In the Arts and Leisure section of today’s New York Times is this requiem for the Vegas showgirl by Erika Kinetz. Since they represent an outdated version of what was culturally risqué, showgirls now seem harmless and quaint, imbued with the glamour that adheres to all things that are only really alive in nostalgic memory. They are like the adult-entertainment version of the Stork Club or big bands or the Charleston. My suspicion is that showgirls are less these genteel relics than the vituperous Hobbesean strivers on display in Paul Verhoeven’s film Showgirls, (“Nomi Malone is what Las Vegas is all about! She’s dazzling, she’s exciting, and very, very sexy!”) putting up a disproportionate fight for a lowly rung in the entertainment business. After all, the job doesn’t take much in the way of talent. As Kinetz writes of showgirls of old, “The purest of them did not dance; it was enough to be tall and alluring. Chief among their talents was the ability to parade around topless, in heels, up and down stairs, with lavish headdresses and elaborate decorations strapped to their backs.” It seems fairly depersonalizing: “Though there are principal roles, the real appeal of the showgirl lies not in her individuality but in the way she is multiplied and refracted across the stage.” This made me wonder whether this isn’t the effect women are expected to have in general when appearing in public, generalizing a spirit of sex appeal, making it faceless and abstract, a potent free-floating force traveling among strangers and vivifying the ads and entertainment that rely on such libidinous energy for their ability to capitivate and convince. Kinetz argues that showgirls are fading away because they no longer represent that ineffable ideal of unquenchable desire: “What’s changed since the show’s early days are attitudes toward women’s bodies, naked bodies in particular. Once upon a time the chance to gaze at these inaccessible beauties was rare enough to be titillating, while still respectable enough to bring the missus to. Today, however, the sight of topless women is no longer so shocking: they are a common enough sight in movies and on cable television.” Blank and anonymous, the showgirls were desire purified of the particulars that might have thought you had a chance to make a connection—the blank mask of a made-up face, the strangely generic uniform of fashion, the way women seem to disappear into their clothes but seem larger than life when elaborately dressed. Kinetz suggests that dancers at high-end strip clubs now are now where you can find women who are “otherworldly, untouchable, too beautiful, too quick and too much in the light for the mere mortals watching them.” I probably wouldn’t have chosen those adjectives, but she’s right to imply that performances in strip-clubs have nothing to do with identity or sexual union—they are meant to separate the sexual urge from its conjugal and reproductive consequences and allow it to serve the aims of commerce. Commercialized sex isn’t about sex; it’s about commercials, about the seductive flow of money as it changes hands and getting turned on by that. Strip clubsa re about exercising power through money, on both the client and server sides. I don’t think “attitudes toward women’s bodies” have changed all that much; it’s just that the sentiment of objectification is no longer quarantined to burlesque houses; it’s celebrated as a peculiar form of freedom throughout culture. The desire one individual can stimulate in another is far less valuable to the GDP than the rootless and restless desire, generalized and free-floating, that comes from denatured sex appeal. The showgirl was the quintessence of this, but she has escaped the stage and appears everywhere.
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