December 20, 2017
In Walter Benjamin’s essay titled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin expresses his firm bias on how the industrial revolution affected the way the public interacted with art, especially with the introduction of photography and filmmaking. Benjamin argues that the technological reproduction of art taints the original “aura” of the piece. Meaning for example, the electricity generated from the soul of the performer during a live performance is lost when passing through the lens of a machine. He even goes as far as to state that, these and other new methods of mass production such as printing disrupt the fragile relationship between the art and its creator. Benjamin’s strong opinion on this topic evolved from his learned principles of what defines a work of art. Derived from historical influence, he held the strict belief that traditional art is the only acceptable form. Further attacking new media, he suggests that filmmaking creates a spectacle to hold audience interest. To Benjamin, the entire genre of film lacks any real artistic prowess, forcing it all into the genre of tasteless camp. If Benjamin were alive today, he would consider the cult classic Showgirls to be an abomination.
When it comes to this story (and Nomi’s character in particular) it is quite obviously “campy”. The origins of camp often related to the concept of the “closet”. The early instances of the camp genre often reflected the experience of a gay person trying to “pass” in society. The definition of camp as a secret both hidden and exploited is painfully applicable to Nomi Malone. Nomi has a secret within her personality. Her “closet” is filled with her secret past and that her entrance into the town was simply a ploy to try and escape a life of prostitution. Essentially, her secret is that she’s (to use the word the film repeats over and over) a “whore.” Of course by now, the audience isn’t exactly shocked. After two hours of lines like “She looks better than a 10-inch dick, and you know it!” Nomi is barely seen as a human being, let alone a woman with a past. At this point, we point the finger back on ourselves for we’ve been laughing at the travails of a marginalized sex worker. We have become just as bad, if not worse than the villains of the film. Ultimately, the films power as satire relies on the assumption that Nomi’s past as a sex worker is something the mainstream audience would consider shameful and disgusting.
While at times we do cheer for this woman who uses every inch of her body to get ahead, Nomi is no feminist. Multiple times she leaps into the arms of the men who would use her and repeatedly fling the word “whore” in her face. While one can see how a viewer may fall into the common misconception that this film is a feminist tale (due to the fact that she beats up truckers and owns her sexuality), I still find it hard to believe that time film can be considered anything other than misogynistic satire. We know camp and satire are natural, necessary genres that make the art of cinema all the more rich and entertaining. We also know eating salad and quinoa every day is healthy, but sometimes a Twinkie is necessary. Showgirls is the contemporary star of camp, led by, a woman who stands for no value or virtue any woman should ever aspire to. She’s a caricature, saturated with so many femme stereotypes that she transcends them all. It is evident the world of Showgirls hates women. This film is the Twinkie of cinema.
However, to suggest that audiences can’t appreciate the difference between Showgirls and reality is utterly ridiculous. The only truly horrifying part of the film is a raw, gruesome rape scene towards the end. It’s a wonder that scene made it through editing as bloody as it is, even with an NC-17 rating. The choice to not censor this scene once again shows the camp’s lack of respect for women. That being said, we must remember that Verhoeven consciously set out to make a camp film. True, it’s valuable to, at times, look at life with a magnifying glass. To see the real-life issues being jammed through the lens of camp. But, the genre of camp (and its caricature of women), provide a real and crucial service in the entertainment industry. They provide a much needed break from reality. We don’t laugh at Showgirls because we think it’s hilarious to make fun of sex workers. We don’t laugh at Nomi because she’s a stripper and strippers are there to be mocked. We know better. We laugh at it because of the unrealistic filthy language. We laugh at it because Elizabeth Berkley glues tacky sequins on her eyelashes. Five minutes into the film, another character asks her where she’s from and, in what could possibly be the most dramatic reply in cinematic history, she throws a basket of damn French fries. We laugh at Showgirls because it is simply absurd. Movies are often made to impart lessons and incite reflection on our own lives. And, sometimes they’re just for bedazzled hell of it.
The satire in Showgirls, and the intent, can be seen as directed squarely at the viewer. Verhoeven’s film is organized in the tradition of the American success story. An American girl blows into town with a dream to make it big, and she succeeds (while losing her soul). However, the way she makes it big is through the secret fact that she is an object for sale. Therefore, the implication is that the American success fantasy and America itself are both a farce. To know what is in the closet is to be implicated in the closet. As queer theorist Eve Sedgwick has argued, “it takes one to know one”. That means that all the characters in the film (Cristal, Zach, and the men drooling over Nomi) are no better than Nomi herself. They too are the whores, selling themselves, their bodies, and their souls for money and power. How else could they recognize her? And again, for those of us sitting there watching the NC-17 film and giggling at Nomi’s crass, sexualized performance…well, what are we? When we laugh at the film, or see ourselves as better than the film, aren’t we just like Nomi, pretending to be better than she is, while reveling in what she really is?
Showgirls brings up another question. Why do women find power in their nudity? Does the power of nudity come from the subconscious notion to cater to the male gaze? Many believe a woman’s empowerment comes from the feeling of being desired by men, making them a “hot commodity”, thus boosting their self-confidence. This theory asserts that female objectification is so ingrained in our society that even works of “female empowerment” are deeply derived from the social construct of the male gaze. With 24/7 availability of video media young women may repeatedly receive the wrong message. All from films which are supposedly about female empowerment. Adolescent girls may begin to believe the harmful notion that all of their idols use their bodies to gain notoriety and male attention, so they should too.
The American Psychological Association found that girls experience real emotional and cognitive declines from female sexualization, performing worse on math tests when they feel sexualized, and experiencing anxiety, shame, and self-disgust. Girls who are exposed to narrow ideals of femininity and female attractiveness are more likely to have eating disorders; links have also been made to depression and low self-esteem. They are more likely to believe sexual stereotypes about women and think that a woman’s greatest assets are her looks. Girls who self-objectify — that is, who believe that their own value or “empowerment” comes from their physical appearance and from being sexy — have poorer sexual health outcomes: They are more likely to be sexually assertive and report lower rates of condom usage, which means they often end up worse off health-wise even into adulthood. Ultimately, the flashy parade of “faux-sexual empowerment” is doing more harm than good.
The philosophy that sexual empowerment can do more harm than good is evident in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931). The film illustrates the construct of the Madonna and the Whore by placing the main character between a “good girl” and a “bad girl”. This version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was, of course, produced in the middle of what is called the “pre-code era”, although that is actually something of a misnomer. The Motion Picture Production Code had been introduced in the late twenties in response to public outcry against the so-called “immorality” of the movies. The code forbid “morally inacceptable” displays. In theory, the Code restricted the inclusion of extreme or immoral material in mainstream filmmaking. However, not until 1934, was the code backed up by the big stick of the absolute requirement for an official “Seal Of Approval”. So, for the most part, as long as a filmmaker could secure the co-operation of their studio heads, they could and did ignore it. This produced a slew of films that dealt with soon-to-be-taboo subject matters and themes including explicit violence, unpunished crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and above all, sex.
This is not to say that films of this era used explicit language, or contained graphic sex scenes (although you could get away with a quick flash of nudity, as seen in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). While not necessarily promoting sex out of marriage, films of this era did accept the fact that it existed, and felt no particular need to punish those who indulged (unless it was dramatically valid to do so). Moreover, they accepted, too, that women as well as men felt sexual desire, and that their doing so by no means made them “bad” (or at least not any worse, morally speaking, than their male counterparts).
There is a sexual maturity and an honesty about the films of this period that has hardly been matched since. The brilliance of the Rouben Mamoulian’s interpretation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde lies not merely in its frankness, but in the way that it takes full advantage of the sexual freedom of the pre-Code era specifically in order to tell a tale of sexual repression and its potentially dangerous consequences. As we have already seen, this version of the tale contains much irony. The most ironic of them all being that this protest against sexual repression would, become make the film itself the victim of repression. The film was censored and re-censored until most of its true meaning had been pruned away, and until one of its leading ladies was hardly in the film at all.
The supporters of modesty believe that sexual empowerment creates false identity and ultimately becomes a detriment to womankind. In fact, they have rejected the pro-sexuality groups innate hypocrisy. In a recent study titled, “The Effects of Digitally Enhanced Photos on Product Evaluation and Young Girls’ Self-Esteem,” Adilson Borges, Associate Dean for Faculty and Research at NEOMA Business School of France, concluded that the scantily clad, always hyper photo shopped women of modern media are causing problems for young women. After interviewing hundreds of young girls who are exposed to media such a music videos daily, he found that the retouched, exposed bodies of women did cognitive harm. According to Adilson, “The results confirmed that digital enhancing not only affects self-perception negatively but also seems to produce an important ethical dilemma”. In this scientific study, one young girl was handed a retouched photograph of a female body while the other was given the original image. Girls exposed to the enhanced image reported lower self-esteem, lower social assurance, and a greater desire to change their physical appearance than girls exposed to the image in its original state.
But still, a certain brand of power is created from the big reveal of the female form in film, which can generate increased self-confidence. Feminist and scholar Laura Mauvey believed the “male gaze” of film media objectified the female population and created a sexual taboo around what are normal human body parts. But recently the femme fatales of the world challenged that gaze. Kim Kardashian, a controversial woman herself and modern day television starlet, attempted to take control of one of the most powerful forces in the modern day world: The Internet. By simply bearing her bodacious backside, she managed to turn 6.6 million heads towards her nudes in Paper Magazine. When asked about her infamous Playboy Magazine spread back in 2007, Kim stated, “I did it because I’m not one of those stick-skinny girls you see. I felt like girls today need to see a normal body,” she continued, in an attempt to justify posing for such a misogynistic publication. However, what Kardashian fails to see is that by supporting such a brand as Playboy (even with the best of intentions), she becomes a part of the problem at hand. Kim, a powerful woman in her own right used the power of owning her sexuality to essentially control mass media, showing her belief in what a force sexuality can be. But what she didn’t show young girls, is that power can be gained without the help of bubble butt.
While body positivity and physical sexuality are important for confidence, women cannot rely on external expressions alone. Girls and women need real power, which means resources on par with those currently in the control of men: an equal hand in political processes, total and unquestioned sovereignty over their bodies, and value placed on their intelligence, skills and positive actions, rather than their appearance Although women in the entertainment industry (such as Elizabeth Berkley and Ingrid Bergman) have historically succeeded upon building an image of the “powerfully sexy” woman, excelling in sexiness isn’t real power. That’s why you don’t see the richest and most powerful men in the world naked on Instagram.