Welcome to How I Got Radicalized, a new series that tells a story about a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.
I still don’t entirely understand the brief teenage phase I had in the mid-1990s, seeking out things I considered outright bad as entertainment. It lasted six to nine months, around the time I was gearing up to take my driver’s test. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was hiding from. This period of time, circa 1996, was a great run for pop culture with a noticeable edge: How weird can you go? People were shocked by Dennis Rodman; Kool Keith put out an album about a time-traveling gynecologist; Blind Melon’s “Bee Girl” was a meme before we knew what that was; you could turn on MTV and see Björk’s psychedelic take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” in a video directed by Michel Gondry. What a time to be alive, truly.
I wanted to be weird. Or at least I wanted people to think I was peculiar, because of the things I read, the music I listened to, the topics I talked about. I was a teen actively trying to be out of step with other people my age, whether it was by dyeing my hair a different color every other month or wearing a leisure suit I found at a thrift store to class just for the hell of it. There wasn’t much method to my dumbness.
Besides MTV and the occasional issues of Spin or Sassy, finding that culture came in drips and drops. Occasional visits to the Borders bookstore in the mall allowed me to look at issues of Punk Planet or Adbusters. Hanging out in the grocery store parking lot with older kids, looking for perfect curbs to skate, led to introductions to music from Mobb Deep and Operation Ivy. I took what I could get — it just had to be the opposite of what everybody else my age enjoyed.
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I was a teenage snob. As I’ve gotten older, I realize this was a defense mechanism, a way to find myself while feeling like I was different. I wanted to be my own person, but I didn’t have much, so what I did have I held sacred. If you didn’t understand or appreciate the things I found pleasure in — well, I didn’t have time for you.
So when a friend announced we were going to watch Showgirls at his house a few weeks after it made its debut on premium cable, I was ecstatic. We thought it would be hilarious if three teenage boys spent a Saturday night on a couch in a basement in Long Grove, Illinois, watching a movie that was currently in the zeitgeist as being one of the worst of all time. Showgirls was an “instant camp classic,” as Janet Maslin put it in her September 1995 New York Times review, an article I definitely did not read at the time. Instead, I relied on what I’d heard about the film: that it was terrible, it starred the good girl from Saved by the Bell, and there was lots and lots of nudity.
From what I recall, the basic premise is this: Nomi Malone is a small-town stripper who wants to make it to the big leagues in Las Vegas. She’s a drifter who we can tell right away has a rough past that she’s looking to put as far behind her as possible. But Showgirls is also a gritty satire of the fame machine. How far would you go? Would being famous make you happy? Yes, there’s enough nudity and sex that the film was given an NC-17 rating, but Elizabeth Berkley, along with Gina Gershon, who plays Nomi’s antagonist, Cristal Connors, give great performances. Nomi and Cristal aren’t bad people; they do what they have to do to survive.
We thought it would be hilarious if three teenage boys spent a Saturday night in a basement in Long Grove, Illinois, watching a movie that was currently in the zeitgeist as being one of the worst of all time.
Even as we laughed and screamed from the couch at the overwrought dialogue and the Vegas-style wriggling and writhing, I found myself enjoying the movie, especially when Nomi, in her tasseled black leather jacket, pulls a switchblade on a guy. “She’s tough and cool,” I thought. But I could also tell that she probably never made a good decision in her life. When you’re a teenager, that’s both admirable and relatable; you make a lot of mistakes out of youthful ignorance.
I also enjoyed the story and spectacle of Showgirls: people in a seedy place, working in a seedy business, doing seedy things because they were all out of options. Written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven, the film came out three years after the pair had a hit with Basic Instinct. “The best erotic thrillers often have not only calculating, glamorous female protagonists but also the guiding hand of an auteur,” wrote Abbey Bender in her Washington Post article about the golden age of erotic thrillers. Showgirls has those elements, but it does a better job of making Nomi a sympathetic figure, not simply a femme fatale, like Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct, or a jilted lover, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
But I didn’t understand any of this at the time. I just knew I liked the movie everybody said was trash.
Showgirls came during a moment in my life when I was moving from being a person who was swallowing opinions without considering the taste to actually learning how to chew. I was a curious kid, and the idea that I wasn’t getting the whole story from schoolbooks or television was starting to become an obsession. Mine was a somewhat typical diet for the burgeoning lefty white kid from the suburbs who liked to read and didn’t care much for authority: Howard Zinn telling me what my teacher wasn’t; Public Enemy calling John Wayne a racist; Fugazi singing about how “you are not what you own.”
I was starting to mull over ideas, to consider what place art and ideas have in our society. I was slowly developing into somebody who, after years of watching the news on network TV and taking it at face value, was trying to get a little deeper. Music wasn’t just something you listen to or books things you just read. I was starting to realize that everything has a place. Art worth its value tells you something. It should make you think. It should tell you about the time and place it came out of. Schlock is fine; garbage for the sake of turning off your brain is great in small doses, but you should really give thought to anything you fill your mind with. That’s what I was inching closer toward understanding.
In retrospect, several films I’d consider “classics” today came out in 1996: Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, and the Coen brothers’ Fargo all come to mind. But I wasn’t familiar with those films back then. They were the kind of films you had to take a commuter train into the city to see. The movies people in the Chicago suburbs talked about were Jerry Maguire or whatever action movie was out that week, the films that played at the theater at the mall. Or, in the case of Showgirls, films we’d watch on my friend’s couch in a basement.
I was starting to mull over ideas, to consider what place art and ideas have in our society.
That’s the funny thing about Showgirls and the time and place I saw it in. The phase I was growing out of in my own life helped me start to really appreciate things. Sure, I still believe there can be “bad” and “good” art and that it’s really all in the eye of the beholder, but we also have this deeply ingrained American way of thinking that something can only be one of two options. We’re raised to think this way about everything from politics to art, and we’re never really told to explore the in-between.
Growing up in the 1990s was probably considered a “good” time for people in my white suburban demographic. The economy was strong, and the president was a youthful, saxophone-playing, neoliberal baby boomer. But in retrospect, the time signals the end of so many things, from the literal end of the century to the final years of pre-9/11 America, which feels odd to even try to contemplate now.
When I look back to my late-1990s teen years, I think about how I grew up in the last age of not knowing things. We talk about the ills of the internet and social media in our current cultural landscape, but it’s also easy to look past the little access to information we had once, when we weren’t equipped to look beyond the confines of “bad” and “good.”
Going beyond those two preassigned outcomes is about teaching yourself to be a critic, to becoming critical about the world. Juxtaposing everything I heard or read about Showgirls prior to seeing that was an important lesson in my own developing thought process. Even today, one hears the word “critical” and might think that to be critical is to criticize — but it’s so much more than that. You hear something is trash but that there’s still some reason for its being. When I was 16, I was slowly beginning to learn that nuance is a beautiful thing. But you have to start somewhere, and for me, watching a girl named Nomi from the wrong side of the tracks hitch a ride to Las Vegas so she could dance was a crucial step toward that deeper understanding.