A Sex Worker Takes On “Moulin Rouge”

by LIly Vye

When I was in middle school, I prayed every night that I would wake up the next morning as Nicole Kidman as Satine in Moulin Rouge — and I’ve never even believed in God. At the time, my love of Moulin Rouge was the only thing that sustained me, and I watched it obsessively (I’ve seen it about 100 times) to escape my life. I was mercilessly bullied, afraid to go to school each day, and struggling with with suicidal ideation. If I could just be Satine, I thought, everything would be better. I ended up kind of getting my wish, but in a different way than I expected. At age 26, I’m a redhead who tries to duplicate Satine’s exact hair color shade, which I always aspired towards. and I’ve also done sex work, which I’d never imagined would happen.

As a teen, I always imagined that being a sex worker would feel exploitative. However, graduating college and entering the workforce forced me to re-examine my definitions of “choice” and “exploitation.” I spent three years working entry-level jobs in a notoriously underpaid field, usually having a granola bar for dinner and worrying every minute about money. Although I had accepted these jobs, I felt exploited for using my brainpower to copy and paste text and do other “grunt work” all day, all week, for hardly above the minimum wage and no recognition or hope of promotion. After having to leave my job for a full-time graduate school program and getting denied for receiving food stamps, I joined Seeking Arrangements and had individual clients, then transitioned into working at lap dancing parties, and I now work at fetish parties. Does having a man suck on my toes for money feel empowering? Not really. But does doing the bare minimum of acting seductive and then depositing a few hundred dollars into my bank account feel great? Hell yes. For a limited time, I possess the assets of youth and beauty, and I believe that I and other sex workers have as much of a right to capitalize on that as anyone who capitalizes on their skills or connections to get a job.

Watching Moulin Rouge recently for the first time since I became a sex worker was a complicated experience. As a preteen, I identified with Satine’s mantra, “One day I’ll fly away, leave all this to yesterday,” and would sing it to myself to give myself hope that one day I would escape my family and the bullies at school. But when Satine sings those words, she sings of escaping sex work to become “a real actress.” She resents being a sex worker and feels like a trapped bird in a cage at the Moulin Rouge. To reinforce the idea that Satine is entrapped, director Baz Luhrmann has Satine’s pimp refer to her with bird pet names throughout the film, and she tells her own caged bird, “Yes, I’ll fly, fly away from here.” As a sex worker, she maintains a steely composure and tells Christian, the young poet who loves her, “I can never fall in love,” because if she did, she’d face “living on the streets.” Yet when she falls in love with Christian, she feels as though he has saved her from feeling like property, and their romance “recuses” this fallen woman by placing her within a normative, societally-sanctioned love story. “All my life, you’ve made me believe I’m only worth what others would pay for me!” she tells her pimp, in a monologue that used to be my AIM away message in middle school. “But Christian loves me. He loves me, and that is worth everything. We’re going away from you…away from the Moulin Rouge!”

Unlike Satine, I do not feel trapped or like property, nor do many sex workers I know, and Moulin Rouge’s depiction of sex work as inherently degrading is now hard for me to swallow. And I don’t need to be rescued by a savior from my evil ways (Christian and Satine’s names are clear plays on Christ and Satan) or from what the film calls the “underworld.” I used to watch Moulin Rouge weekly, but until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t seen it since 2015, and I became a sex worker in 2016. Watching it again was, as always, a joyful, life-affirming experience, but my new background made me flinch at certain parts that expose the film’s anti- sex work bias.

Besides the fact that Satine’s entire plot arc is about being rescued from the “underworld” by a literal “Christ”-like male savior, the “Roxanne” scene was hard for me to watch. As a film buff I find it one of the most extraordinary sequences in film history. But as a sex worker, when the Argentinian says, “Never fall in love with a woman who sells herself. It always ends BAD!,” my heart hurt. The truth is, sex workers are not selling their selfhoods. They are selling their service, their time, and and their labor, and the conflation of sexuality and selfhood is a dangerous and common one that creates anti-sex worker biases. Why isn’t an unpaid intern forced to fetch coffee for demanding bosses considered to be exploited or “selling [their] self,” but a sex worker is? Why is using your sexuality to get ahead so stigmatized when plenty of people get ahead through nepotism? Furthermore, the message that loving a sex worker “always ends bad” is simply untrue. I was recently in a serious relationship with someone while I was dancing and working at fetish parties, and they understood that I needed the money for my living expenses, and that my heart belonged to them. If you’re open-minded enough, falling in love with someone who sells their time and labor is not at all bad; their self and their heart will still be yours.

The other scene I knew I had to brace myself for was one that comes towards the end, after Satine tricks Christian into thinking she’s leaving him for The Duke, a man who can financially support her, in order to prevent the Duke from killing Christian. Enraged, Christian returns to the Moulin Rouge, barges into Satine’s dressing room, and tells her, “I’ve come to pay my whore.” I flinch every time I hear the word “whore,” which I regard as an anti-sex work slur, and hearing it from the mouth of someone I dreamed of marrying as a teen was hard to swallow. Christian, the “savior,” harasses and degrades Satine for being a sex worker, shoving money in her face and insisting she take it because all a woman like her, from the underworld, could ever want and all she is worth is money. “I owe you nothing. And you are nothing to me,” he tells her through tears, but also with an anger that made me shake, as he calls her a whore repeatedly in front of a packed audience at the Moulin Rouge. Until Satine proves to Christian that she actually does love him and they reunite for a minute before she dies of consumption, he sees her as “damaged goods.” I’ve seen this attitude come out when I’ve told people I had a good date with that I have sex work experience; the disgust on their face as their vision of me transforms from a woman they like into property is the same as the disgust on Christian’s face as he “pays his whore,” and it hurt to watch.

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Despite the film’s overall view that sex work is inherently degrading and exploitative, it does get some aspects of what sex work is like. When Satine asks her pimp about which persona she should adopt with her next client — ”What’s his type? Wilting flower, bright and bubbly, or smoldering temptress?” — this reminded me exactly of how I have to modify my affect and attitude for every client depending on whatever best pleases them in order to get my money. And these are the three exact types that clients seem to usually want. However, isn’t this what we all do, not just sex workers? Throughout my entire life, I’ve had to change my behavior to get what I want, depending on who I was with and what I needed. Satine’s “charade” exposes a common feature of many of our lives that is simply made more obvious in the lives of sex workers.

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Moulin Rouge will always be my favorite movie, come what may. But I also believe firmly in being critical of what you love and not being afraid to, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “kill the thing one loves” through analysis. I’ve been phasing out of sex work due to health issues, but as someone with sex work experience, I find it important to always call out anti-sex work bias. Sex workers are people and not property who have agency and do not sell their selfhoods. Like anyone else, we sell our service. And like anyone else, we deserve respect.

images via Moulin Rouge

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