Victorian Popular Fictions 4.1 7 Esser

Material Girls: Moulin Rouge!’s Neo-Victorian Spectacle and the Real Courtesans of Paris

Helena Esser


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This article discusses Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 juke-box musical film Moulin Rouge! and its failure to re-think gender despite its clever remix of late-Victorian mass media. After introductions that consider the film’s postmodern mashups of high and low, commonplaces from nineteenth- and twentieth-century popular cultures, the article examines courtesan narratives rooted in two famous novels that the film plays with: La dame aux camélias (1852) by Alexandre Dumas fils and Nana (1880) by Émile Zola. It contrasts them with the lives of real, French celebrity courtesans in order to show the narrative paths of successful powerful women at the fin de siècle that Moulin Rouge! chose not to travel, preferring to endorse, however, ironically, the conservative gender stereotype of women as objects punished for attempting to take charge of their lives and destroyed by consumption in its double sense.


courtesan, female celebrity, Liane de Pougy, Cléo de Mérode, Cora Pearl, Marie Duplessis, Moulin Rouge!, postmodernism, neo-Victorianism, gender, feminism.

Date of Acceptance: 27 June 2022

Date of Publication: 4 July 2022

Double Blind Peer Reviewed

Recommended Citation:

Esser, Helena. 2022. “Material Girls: Moulin Rouge!’s Neo-Victorian Spectacle and the Real Courtesans of Paris.” Victorian Popular Fictions, 4.1: 111-25. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI:


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