Runtime: 119 Minutes
Director: Garry Marshall
Writer: J.F. Lawton
Stars: Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Jason Alexander, Laura San Giacomo
By Bianca Garner
“You should totally watch Pretty Woman!” My aunt instructed me when we were recently discussing romantic films. Here’s the thing, I don’t do romantic films. I usually hate watching Rom Coms and find them so cliched and predictable. I explained all this to my aunt but she insisted that I would really like “Pretty Woman” if I gave it a chance. Well, what with it being Valentine’s Day coming up soon, there seemed to be no better time than now to check the film out. I could easily watch it and write up a scathing review about how much I disliked the film. However, as I started to watch it I slowly fell under its charm, much like how Edward Lewis (Richard Gere’s character) falls under the spell of the loveable Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts). Quickly, I found myself laughing at Roberts’ one liners and witty comebacks, swooning over the way that Gere’s character would gaze at Vivian, and cheering on Vivian as she stood up for herself against the snobby shop clerks. By the end of the film I was sobbing my little heart out.
By all accounts, I should hate “Pretty Woman” as it represents everything I dislike in a Hollywood film. And, whilst I may like aspects of the film, I still have issues with certain things especially concerning the portrayal of sex workers in the film and the leer of the male gaze. I thought I would approach this review in a slightly different way and detail all the things I found ‘Good’ about the film, the things I consider to be ‘Bad’ and what I consider to be ‘Ugly’. So, without any further ado, let’s get into my sort-of review of “Pretty Woman”.
Firstly, I want to say how much I liked the character of Vivian. Julia Roberts is so sweet and adorable in this film and she really brings out Vivian’s vulnerable side. In lesser hands, the character could have been very artificial and fake but Roberts manages to make her come across as very authentic even though the overall premise, narrative and dialogue does little to make the world of “Pretty Woman” appear realistic.
” As I started to watch it I slowly fell under its charm, much like how Edward Lewis (Richard Gere’s character) falls under the spell of the loveable Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts). “
Vivian is very independent, choosing not to have a pimp and is very streetwise. As discussed in a CNN article “‘Pretty Woman’ at 25” Vivian is described as “no pushover’..She dictates the way she wishes to be treated; when he offers her the status of a mistress, she dictates the status of a full equal,” writes Brigit McCone in a more recent Bitch Flicks piece titled, “Why ‘Pretty Woman’ Should Be Considered a Feminist Classic.” “Let us never forget that when the prince rescues her, she rescues him right back.”
I agree with this view. You never get the sense that she’s naive and out of her depth. She may have made several unwise decisions that have led her down the ‘career’ path of becoming a sex worker, but at least she’s aware that she’s made these choices in her life and tries her best to own them. As Matthew Jacobs writes for The Huffpost, “”Pretty Woman” never paints Vivian as a hapless tramp with no chance of prosperity. She’s Cinderella for the dawning millennium.”
Julia Roberts isn’t the only actor who manages to make their character appear ‘real’. Although Gere has criticized the film since its release, he did manage to make the character of Edward seem less of a jerk than how he’s written. Gere has that likable charm to him and the chemistry that exists between him and Roberts jumps off the screen. As discussed in the CNN piece, “Gere and Roberts, despite their 18-year age difference, have genuine chemistry. The interplay between her goofy exuberance and his bemused stoicism is mostly effective.” The film mostly works because of the capability of these two actors and we stay invested in the story because of their interactions with one another.
Lastly, another good point is how the film approaches the subject of consent. One of the most impactful scenes in the film is when Vivian argues with Edward about how he told his friend Stuckey (Jason Alexander) about her profession at a Polo match and accuses him of trying to ‘pass her around to his friends’ (“You think you can just pass me around to your friends, I’m not your toy. You don’t own me, I decide! I say who, I say when, I say who!”). As feminist Roxane Gay puts it, “Consent is a real part of this movie. I think the way she acts is pretty feminist, especially for the time… For a woman to be sexy and to be self-actualised in the ways that Vivian is self-actualised is not something we saw a lot of in movies [at the time].”
“The film mostly works because of the capability of these two actors and we stay invested in the story because of their interactions with one another. “
While there are several good aspects to consider regarding “Pretty Woman” there are also a lot of downsides. Firstly, the film is essentially a modern ‘fairytale’ which tries to paint the picture that the only way that Vivian will ever escape her reality is with the help of Edward.
Katie Hail-Jares, a board member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP USA), has discussed “Pretty Woman” and it’s troubling messages in great depth. As discussed in the CNN piece, “Vivian’s exit from sex work thanks to Gere’s character is also troubling, [as Hail-Jares states]”In the movie she’s able to fill economic void with Edward’s money but in reality that doesn’t happen.”
Whilst at times the film’s dialogue openly mocks the fact that the film is essentially a retelling of the classic fairy tales such as ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Rapunzel’. In one scene Vivian and her friend/colleague Kit (Laura San Giacomo) discuss whether they know of any hookers who have managed to settle down. Vivian demands Kit to give her a name, and Kit responds with the following line, “What, you want me to name someone? You want like a name? Oh, God, the pressure of a name… I got it. Cindafuckin’rella.”
“The film never attempts to discuss how fairy tales can have a negative impact on our self-esteem, especially for young girls. “
Vivian even confindes to Edward about her abusive mother and dysfunctional upbringing, explaining how she was locked up in an attic and would fantasize about being ‘rescued’ by a prince), the film never attempts to discuss how fairy tales can have a negative impact on our self-esteem, especially for young girls.
Fairy tale princesses are often described as being beautiful, as if this is the only characteristic worthy of mentioning. As Vanessa Loder writes for the Huffpost, “If women are valued for looking pretty and for finding a prince rather than for hard work, resilience, courage and powerful vulnerability, what is that telling our children — sons and daughters — about how women “should” behave and what they “should” focus on?”. The film pays a lot of attention to Vivian’s beauty and her sex appeal. Edward talks about Vivian in terms of her beauty, even dropping the line “Do you have anything in this shop as beautiful as she is?” when going shopping with her.
The film also promotes the idea that “money fixes all of life’s problems” and the film celebrates a consumerist lifestyle (although, it’s worth mentioning that “Pretty Woman” is clearly not the only film that does this). As the CNN piece discusses, the film openly celebrates the ‘Greed is Good’ culture that existed in the 80s and 90s, “”Ideologically, ‘Pretty Woman’ is a love song to consumerism and capitalism,” said Bitch Flicks’ Johnson. “‘Pretty Woman’ depicts a world where everyone is either a card-carrying member of the corporate caste or an obliging subordinate … It is obsessed with things (hotel suites, private jets, fancy clothes) and encourages the audience to share its obsession with things.”” While many of us love a good ‘shopping spree’ scene, it does feel that Vivian is only ‘valued as a person’ once she wears the right labels.
It is also worth mentioning that the film encapsulates the ‘male gaze’ in a very obvious and obnoxious way. This is most apparent when we are introduced to Vivian, as the first thing we see of her is her bottom as she lies down in bed, her back turned to the camera. Instantly, her character is presented to us in an overly sexualised manner and she is often treated in a demeaning manner by the male characters. The scene towards the end of the film where she is attacked by Stuckey is a perfect example at how sex workers are often victims of abuse by the hands of men.
I was shocked to discover that one of the film’s taglines was “Who knew it was so much fun to be a hooker?”. The reality of being a sex worker is a grim and very disturbing one and shouldn’t be treated as something so ‘light-hearted’. As stated in a piece for the Huffpost (‘17 Facts About Sexual Violence and Sex Work’), “Sex workers experience high levels of sexual violence. Globally, sex workers have a 45 to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence at some point in their careers and a 32 to 55% chance of experiencing sexual violence in a given year.”
Although, Vivian and Kit do occasionally discuss the tough reality of being a sex worker, they seem to be doing quite well all things considering. They may be struggling to pay the rent, but at least they have a roof over their heads. Both women appear to be in good health, and they don’t appear to have any serious, heavy drug addictions, and they often demeaning other sex workers by calling them “crack whores” to distinguish how they are better than them. Vivian is presented as someone who is exceptional and is worthy of being rescued, because she can easily assimilate into the world of ball gowns and opera nights.
“I was shocked to discover that one of the film’s taglines was “Who knew it was so much fun to be a hooker?”. The reality of being a sex worker is a grim and very disturbing one and shouldn’t be treated as something so ‘light-hearted’. “
As stated by Hail-Jarnes in the CNN piece, “”What’s problematic is how it portrays sex work at large, like she’s the only one worth saving. You get the sense that she’s not the norm, and that allows us to get invested in her while not necessarily worrying about the welfare of other women who fall into the (sex worker) stereotype.””
So, do I like “Pretty Woman” as a whole? Well, it’s difficult. I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone seeking a strong representation of feminist empowerment. I certainly wouldn’t want any young girls watching this film, and wouldn’t show this movie to anyone under the age of sixteen because of how negatively it portrays the role of women in society as a whole. It certainly is a film of its time, and it helps to reflect on how far we have come since 1990. Overall, “Pretty Woman” is just a bit of consumerist entertainment that is fun whilst it’s on the screen but leaves a very bad taste in your mouth afterwards.