November 2017

Consumptive Chic: The Postfeminist Recycling of Camille in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!

in Prostitution and Sex Work in Global Cinema by Katie N. Johnson


Prostitutes, especially hookers-with-hearts-of-gold, have long tugged at the heartstrings of audiences on stage and in film. While Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) offers a funky—if not campy—take on the turn-of-the-century Parisian underworld, the film is nonetheless an unmistakable retelling of Dumas fils’ nineteenth-century melodrama Camille (La Dame aux camélias). In fact, Lurhmann’s prostitute-character Satine emblematizes the ‘penitent whore,’ the figure that is scrutinized for her sexual transgressions, who expresses a sense of worthlessness, repents for her sins, and is ultimate punished—usually by death—to reinstate patriarchal order. As Satine, the Sparkling Diamond of the Moulin Rouge, Nicole Kidman is often fetishistically shot with a blue lens, giving her a necrophilic look, creating what Johnson calls ‘consumptive chic.’ The film’s cinematography highlights her fragility, pallid form, and glistening corpse-like whiteness. Satine’s whiteness also functions powerfully as a racial category, which is key to her desirability. Although Luhrmann’s postmodern approach is entertaining, the film eviscerates years of scholarship regarding representations of fallen women, the regulation of women’s sexuality, the politics of women’s work, the process of racialization, and commercialized sex. The film’s popularity can be seen a barometer of dominant culture’s attitudes toward the postfeminist moment and demonstrates the formative role of film in perpetuating misogynistic narratives, whilst giving lip service to women’s liberation. Johnson’s essay takes up the question of representing the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and its resonance for postfeminism and media studies by analyzing Cukor’s Camille (1936), two versions of Moulin Rouge (John Huston 1952 and Luhrmann 2001), and the ‘Lady Marmalade’ music video (2002) produced by Missy Elliot.

Distorted Antigones: Dialectics and Prostitution in Lola and Shirins Hochzeit

in Prostitution and Sex Work in Global Cinema by Danielle Hipkins and Katharine Mitchell by Teresa Ludden


Rather than interpreting R.W. Fassbinder’s film Lola and Helma Sanders’s Shirins Hochzeit through the usual angle of genre and melodrama, this essay used Hegelian dialectical philosophy and gender theories to analyse the prostitute characters. Taking Walter Benjamin’s idea of the prostitute as embodiment of contradictions, and Hegel’s notion of women as the ‘irony of the community’, I examined the symbolism surrounding Lola which constantly mutated to figure her as a revolutionary force outside dialectics; as outside but also inside associated with the dialectical relations between public and private; as repressed individuality which, as such, maintains the community. By making dialectics become visible as the site of constant tensions she exposed the workings the dialectic and alluded to the dysfunction of the dialectic because of the domination of the universal. Shirin, on the other hand, is positioned less complexly as marginal but oppositional voice, and the circular device of the resuscitated speaking tragic heroine created a central tension between the desire for a different speaking position and acknowledgement of the danger of repeating the same stories.

“Le Traviate: Suffering Heroines and the Italian State Between the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries”

in Prostitution and Sex Work in Global Cinema by Danielle Hipkins and Katharine Mitchell


In this chapter we will consider the relationship between what was considered the most successful operatic melodrama in the newly emerging nation state of nineteenth-century Italy, Verdi’s La traviata, first performed in 1853, and a 2012 film addressing the theme of the suffering female and the doomed romantic relationship in the context of prostitution, Un giorno speciale (Francesca Comencini). In the first section of this chapter, we examine the extent to which this trope gained significance through operatic melodrama and discourses surrounding prostitution in the late nineteenth century, and what its possible effects were. Then we will look at the way in which recent discourse about prostitution is mediated through the trope of the suffering (girl) heroine in Un giorno speciale, a film addressing the recent events in Italy. We suggest that re-reading these texts together enables us to see beyond the suffering prostitute heroine’s apparent reduction to cypher, and towards her potential to open up questions about structural inequalities within the body politic. We argue that Comencini’s self-conscious recycling of the trope is typical of a new engagement with the girl figure as a ‘suffering actor’, identified by Anita Harris and Amy Shields Dobson as a trope for overcoming the dichotomy between agency and victimhood in the post-girl power period.

Deborah and Her Sisters
How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage

by Jonathan M. Hess

Before Fiddler on the Roof, before The Jazz Singer, there was Deborah, a tear-jerking melodrama about a Jewish woman forsaken by her non-Jewish lover. Within a few years of its 1849 debut in Hamburg, the play was seen on stages across Germany and Austria, as well as throughout Europe, the British Empire, and North America. The German-Jewish elite complained that the playwright, Jewish writer S. H. Mosenthal, had written a drama bearing little authentic Jewish content, while literary critics protested that the play lacked the formal coherence of great tragedy. Yet despite its lackluster critical deborah and her sistersreception, Deborah became a blockbuster, giving millions of theatergoers the pleasures of sympathizing with an exotic Jewish woman. It spawned adaptations with titles from Leah, the Forsaken to Naomi, the Deserted, burlesques, poems, operas in Italian and Czech, musical selections for voice and piano, a British novel fraudulently marketed in the United States as the original basis for the play, three American silent films, and thousands of souvenir photographs of leading actresses from Adelaide Ristori to Sarah Bernhardt in character as Mosenthal’s forsaken Jewess.

For a sixty-year period, Deborah and its many offshoots provided audiences with the ultimate feel-good experience of tearful sympathy and liberal universalism. With Deborah and Her Sisters, Jonathan M. Hess offers the first comprehensive history of this transnational phenomenon, focusing on its unique ability to bring Jews and non-Jews together during a period of increasing antisemitism. Paying careful attention to local performances and the dynamics of transnational exchange, Hess asks that we take seriously the feelings this commercially successful drama provoked as it drove its diverse audiences to tears. Following a vast paper trail in theater archives and in the press, Deborah and Her Sisters reconstructs the allure that Jewishness held in nineteenth-century popular culture and explores how the Deborah sensation generated a liberal culture of compassion with Jewish suffering that extended beyond the theater walls.

Jonathan M. Hess is the Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Culture and Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is author of several books, including Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity and Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity.