‘Showgirls,’ Camp, and the Making of a Queer Cult Classic

In one of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s most memorable moments, the Season 5 contestants got on stage in front of a live audience to roast RuPaul herself. Runner-up Detox’s closing set wasn’t all hits, but one joke stood out: “Michelle [Visage]’s favorite movie in the world is Showgirls. And much like Nomi Malone, she relies on the talents of her Black friend.” This is only one of the series’ many references to Showgirls (1995). From All Stars 2’s “Showsquirrels” parody to several contestants invoking Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkeley) pushing Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) down the stairs, it’s safe to say that Showgirls won’t be leaving the queer cultural lexicon any time soon.

So how did we get to this point? How did a film that bombed upon release and was despised by both audiences and critics alike become a major touchstone of modern queer culture? Contemporary reviews in particular pulled no punches in denouncing Showgirls. Todd McCarthy called it “akin to being keelhauled through a cesspool, with sharks swimming alongside”; Rita Kempley opened her review with “Trollops and floozies and sluts, oh my.” However, despite a public backlash not totally dissimilar from the widespread mockery of Tom Hooper’s magnum opus Cats (2019), not everyone was so dismissive. Several notable critics, despite still giving negative reviews to the film as a whole, picked up on the qualities that would help Showgirls gain its cult following. Roger Ebert (who did give it two out of four stars) wrote that “If the plot and screenplay are juvenile, the production values are first-rate, and the lead performance by newcomer Elizabeth Berkeley has a fierce energy that’s always interesting….It’s trash, yes, but not boring.” Although the term doesn’t appear in his review, Ebert is closer than most of his peers to understanding the film’s appeal: Showgirls is the north star of camp.

Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkeley) stands by the “Jesus is Coming Soon” sign outside James’ (Glenn Plummer) house in Showgirls. (COURTESY: United Artists)

Frequently discussed but rarely understood, camp is an aesthetic sensibility rooted in the love of artifice and exaggeration — the worship of what is too much. Camp is both a perspective and a characteristic, a way of seeing the world as well as something that is embodied. And a camp perspective also involves an appreciation of the camp object. This appreciation stands contrasts starkly with the culture of films considered so bad they’re good, where enjoyment comes from mocking the art for its supposed lack of quality. Camp audiences enjoy the camp object for its own sake, on its own terms.

As a sensibility, camp is unmistakably queer. According to anthropologist Esther Newton in her 1979 book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America

Camp is not a thing. Most broadly it signifies a relationship between things, people, and activities or qualities, and homosexuality. In this sense, ‘camp taste,’ for instance, is synonymous with homosexual taste….It is possible to discern strong themes in any particular campy thing or event. The three that seemed most recurrent and characteristic to me were incongruity, theatricality, and humor. All three are intimately related to the homosexual situation and strategy. Incongruity is the subject matter of camp, theatricality its style, and humor its strategy.

Incongruity in Showgirls comes from the contrast between aesthetic presentation and morality, the simultaneous influences both of 1930s backstage musicals like 42nd Street (1933) and the more highly sexualized norms of the post-Production Code era. Its theatricality is most apparent in the actors’ performances, its humor in lines like “Man, everybody got AIDS and shit!” and Nomi not knowing how to pronounce Versace. 

Black American culture — within and outside of queer communities — plays a major role in shaping the camp sensibility. Black camp does for race what queer camp does for gender and sexuality, challenging essentialist categories of race and Blackness as well as their intersections with the constructs of gender and sexuality through a politicized aesthetic of artifice and exaggeration. Though she doesn’t use the term camp, Zora Neale Hurston, in her essay The Characteristics of Negro Expression, writes that “Every phase of Negro life is highly dramatized” and “the will to adorn” is one of Black expression’s most prominent features. This can be seen clearly in everything from the 1980s ball scene showcased in Paris is Burning (1990) and the sculptural hairstyles of the Bronner Bros. Hair Show to popular musicians like Prince and Beyoncé.

Nomi and Molly Abrams (Gina Rivera) admiring the luxury offerings of “Versayce” in Showgirls. (COURTESY: United Artists)

Showgirls is hardly an example of Black queer camp; its racial politics are very much constrained by the logic of white, Western camp. Feminist film scholar Pamela Robertson‘s essay ‘Mae West’s Maids: Race, “Authenticity,” and the Discourse of Camp,’ suggests that “Queer and camp Western representations, though non-normative in terms of sex and gender, are still consistently defined through categories of racial difference and especially blackness.” Protagonists in white camp media are presented in proximity to Blackness and Black culture to “[enable] the performance of sex and gender roles.”

White camp often presents the white female protagonist as aligned with the Black supporting characters in order to, as Robertson explains, “underscore her identification with the marginal and her status as a transgressive woman within mainstream representations of sexuality.” Think Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) fighting for integration in Hairspray (1988) or the interracial romance and Black church depicted in Madonna’s music video for Like a Prayer (1989). Showgirls demonstrates the alignment most clearly in Nomi’s friendship with Molly (Gina Rivera). It’s their relationship that starts Nomi on her path to stardom, and Showgirls‘ climax centers on Nomi getting revenge on the man who raped Molly. Nomi gives up her career as a Vegas showgirl in solidarity with her Black friend.

The essence of camp in Showgirls is so strong that the film developed its cult following almost immediately following its home video release; nearly thirty years later, that following still thrives. In fact, the rise of the Showgirls cult eventually birthed a subset of fans who argue the film isn’t merely high camp, but high art. That it’s not really the extravagant farce people make it out to be, but a deeply insightful send-up of American society and culture. While it’s true that filmgoers in 1995 overlooked these elements in favor of mocking the film’s campy excesses, framing discussions of Showgirls in these terms often undermines its appeal as camp by trying to sell it as a secret masterpiece that deserves to be viewed with prestige. To give one example: in a 2001 interview, Jacques Rivette called Showgirls “one of the great American films of the last few years…It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless.”

Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) lighting Cristal Connors’ (Gina Gershon) cigarette under the neon lighting of Cheetah’s Topless Club. (COURTESY: United Artists)

This point of view misunderstands camp’s relationship to traditional metrics of quality. According to Susan Sontag, “Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment….[Camp] doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.” Camp “dethrones the serious,” arguing that “one can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” Arguing that tastemakers should move Showgirls from the “bad” category to the “good” category erases the differences between (subcultural) camp and mainstream tastes. This position doesn’t subvert traditional metrics of quality; it merely argues that the mainstream simply made a clerical error. 

Why should lovers of Showgirls spend so much time praising it for doing things traditionally considered the responsibility of “quality” cinema when the film’s whole appeal rests on a sensibility that rejects those benchmarks? Even when critics reference camp – as in Eric Henderson’s review, which acknowledges Showgirls’ “campy excesses” while calling its overall sensibility “clear, conventional, and humanistic” – their references are distinct from or contradictory to the examination of the film’s story and themes. The narrative and visual analyses exist independently when they should be intertwined.

Criticism like Rivette’s and Henderson’s present Showgirls as a film audiences and fellow critics might have acclaimed for its satire had they not first gotten distracted by its camp. But, again, Showgirls’ social commentary is linked to its camp sensibility. With the film’s excesses, director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas portray the entertainment industry as a tacky hellscape populated by corrupt figures of impossible evil. Showgirls is an example of the type of camp that, in the words of musicologist Raymond Knapp, “intensifies the blatantly artificial in order to divert from, but then bring heightened attention to, what outside a camp context would be understood as the actual content, or essence, of a dramatic event.” It allows “both substance and style to matter tremendously and at the same time.” That duality is what makes Showgirls special, what keeps it a fixture of queer culture in the 2020s when other queer films from its era languish in comparative obscurity.

Cristal and Nomi backstage at the Stardust Hotel. (COURTESY: United Artists)

Showgirls‘ social and political themes don’t contradict its camp because camp, in its purest form, is a politically engaged sensibility. The whole critique of the entertainment industry and its products — both human (in the form of stars like Cristal and Nomi) and commodity (as in the show itself) — rests on presenting actual phenomena in an exaggerated, stylized form that implicitly emphasizes their absurdity. Verhoeven’s Las Vegas plays up the city’s plastic and artificial qualities as a visual illustration of how the star-making system and capitalism in general create and sell their own mythology to consumers. It’s a microcosm of American culture at large, “a third world country in a Gucci belt,” one that projects an image of glamour and excellence to obscure the never-ending line of people sent through the meat grinder in the name of capital every single day. 

Similarly, Verhoeven presents the film’s nudity in such an onslaught that by minute thirty it’s about as erotic as a middle school health class. The satire wouldn’t land the same way if the performances were more naturalistic and the imagery less gaudy. And Nomi and Cristal’s rivalry is All About Eve (1950) with a sapphic twist, an exaggerated version of people’s unwillingness to comprehend the concept of two women getting along.

Cristal talks to her adoring crowd after the premiere of Goddess. (COURTESY: United Artists)

Despite my frustrations, this critical disconnect between Showgirls’ text and aesthetics speaks to why the film is still such an integral part of queer subcultures. Over the last two decades, camp has been mainstreamed and assimilated into dominant cishet culture. As Queercore filmmaker Bruce LaBruce put it, “Camp is now for the masses. It’s a sensibility that has been appropriated by the mainstream, fetishized, commoditized, turned into a commodity fetish, and exploited by a hypercapitalist system.” We live in a time where major tentpole releases like Cruella (2021) and Aquaman (2018) can turn camp into, respectively, an Oscar win and a billion-dollar box office take. And more “classic” camp films have likewise found mainstream success. Everyone’s mom knows at least one song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Hairspray is now better known for its sanitized Broadway musical adaptation than the original John Waters cult hit.

But even in this landscape, Showgirls has managed to resist assimilation. Unlike Cruella, it has both the aesthetic hallmarks of camp and what LaBruce describes as “the notion of esotericism, something shared by a group of insiders, or rather, outsiders.” This is what separates the “so-bad-it’s-good” crowd from Showgirls‘ queer cult following. The camp audience understands Showgirls as a biting satire that eviscerates both materialistic American culture and the well-oiled machine that manufactures and perpetuates these narcissistic fantasies. At the same time, we also understand it as an extravagant farce, every gesture and line reading cranked up to 11, gleefully ignoring conventions of good taste. It’s not good because it’s bad; it’s great because it’s camp.

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