A Retrospective Look at "Pretty Woman"

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By Samantha Baugh

“I want the fairytale.”

The 1980s had come and gone. A filmmaking era where playing it safe was the name of the game. In 1990, “Pretty Woman” came on the scene.

The film follows Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) and Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) over the course of a week. Vivian’s story begins when she goes out for the night and finds another prostitute murdered in an alleyway. Her friend suggests that they get a pimp to feel safe, but Vivian rejects the idea to keep control. Edward meets Vivian when he is asking for directions to his hotel. After a night together, Edward, pays Vivian three thousand dollars to stay with him the rest of the week. As time passes in typical rom-com style the two fall in love. Edward tells Vivian he will pay for Vivian to get off the street and stay in an apartment in Los Angeles for Edward to visit whenever he comes back into town. She is hurt by the suggestion, rejects the idea and leaves, planning to move to San Francisco. In an attempt to get her back, Edward shows up outside her apartment in mock knight on a horse style to tell her he is ready for a sincere relationship with her. They kiss and the credits roll.

The original script for “Pretty Woman” was rougher and tougher, highlighting the gritty parts of Vivian’s life as a prostitute. The ending was a far cry to the final cut where Edward climbs the fire escape with flowers in hand. Julia Roberts would look back at the changes noting that the only thing that stayed the same between the original script and the final product was the lead characters’ names. It became a fairytale.

Looking back, it becomes an interesting game of “what-ifs.” If the movie kept its original tone would it have been as successful? It is difficult to find someone who won’t recognize the line “Big mistake! Big! Huge!” “Pretty Woman” is part of the American cultural consciousness because of its place as a classic rom-com. There were certainly successful and famous darker movies of the era. It would only be one year until the wildly successful “Silence of the Lambs” would be released, and who doesn’t recognize the Hannibal Lecter mask?

It’s futile to imagine what could have been, so let’s talk about what we have.

“So what happens after he climbs up and rescues her?”

“She rescues him right back.”

“Pretty Woman” is a fantasy. For three thousand dollars (plus unlimited shopping money), Vivian is to stay with Edward in his penthouse hotel room for a week and be his “beck and call girl.” Edward is an attractive, wealthy, and polite man. It’s not a terrible deal and it’s not hard to fall under the romanticized spell the movie presents. Even in its darker moments, the movie manages to stay light. It is not a complex look at the sex industry or class differences, so its hardly the movie to go to in search of social truths.

For the most part, the movie fulfills romantic comedy tropes (note: trope ≠ bad) and old-fashioned gender roles. This is particularly true in regards to the age difference between Vivian and Edward and Vivian’s naivete being highlighted in several scenes. Edward also displays a need for control in all aspects of his life, however this is a personal flaw he learns to work out by the end of the film.

What the film leaves us with is a “wild child” cleaned up and with a newfound direction and an uptight billionaire who finds personal and professional fulfillment because of the infectious free-spirited nature of an unlikely love interest. Both halves of the romance have grown and changed. The audience has gotten to experience the thrill of a story that goes against social norms, but at the same time fulfills the image of happiness by the end. In short: It’s a classic.

That’s why for its period, I would consider “Pretty Woman’s” success on a person to person basis. The only requirement is if you cared about Vivian and Edward and if you enjoyed yourself. If the answer is yes, it’s a success. In terms of social progressiveness, it’s a mix considering its 1990 release. While old fashioned in plenty of ways (ex: women love shopping), it also has progressive aspects.

“Oh, I’m not trying to land him. I’m just using him for sex.”

Hollywood has historically feared and vilified women with any sexual history. Making the lead female a prostitute is a bold move. Granted, Vivian “cleans up real nice,” but she is never perceived as malicious or untrustworthy. Also, the premise takes away the old sex equals love signal (though maintains true loves’ kiss by making Vivian’s one rule not kissing on the lips). Vivian and Edward are in a sexual relationship throughout the film. The question is not “Will they or won’t they?” but, “Will they care enough to stay?” In my opinion, this is far more intimate than any sexual tension. In short (again for 1990), this film was progressive for sex, regressive for gender roles.

“Let’s watch old movies all night. We’ll just veg out in front of the TV.”

Now, we have twenty-nine years of social progress and education when looking back on “Pretty Woman.” We’ve seen others pay tribute and parody the film. I’m certain if you google the title, there are enough think pieces to last a lifetime. I’m not going to try to examine whether the movie is feminist or anti-feminist, but I want to explore what the movie’s function is in our world today.

There are still plenty of people who fully stand by the film, believing it to be one of the most romantic movies ever made. Admitting personal bias, this movie is definitely one of my favorite movies to watch for a night in. It’s funny, sentimental, and strangely innocent for its context. But now we know better, and it gets harder to ignore the realities of the dynamics presented to us in the movie: Edward buys Vivian for the week. He decides what is appropriate for her to wear. Vivian’s care-free personality is what heals Edward enough to become a better person. The latter is a trope that has aged out of its charm. The rest was never charming to begin with.

The questions I don’t have the answer to is what is this film’s duty to us now and what is our duty as viewers? In all honestly, this question seems heavier than “Pretty Woman” should ever be. Yet I still find myself telling people that this is my “guilty pleasure” or “problematic fav.” Lately, I’ve found myself wondering where is the line in our history where we start putting our present standards onto the past. At what point were we supposed to know better as a society?

I am in no way trying to say that we should ignore the issues in past works. Flaws should be acknowledged, but after they are acknowledged can we continue to consume and enjoy them? From my own conversations, the general attitude seems to be just don’t deny that the problems are there. Still, we cannot hide under the safety of “it was another time” for many of these issues still exist in today’s films and in our culture.

 “No wonder why you came looking for me.”

“Pretty Woman” today, with a mostly female fanbase, is still what it said it was twenty-nine years ago: a fairy tale. It is a fantasy for people, whether they want to be Vivian or Edward. It’s a fantasy where everything is indulged: sex, taboo, wealth, and romance. I won’t deny the film’s issues and many outdated moments. What I do want to allow is room for fantasy.

Recently, there was an advertisement for a film whose whole marketing campaign was about making women feel empowered. A movie which does this, is trying to create a wonderful, important, and much needed feeling in women. We don’t need romantic love. We can take care of ourselves. We are strong.

“Pretty Woman” will not empower you. If it does its job right, it should make you horribly love sick. That’s fine. It’s just like a balanced food diet. Have some candy, but don’t pretend its broccoli, and make sure you eat your protein too.

Samantha Baugh