Men of Showgirls: Backstage Hegemonic Ideals
Winner of a current total of nine Razzie Awards
(including worst Picture of the Decade), and critiqued for it’s raunchiness and
almost pornographic display of women – discussions about Showgirls (1995) typically focus on the campy female stereotypes it
parades across the screen. The protagonist of course, is female. To tell her story, Showgirls also tells a story about the masculine hierarchies at
play behind the scenes in Los Vegas. This essay examines the hegemony of modern
American masculinity that is at play underneath all the glitz. It looks at the
concept of gender crossing to gain a competitive edge in a masculine world, and
it also addresses how Showgirls deals
with those who do not fit in with traditional masculine ideals.
When American film portrays the Ideal Man, he often has heroic aspirations. He is charismatic,
competitive, and persuasive enough to rally loyal followers. He is generally
presented with an opportunity to show his assertiveness or test his strength. (Price.
119-121) He is socially powerful. (Connell. 829) As both Price and R.W. Connell suggest
throughout their works, hegemonic masculinity is seen as a part of patriarchal
societies, and modern media often portrays men and masculinity on a hegemonic
scale. Showgirls is no different.
At the top of the scale, we have the Kings
of Vegas (no, signing Caesar is not included in this group!) The characters in
these roles are powerful, and show modern ideals of masculine success. For
instance, Zach (Entertainment Director at the Starlight) drives a flashy red
Ferrari 348 Spider. The gentlemen of this group are always well-groomed, and
frequently pictured in a suit. When these characters are featured individually
in a scene, there is almost always a beautiful woman accompanying them.
There is further division within this
group. For instance, Hotel owner Mr. Karlman is of high status. While not a
major player in the movie (or in running the Goddess show for that matter), Mr.
Karlman is the oldest member and holds the he holds the wallet. So he is
respected because of that. Zach Carey and Tony Moss fall directly underneath
him. Both are powerful in their decision-making authority, and financial
Famous Vegas rock star Andrew Carver can
be considered a king – his power comes from his celebrity status and the
earnings his performances bring to Vegas. Cheetah owner Al Torres also fits
into this category, although he is a king of his own castle, rather than a
member of this elite group.
The next prominent group are the Middle Men.
In patriarchal social structures, this
is the group most affected by the concept of hegemony as quoted in Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the
“Men who received the benefits of patriarchy without enacting a
strong version of masculine dominance could be regarded as showing a complicit
masculinity. It was in relation to this group, and to compliance among
heterosexual women, that the concept of hegemony
was most powerful.” (Connell. 4)
There are three predominant characters in
this group. These characters showcase three different aspects of the middle point
of the spectrum. Phil Newkirk is a ‘Yes Man’. His primary role is to assist and
agree with the dominant characters. Marty Jacobson is the Lead
Choreographer. The dance background and
on-screen depiction could lead us to believe this character might not be heterosexual
however, this is countered with Marty’s comments sexualizing Nomi’s body. During
the audition scenes Marty comments on Nomi’s ‘heat’, and during the dance
practice scene he screams, ‘Thrust!’ As the camera focuses on his face and
Nomi’s pelvic thrust. He can also be seen holding ice cubes in at least one of
James Smith has goals and dreams, but
works a string of dead-end jobs to get by. He is a professionally trained
dancer, but is as quoted, “addicted to pussy”. He is constantly driven to chase
the opposite sex, in some ways viewing sexual conquest as a prize – until he
gets a dancer pregnant. Of course, he does the socially righteous ‘manly’
thing. He marries the girl – saying goodbye to his dreams and hello to a life
The characters in both groups above are
primarily shown in medium shots or facial close-ups. There are no body-exposing
extreme close-ups, and the actors are typically fully clothed. With the
exception of the sex scenes between Zach and Nomi, the men in these groups are
not sexualized though visual display. Instead they are sexualized through
dialogue, or interactions with female characters, as they struggle with their
level of dominance.
In full shots with multiple characters, mise-en-scene
shows who is at the top of the hierarchy based on the position of characters.
Scenes with stages, stairs, and chairs give visual height differences to separate
the characters based on their position. The men with higher social status are frequently
seen with a female character, or towering over a female character in a position
of authority (for instance, scenes with Al Torres and his dancers in the
dressing room of the Cheetah). Men in the second tier are often shown as being
on the same level as women (dance scenes with James Smith and Nomi).
As the original star of Goddess, Cristal
Connors uses her status to cross the gender line to participate in this
masculine climb to the top. Judith Halberstam analyzes this concept in her
book, Female Masculinity. While
Halberstam analyses females who cross the gender line on a physical sense (as
well as behaviourally and psychologically), Cristal only crosses the gender
line behaviourally. As a dancer in a patriarchal, Los Vegas world, Cristal sees
her female body as a tool in her climb to power – in fact, as we hear through
conversations with Nomi, she has actually enhanced her body in order to appear more feminine.
Cristal’s relationship with Nomi is not
about lesbianism – it is about power. Their first meeting in Cristal’s dressing
room is fairly benign on Cristal’s part. However, the next time the two
characters are seen together is when Cristal goes to the Cheetah with Zach.
Cristal’s character takes on the dominant role, and Zach appears to be her date. He lights her cigar for her,
and she leans back to enjoy the show. Visually stimulated, Cristal negotiates
to buy Nomi’s services – not from Nomi, but from her boss.
The lunch scene with Nomi and Cristal also
reflects this power dynamic. Camera shots on Cristal though out this scene are
medium shots or close-ups, with a focus on physiognomy. Gena Gershon has fun
with the dialogue here, it reads like it could have just as easily have been said
by a powerful old man trying to manipulate and seduce a young ingenue.
This power trip is observed by other
characters. After an audition to cast Cristal’s understudy, Cristal and Zach
have a heated discussion, “You fucked her, didn’t you?” Zach’s response: “Does
that piss you off because you’re jealous, Cris? Or because I beat you to the
punch?” This is a conversation of competitors.
struggle to keep power reaches climax during a BDSM inspired dance scene, where
Cristal leads Nomi on a leash, like a slave. Nomi takes her power back in
violence (typically reserved for masculine characters), by pushing Cristal down
the stairs. Nomi also crosses the gender line when she violently seeks
retribution from Andrew Carver for Molly Abram’s rape, but misses tell-tale
signs about Andrew Carver’s character that could have prevented her friend’s
The last rung on the Las Vegas ladder are
the male spectators. While this group may be able to pay to temporarily have
the Vegas experience – they are not actually a part of it. Instead the
characters draw attention through heckling, excessive drunkenness, and other
forms of rude behaviour. Cheetah owner Al Torres depends on this group to keep
him in business. We get to witness how he capitalizes on this group when he
introduces Hope to the business. Interestingly through Al Torres character, we
get to watch a masculine figure (and a king no less) question the hegemony he
is a part of.
Jeff’s Elvis-like looks could push him
into the middle-men category, however he is an outsider, so his character really
puts a face on this group. Nomi’s interactions with Jeff set the tone at the
beginning of the movie, and add humour at the end.
The last group presented fleetingly are
the male dancers. As feminized men, the
dancers have been eliminated from masculine hierarchy. The actual sexuality of
the dancers does not matter in this case – they are shown in the same light
whether they identify as heterosexual or homosexual. The dancers are featured
in scenes that focus on their body, much like the women are displayed on
screen. During a catfight scene, the male dancers are shot from a high angle so
that the viewer physically looks down on these characters (regardless of
personal views or opinions regarding sexuality or men in dance).
This film is often criticized for being
demeaning towards women, but no one is left out. All genders are stereotyped!
This contributes to Showgirls’ campy
nature, and is one of the reasons it has developed such a cult following. In
order to accurately look at how films like Showgirls stereotype women, it is
important to also address how men and masculine stereotypes are portrayed as