“Showgirls,” and Some History of Sex in Cinema

Elizabeth Berkley playing Nomi in "Showgirls"

We saw You Don’t Nomi the other day, a thoughtful, well-made, wildly entertaining documentary about the movie Showgirls; its flamingly negative critical reception; and its later reclamation by fans as high camp. It got me thinking about the movie in some new ways — and it got me thinking about the history of explicit sex in movies.

Showgirls was released in 1995, at a cultural moment when it seemed to pie-eyed optimists* that maybe — just maybe — sexually explicit movies might become mainstream, or at least mainstream-ish. The NC-17 rating was created in 1990 to distinguish explicit art films from X-rated smut (a questionable distinction, but whatever). But many theaters wouldn’t show NC-17 movies; many newspapers wouldn’t run ads for them; and Blockbuster Video wouldn’t carry them. So an NC-17 rating wound up killing any movie’s chances at commercial success.

Showgirls was the first big-budget movie to test this. Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas set out to make it an NC-17 movie, with serious (no, really) intent to make a drama/social satire. So even though Verhoeven and Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) were something of a nightmare team, there was some hope** that Showgirls might successfully break this ground and open those doors for other filmmakers.

Showgirls of course, was a monumental failure. Critics heaped it with all the venom we had, and then ran to our venom vaults to get more. Audiences stayed away in droves. (Note: If you’re producing a cinematic exploration of female sexual power and the corruption of that power, maybe don’t have it written and directed by a couple of straight guys. Especially straight guys with Issues.) And with the movie’s failure, the door slammed shut on the NC-17 experiment.

There have been other attempts to make high-quality sexually-explicit cinema, both before Showgirls and since: Last Tango in Paris in 1972, Caligula in 1979, Crash (the Cronenberg one) in 1996; Secretary in 2002, Nine Songs in 2004, Shortbus in 2006, The Girlfriend Experience in 2009. These movies had varying degrees of critical and commercial success, but none of them broke the latex ceiling and made way for a Golden Age of Serious, Sexually Explicit Film.

But here’s the thing.

Sexually explicit cinema did become mainstream. It just happened in a place that in 1995 we would never have expected: television.

When cable came along, the tight rules about content on television were loosened. IIRC, the theory was that people were actively signing up for cable and paying for it, as opposed to passively receiving it through the public airwaves — so nudity and sex were okay. When streaming came along, the heat got dialed up even more, with much the same rationale: it’s not public airwaves, it’s a private commercial interaction, knock yourself out. (The wider availability of porn through video, DVDs, and the Internet probably had a lot to do with this shift as well: audiences had become used to seeing sex on their home screens, and weren’t shocked by it.)

So now, in this Golden Age of television*** we’re currently enjoying, there are shows like “Westworld”: a success both creatively and commercially, and far more explicit than Showgirls. And there are tons of other examples. There’s Sense8. Insecure. Game of Thrones. Masters of Sex. Queer as Folk. Orange is the New Black. More, far more, way more than I have the patience to list. Nudity, sex, and in-depth explorations of sexuality have become commonplace features of serious television. And television is better as a result.

We got our breakthrough. It just happened gradually, and in a medium we didn’t expect.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that theatrical-release cinema was never the right place for serious film to become sexually explicit. That particular mix has been hampered by the MCAA ratings system, which somehow manages to be both arbitrary and rigid. It’s hampered by the relationship between the ratings system and movie theaters: whether it’s due to pressure, local obscenity laws, personal conservatism, or the belief that these movies won’t put butts in seats, many theater owners simply will not run an NC-17 movie.

And very importantly, sex in theatrical cinema is hampered by the lack of privacy. To see an NC-17 movie in a theater, you have to walk through the theater door and sit in a public space with other people, including both total strangers and (possibly) people you know. You might even have to walk up to a live human being at the ticket counter and tell them what movie you want to see. A lot of people aren’t willing to do that. But a lot of those people are willing to watch sexually explicit content in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. And that’s true whether they’re watching for the art, the sex, or both.

So maybe I’ve been unfair to Showgirls. I’ve been frustrated for years about the failure of NC-17 cinema, and I’ve been laying much of the blame for that on Showgirls. Now I’m thinking that, even if the movie had been a critical success, it may have had very little chance of being a commercial one. Showgirls has much to answer for — boy, howdy, does it ever — but maybe I can stop stewing about how it destroyed the hopes and dreams of horny film fans for decades, and just enjoy it as ridiculous camp.

* Maybe that was just me. I don’t know.
** Again, maybe that was just me.
*** I have a whole spiel about why television is so good right now, which I’ll hopefully write up soon.

“Showgirls,” and Some History of Sex in Cinema