but each choice—from trippy mermaid sequences to shooting on black and white 35mm film—fits together to reassure the audience that there is a method to the madness.
Not so with Showgirls.
Never content to follow in the footsteps of others, Paul Verhoeven’s film doesn’t just subvert one set of expectations. Instead this 90s MGM musical subverts expectations with every scene, every line, and every action. Moments of exposition turn into a chance for characters to scream and throw things. Characters Nomi despised earlier in the film become dear friends just 20 minutes later. Even the much discussed nudity becomes unpalatable as the showgirls flail, kick, and slap their way across the stage.
So why do I say I wasn’t alone when I became obsessed with Showgirls? Well, that might just be the best part of it all. While many films can be enjoyed alone or with a group, movies like Showgirls truly begin to shine when you experience them with others. Sure, you could watch it alone, but it’s not until you turn to your neighbor, look them in the eyes, and confirm that what you’ve seen is actually happening that the magic of Showgirls really begins to reveal itself.
You might not remember the day or the place, but you’ll never forget the night that Nomi sashayed into your mind and changed the way you looked at film forever.
In this series, I’m going to take a deep dive into some of Showgirls most iconic scenes to look at just what makes this movie so special. But I won’t be doing it alone. As I set sail on this sea of naked flesh, ferocious females, and fluorescent neon lights, I’ll be bringing along the movie’s many fans to weigh in on why they love this very special film.
So turn down the lights, put on your best high heels, and leave your inhibitions at the door, because the show is about to begin.