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It Came From the '90s: Showgirls—The Miseducation of Penny


Exploring why the 1995 film Showgirls is an enduring cult classic.
(Due to the film's copious amount of salty language and nudity, these posts are probably NSFW)

If there's one character in Paul Verhoeven's deliciously trashy and impressively thongtastic 1995 classic Showgirls who epitomizes how the Vegas entertainment industry chews up and spits out innocent blood, it's Penny, AKA Hope (Rena Riffel). Poor, poor Penny.


After arriving at Al Torres's (Robert Davi) Cheetah's Topless Club, fresh and new and full of excitement for a career in dance, Penny is immediately and consistently degraded by one character after another, often through the use of very imaginative and colorful language. Her initial naivety is at turns hilarious and depressing. Here's a sampling, from the film's IMDb page, of the way other characters (mostly men) talk to her:

  • Al Torres If you want to last longer than a week, you give me a blow-job. First I get you used to the money, then I make you swallow.
    Penny/Hope Is he serious?
  • Nomi Malone You need more pink.
    Penny/Hope Oh, thanks, Heather.
  • Al Torres Have you ever done a lap dance before?
    Al Torres You got to talk them into it. Fifty bucks a pop, you take 'em in the back. Touch and go. They touch, they go. You can touch them, but, they cannot touch you.
    Penny/Hope Oh, that's good.
    Al Torres Now, if they cum, it's okay. If they take it out, cum all over you, call a bouncer. Unless he gives you a big tip. If he gives you a big tip, it's okay. You got that?
  • Al Torres Hope, this is Tiffany, Farrah, Heather, Henrietta.
    Penny/Hope My name isn't Hope. My name is Penny.
    Al Torres They want class, dumb-dumb. They don't want to fuck a Penny. They want to fuck a Heather! Or, a Tiffany. Or, a Hope. This is a class joint.
  • Penny/Hope Do you want something to drink?
    James Smith Yeah, get me a beer, bitch.

To the men Penny interacts with, she's seen as little more than a blowup doll, only there to satisfy their sexual urges and fetch them a beer afterward. She's a dumb-dumb expected to look desirable, service the bossman, and satisfy the clientele. It doesn't help that she's also overshadowed by the film's star, the nakedly ambitious and crazy-charismatic Nomi (Elizabeth Berkely). Whereas Penny is sweet and reticent, Nomi is a pit bull ready to attack at a moment's notice. It seems appropriate that Penny eventually hooks up with choreographer James (Glenn Plummer), who Nomi discarded earlier in the film.

Rena Riffel is delightful throughout, with her big eyes perfectly expressing Penny's constant confusion and uncertainty. She acts as the perfect straight-woman foil to Robert Davi's cynical flesh peddler. It's appalling how Al talks to Penny, but over the course of the film we learn he's more of a softy than he lets on. Scenes like the one below are so over the top you can't help but laugh out loud, thanks to the endlessly quotable script from Joel Eszerthas. This is politically incorrect comedy gold:






Penny may be a minor character, but thanks largely to Rena Riffel's subtle charms, she's a fan favorite for good reason. Riffel has become a champion of the film, making countless appearances over the years to discuss and celebrate the cult classic. She even starred in the low-budget sequel, Showgirls 2: Pennies from Heaven (2011). More Penny is never a bad thing, but that's a post for another time.


Penny's shocked and concerned response to Al's "First I get you used to the money..." line is priceless: "Is he serious?" Penny's story, slight as it might be, still helps reinforce one of the film's key themes: you're going to need to do things you might not want to do in order to make it in the world of Showgirls.



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