From the moment the viewer sees Satine enter her first scene, lowered from the ceiling on a rhinestone encrusted swing, it is clear that Luhrmann’s leading lady is both glamorous and sexy. The courtesan, dressed in a glittering leotard and top hat, immediately launches into her first musical number, a mash-up of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Her performance, marked by a breathy voice and gyrating hips, titillates the onscreen male audience, sending them into a sex-crazed frenzy. Because they cannot “have” Satine, they resort to consorting with another one of the “Diamond Dogs,” as is the name of the band of prostitutes at the Moulin Rouge. This is just what Harold Zidler, the club’s owner and head pimp, was hoping for.
At the Moulin Rouge, the female body is a commodity, and Satine’s is the most prized of them all. Referred to as “The Sparkling Diamond,” Satine is Zidler’s top seller, as any man who looks at her is instantly enamored. This is exactly what happens with characters Christian and the Duke. Throughout Moulin Rouge!, Satine is constantly objectified, and is considered a piece of property or useful tool for all of the principle male characters to take advantage of. At the same time, as evidenced by her signature song, Satine is also the personification of consumerism, embodying materialism and capitalist desires as she both supplies goods (sex) and demands them, showing off a luxurious style and lusting after success as an actress. Ultimately, Satine lacks agency, as her identity is reinforced by several of the musical sequences in the film, which either emphasize her objectification or her role as consumerist symbol.
In the essay “The Show Must Go On: Making Money Glamorizing Oppression,” scholars Marina Della Giusta and Laura Scuriatti explore the glamorization of Satine and the prostitute image in Moulin Rouge! as well as the film character’s influence on the early 2000s fashion industry and female consumer response to the courtesan-inspired clothing. They remark on Satine’s rendition of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend/Material Girl,” questioning whether or not the performance is an empowering one.
The deployment of the songs ‘Material Girl’ and ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ may be read indeed as the exposure of a view of success based on accumulation of capital and of the power relations subsuming the romantic idea of love in capitalism, as well as a positive affirmation of empowerment – a type of empowerment only reachable through the exercise of prostitution, in a society which capitalizes on such polarization of roles ascribed to women (35-36).
At first glance, Satine appears liberated in this scene, given the fact that she is being endlessly adored by the crowd and is singing about what men can provide for her rather than what she can provide for them. However, this sequence introduces the viewer to Satine’s unequal relationship with each of the principle male characters: Zidler, Christian, the Duke, and from my own observation, with Toulouse, the play producer. Zidler is introduced as “both her pimp and her father figure,” setting up a rendezvous between Satine and the Duke as though he is her keeper. Satine, Zidler’s best employee looking for a promotion from prostitution to acting, is a willing participant in this transaction initially, but feigns her own agency by telling the crowd it’s “lady’s choice.” Della Giusta and Scuriatti write,
Moreover, at the very moment when Satine ‘chooses’ the Duke, she sings a song made up of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and ‘Material Girls’: these elements, we think, derive from stereotypical prejudices and ideas around prostitution. Indeed, prostitutes are often presented as universally and always freely choosing their profession, an idea that serves to hide the social and economic conditions in which much prostitution flourishes. The songs and act performed by Satine present prostitution as a profession which may enhance a woman’s social and economic status (34).
While Satine certainly does not seem to outright hate her job, at least at first glance, it is established from the beginning that she is only participating because it gives her the chance to perform (acting is her true passion) as well as the means to uphold such a luxurious lifestyle, one including “diamonds” and “material” possessions, fashionable outfits, a lavish living quarters, etc. She wants to sleep with the Duke, but only to ensure that her dream of being an actress can be fully realized through his financing of the Toulouse’s play, Spectacular, Spectacular. Both Zidler and Toulouse take advantage of Satine’s dream: Zidler wants to be able to transform the Moulin Rouge, and to make more money as a result, and both Toulouse and Christian successfully trick Satine into thinking that Christian is the Duke, so as to further their own agenda of putting on their play at the club.
Once a relationship between Christian and Satine is established in the film, Christian and the Duke immediately wage war over the ownership of Satine. In many ways it becomes a competition between the poor “lover boy” and the rich aristocrat- Christian woos her with songs while the Duke impresses her with gifts. The Duke makes statements that unmistakably show how he views Satine; when he signs the financial contract, he tells Zidler that only he must have access to Satine, saying, “I just don’t like other people touching my things.” He also appears to identify heavily with the evil maharajah character in Spectacular, Spectacular, intoning his statement, “She is mine.” The Duke is also a symbol of capitalism; he is a member of the corrupt upperclass (perhaps the bourgeois since the setting is France), and he manipulates Zidler and Satine by holding his money over their heads, becoming an enemy to the Bohemian revolution and their ideals in the process.
Della Giusta and Scuriatti also discuss the “economics of prostitution as a critique to bourgeois and capitalist ideology” as well as the fulfillment of “the typical Hollywood love story.” The two write, “The image of the courtesan is here filtered through its symmetrically opposite stereotype: the virgin. Indeed, the precondition for the Duke’s ‘investment’ (as it is described in the film) is that Satine is a virgin” (34).
When Satine misses the Duke’s dinner invitation after falling ill, Zidler scrambles to appease the Duke, lying that she is confessing her sins in order to purify herself for him. The Duke is delighted by this prospect. Virginity appears to raise Satine’s overall worth in his eyes; after all, owning a shiny new car is far better than driving a used rental, and Zidler is a convincing salesman. Zidler and the Duke then perform “Like a Virgin” together, respectively singing, “She’s so fine and she’s thine,” and “She’s so fine, and she’s mine.”
The irony of a prostitute being a virgin is not lost on Della Giusta and Scuriatti. “The Show Must Go On” reads, “[Satine] is a virgin because she had never loved until she met Christian, and because she is sold to the Duke as a ‘virgin’ – a condition which increases her market value and heightens her dramatic sacrifice” (33). The two make the point that while Christian is aware that she is not physically a virgin, he believes that she is one in the sense that she has never been with someone she truly loves before. They write, “The romantic relationship between her and the writer relies on her taking on the characteristics of a virtuous woman. There seems to be no alternative offered to Satine but to conform to the role of a virgin” (36).
While Christian knows he is the only one who gets to enjoy a personal relationship with Satine (and for the majority of the film, the only one who enjoys a physical relationship as well, as Satine eludes the Duke’s advances at every turn), he still becomes jealous when Satine is not with him, although he denies it. He becomes angry every time he does not know where she’s been, always assuming it is with the Duke, despite her declarations of love for him only. At one point, Satine tries to break up with Christian for his own sanity. She tells him, “On opening night I have to sleep with the Duke, and the jealousy will drive you mad.”
When Satine breaks up with him definitively after she learns that the Duke will kill him if she doesn’t, Christian becomes consumed with jealous rage, attacking Satine onstage during opening night of Spectacular, Spectacular. He takes on the role of the sitar player as he throws money at her, screaming, “I’ve paid my whore,” indicating that their relationship was never love and therefore he should pay her for her “services.”
After this incident, Satine and Christian reprise “Come What May,” and reunite, proving that “love” does conquer all. Shortly after, Satine loses her battle with consumption and dies in Christian’s arms. Della Giusta and Scuriatti write,
Satine, who cannot ultimately be both a courtesan and a virgin, has to die in order to become a masturbatory fantasy for all the male characters: for Christian and the Duke she will fulfill the role of the pure bride, to whom they can both lay claim as their own exclusive property (35).
Keeping Satine’s personification of consumerism and objectification in mind, this ending does not seem to lend itself well to a positive Marxist or feminist reading. Satine lacks agency in every aspect of her life: Zidler tells her what to do and withholds information from her (he waits to tell her that she is dying), the Duke manipulates her into doing his will, and even Christian, her lover, becomes possessive and distrustful of her. At no point in the narrative does she have the upper-hand against men, except maybe while performing, as she seems to make both Christian, the Duke, and other male suitors squirm when displaying her “temptress” persona.
In the end, while the Duke does not “get the girl” as Christian does, he wins in that Satine dies, fulfilling a sort of “if I can’t have her, nobody can” ideal. Once again, the bourgeois has successfully triumphed over the poor. While the two do reconcile, it can be difficult for the viewer to accept what Christian has done to Satine; he has humiliated her onstage, and thrown her profession back in her face. Additionally, the film idealizes and romanticizes gender stereotypes and female oppression, reinforcing the virgin “Madonna”/whore dichotomy, the objectification of women, seen as property, and the power of the patriarchy. Satine unfortunately dies as she lived-a caged bird, unable to fly away, or alternatively, buy her way out.
Giusta, Marina Della, and Laura Scuriatti. “The Show Must Go On: Making Money Glamorizing Oppression.” European Journal Of Women’s Studies 12.1 (2005): 31-44. PsycINFO. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.