Baz Luhrmann’s 2002 movie about naive young Christian (Ewan MacGregor) falling in love with Moulin Rouge dancer and sex worker Satine (Nicole Kidman) tells a nuanced story of love and sex work.
The Moulin Rouge nightclub and brothel is owned by Harold Zidler. The movie follows Christian as he writes a play that is to be performed there and pursues Satine, finally recieving reprocity and having to keep their love a secret from the jealous Duke who wants to marry Satine. All of the characters’ success and happiness (and, for Zidler, his livelihood) depends on Satine keeping the violent Duke happy by ceasing her sex work. This is reminiscent of the great cultural burdens of honour that women historically carried/still carry in some communities; if they lost their virginity it was a betrayal and tragedy to their families.
Although Satine is what we in 21st-century Britain would think of as more of a ‘sex slave’ since there was no welfare state in her time (so if she didn’t do sex work she would starve), she is portrayed as enjoying her work and as having agency. She is capable of building healthy relationships – friendships with the other characters and being in love with Christian. Satine can recognise unhealthy or abusive relationships (the Duke’s possessiveness and, in a sense, Harold Zidler for using her for business).
Best of all, when Satine becomes the victim of attempted rape, this is not portrayed as an inherent risk of sex work or as Satine’s ‘fault’ for being a sex worker. Instead, the Duke’s abusive, insecure, violent character is to blame.
Of the two men interested in Satine, the one with the rescuer mentality (a desire to ‘rescue’ sex workers from their work) is the evil abusive character. Christian, while struggling with jealousy, seems jealous only of the Duke and diesn’t go as far as demanding Satine stop doing sex work, as the Duke does by requiring a contract from Zidler that “binds Satine to me”.
None of the characters are stereotypes. Zidler is both the unscrupulous pimp and the concerned father-figure; Christian is a respectful, loving boyfriend but still toys with jealousy. And Satine says that she must do sex work to survive – “A girl has got to eat/Or she’ll end up on the street” and that she has ambitions beyond the sex industry (to be an actress, the next Sara Bernhardt) but, at the same time, she obviously enjoys her work and is capable of manipulating clients (such as using love, sex or charm to get the Duke to invest in the play). This portrayal seems quite odd to some participants in the current sex work discourse; how can one want to exit sex work, yet enjoy it, be proud of it and not want to escape the industry to a life of luxury by marrying the Duke? Significantly, Satine does not realise her dream of “flying away” and “leav[ing] all this to yesterday” but instead dies in the Moulin Rouge.
The Duke’s possessiveness, Christian’s love, Zidler’s business plans and Satine’s ambitions were really just dreams all along – Satine had tuberculosis and would never have lived long enough for any of this to be realised. All that was real was their love and her sex work.
A good point in the film is when Satine talks of escaping the Duke and the Moulin Rouge with Christian; however Christian isn’t rescuing her, she is choosing her destiny and wants to depart with Christian as equals.
Satine also only began to have wishes of exiting prostitution when she was told of an opportunity the Duke was affording her to become a celebrity, and this feeling only intensified when she fell in love and her relationship with Christian became her priority. So, without these two men entering her life, Satine would have remained happy to be a sex worker.
In addition, Satine is a well-rounded character who has a talent for acting and enjoys socialising – she isn’t a cardboart-cutout prostitute.
Sex work is not portrayed as either degrading or empowering in the film. It seems to be just another job, seen alongside the other characters’ jobs of acting, singing, dancing, writing and the arts – ( indeed, even interchangeable with the arts, as the sex workers dance in the Moulin Rouge and act in the play, and the actors (and writer) date and form friendships with the sex workers. The play itself is about a sex worker, and Christian’s novel, which narrates the film, is about the Moulin Rouge; Satine’s ambition is to act.)) All of these professions are shown as falling under the Bohemian Revolution spirit of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love. The Duke, who stops Satine’s sex work, is the one character who is opposed to these ideals – “I don’t care about your ridiculous dogma!”.
In general, Moulin Rouge! does not fall prey to either side of the happy hooker/sex slave dichotomy, but embraces the good and the bad of sex work without demonising, glamorising or dramatising it; it’s just another way to make money in a corrupt and unequal society.