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30 Years On: Is 'Pretty Woman' a Revolutionary Rom-Com or a Sexist Shambles?

Jessica Waugh Tuesday 10 March 2020

"Pretty woman, walking down the street / Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet". For any romantic-comedy fan or nostalgically-inclined millennial, the iconic opening bars of this Roy Orbinson Jr. hit probably evoke images of a young Julia Roberts strutting down Hollywood Boulevard in thigh-high boots donning a blonde wig and her impossibly endearing grin. This 23rd March marks the 30th anniversary of 'Pretty Woman', one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time and the story of an ambitious sex worker named Vivian who strikes up a lucrative deal with a Wall Street heavyweight. Sex work remains a controversial topic to this day and so 'Pretty Woman' is often remembered within the cultural imagination in one of two ways: either as a shallow film that simplifies prostitution and suggests that women are commodities or, alternatively, a feminist insight into consent and bodily autonomy that maintains that we all deserve our happy ending. These two radically different interpretations of the film both have points in their favour, so we decided to ask ourselves, in honour of this Garry Marshall flick's 30th anniversary, 'Pretty Woman', one of the most iconic films in Roberts' repertoire: sexist shambles or revolutionary rom-com?

2020 marks the 30th anniversary of 'Pretty Woman' and that iconic shopping scene

There is no denying that the 'Pretty Woman' that we know and love is an extremely different beast to the unflinching insight into the life of a sex worker that screenwriter J.F. Lawton originally set out to create. It is well-known that before 'Pretty Woman' was named for its charming theme song, Lawton's original script was titled '3,000' in reference to the amount of money that Edward pays Vivian for a week of her services. In this version of the movie, Vivian is a cocaine addict and her story ends not clinched in an embrace with Richard Gere, but rather on a bus bound for Disneyland with her friend Kit. Her relationship with Edward is over, her salary is paid and she sits on the bus and "stares emptily ahead" as she contemplates her future. It's a far cry from piano kisses and ruby necklaces.

It is understandable that this change in story rings alarm bells for viewers that would have liked a less cliché-ridden exploration of Vivian's world. The altered ending clearly implies that the studio was hesitant to delve into the dark underbelly of the world of illegal sex work in which the criminalisation of the profession means that sex workers are not provided with adequate protection and so are exposed to vulnerable, dangerous situations. Though the film has never claimed to speak for sex workers, with the industry and its rights acting as such a hot topic across the world, it does come across as somewhat shallow and frivolous to tell a story that romanticises or sentimentalises the profession by suggesting that sex workers are regularly hired by billionaires who shower them in gifts and shopping sprees, all whilst looking like Richard Gere. Sugar-coating isn't going to do anyone any favours.

The original version of 'Pretty Woman' was a darker look into Vivian's life and work

Yet, it seems difficult to write 'Pretty Woman' off completely for it's admittedly simplified portrayal of prostitution. For one, even though it is a lighter film than Lawton's original vision, there are some surprisingly brutal scenes in the film that stress to the audience the danger that many sex workers find themselves in due to lacking the protection that adequate worker's rights would give them. When Edward mentions to his colleague, the grossly entitled attorney Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), that Vivian is not his real girlfriend, but rather an escort agreeing to play that role, Stuckey assumes that she will automatically be willing to extend her services to him. When Vivian refuses, Stuckey cannot comprehend that her body is still hers to decide what to do with and he attempts to force himself on her in a deeply disturbing scene in which we see the formerly vivacious Vivian shrink in to herself as though she's trying to appear invisible to a man who, in terms of social status, holds all of the cards. "You think you can just pass me around to your friends?" Vivian demands of Edward. "I'm not your toy!". In those two sentences, Vivian rejects many cultural assumptions surrounding prostitution by defending her own agency and humanity. Despite being in a situation in which the men held the physical power - Stuckey as her assaulter and Edward as the man who pulls him off her - Vivian insists on maintaining her own by outright refusing to play into the objectification of her body. The phrase "I'm not a toy" is particularly pertinent because it declares that although Vivian sells her body, she herself is not a commodity. Nobody has an inherent right to her nor her body simply due to her chosen profession. She has allowed Edward to purchase her time, not her autonomy. In this, 'Pretty Woman' makes an important point about separating sex work from entitlement of any kind and allows Vivian to remain in control of her own body and self even when men try to forcefully wrest it from her.

Another important scene in the film that refutes the idea of 'Pretty Woman' being a completely frivolous, uncaring look into sex work comes early on in the film, when Vivian and her friend Kit see a dead sex worker with whom they were acquainted being unceremoniously dragged from a dumpster by the police. It's a shocking scene that tonally feels completely different to anything you'd expect in a rom-com. It's this discrepancy in tone that makes it so important, however. In seeing how this woman has not been shielded from the dangers of illegal sex work, 'Pretty Woman' is reminding audiences that even though Vivian may get her happy ending, that is not true for all unprotected workers within that industry. Advocacy groups and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have openly suggested that decriminalising prostitution and installing protective measures will help reduce human trafficking and the dangers that sex work entails. 'Pretty Woman' adds to this conversation by humanising the victims of violence and openly acknowledging the reality of many workers who find themselves without protection against those who would exploit their bodies without their consent. So, yes, perhaps the montage of Vivian shopping in Rodeo Drive and fulfilling all of our revenge fantasies ("Big mistake! Huge!") is unrealistic and reeks of wish-fulfilment. Yet these lighter moments are combined with brief yet powerful reminders that a world exists beyond Vivian and Edward's happy ending, a world to which we too often turn a blind eye.

The Agency of Vivian Ward

Since the #MeToo movement took off, the topic of consent has been at the forefront of discussions about sexuality and relationships. It was a long overdue conversation to be having, and something that makes 'Pretty Woman' worthy of a place at the metaphorical round table of politically pertinent romantic comedies today is that Vivian's agency and active consent is a core part of her character and the relationship she forms with Edward. This was true even at the time of the film's release in 1990, over twenty years before #MeToo came to fruition.

In one of the earliest scenes of the film, Vivian's friend Kit (Laura San Giacomo) suggests they look for a pimp to manage them and provide them with the security that the law does not. Vivian rejects this on the basis that if she is going to sell her sexuality, it will be on her terms only. "We say who, we say when, we say how much", she says to Kit in what becomes somewhat of a mantra for her character when it comes to her job. She repeats this sentiment to Edward after discovering that he told Stuckey about her profession, once against reinforcing that selling her body does not make it an object - she is still a human being, and she decides who has access to her body, mind and heart. Feminist film review site Bitch Flicks argues that "'Pretty Woman' consistently shows greater respect for the bodily autonomy of its heroine, Vivian, than most traditional portrayals of romance", and this statement rings uncomfortably true. How many films, from 'Rocky' to 'The Notebook', show women pressured into dates, relationships and physical contact with men who persist until the object of their affections eventually gives in? How many films show men forcefully kissing a woman to shut her up or keep her from finishing a sentence? How often is physical or sexual violence against women used as a mere plot device? Too often and too many, is the answer. Vivian's rule about no kissing on the mouth may be to separate herself from her profession in the film, but it also serves to remind the viewer that even when she is offering her body to men, she still has ultimate control over it. She has the last say. Assume otherwise and you'll be left as burned as the shop assistant in Rodeo Drive.

Vivian deserves her happy ending on her terms in 'Pretty Woman'

What makes Vivian even more empowering as a heroine, however, is that wielding control over her sexuality does not mean renouncing it all together. Feminist cultural critic Roxane Gay (who, incidentally, asserts that 'Pretty Woman' is her all-time favourite film) had this to say at a TIFF Talk about the film: "1990 was a different time. You don't think it was, but it actually was. For a woman to be sexy and self-actualised in the ways that Vivian is self-actualised is not something we saw in a lot of movies". She goes on to compare Vivian to another empowering heroine in the form of Sarah Connor in 'The Terminator'. Despite Sarah Connor's take-no-prisoners attitude, however, Gay points out that the character was "badass, but she was also asexual", suggesting that strong female characters and blatant sexuality are treated as mutually exclusive character qualities. Sexual, sensual women cannot be badass, it seems to suggest, as though putting their femininity and sexual appetite on display is somehow demeaning for women, despite this playing into a double standard as the opposite is true for men. Nobody suggests that James Bond has to give up the Bond girls to keep his kick-butt secret agent credentials; instead, his promiscuity is seen to reinforce his masculinity, somehow. Vivian challenges this double standard by asking - nay, demanding - that these same standards are applied to her. She's badass, but she's sexy. She's ambitious, but she's sensual. She's intelligent, smart, resourceful and she can be all of those cerebral things without renouncing any sort of relationship to her sexuality. It's a powerful thing to see: a woman owning sexuality without being reduced to it.

Finally, seeing Vivian and Edward kiss on the fire escape may be a sugar-coated ending to a film that sort of fails in its original objective of creating a rich, gritty drama about the complexities of the red light district near Hollywood Boulevard, but I would argue that this change in plan does not take away from what is empowering about the film. Throughout the film, Vivian tells Edward that she wants "the fairytale". She wants the love story, she wants happiness, she wants life on her own terms. Is it really so anti-feminist that in the end, after everything, this is exactly what she gets? Not only that, but even as her idealised ending is unfolding, Vivian stills holds on to her own self-worth and power in their relationship by asserting that after the white knight rescues the princess, "she rescues him right back". Even as the credits fade to black, Vivian is not swooning like some damsel in distress waiting to be swept up onto the back of Richard Gere's loyal steed (and by steed here we mean sports car). She is establishing equilibrium between them by indicating that even though they began on a financially unequal ground, by the end they are emotional peers who hold equal amounts of power in the relationship.

When asked why she, a critically acclaimed feminist critic and writer, loves 'Pretty Woman' so much despite its problematic aspects, Roxane Gay replied: "I just love a happy ending". Perhaps in the end, Vivian writing her own fairytale ending into being is more powerful than it is usually given credit for being. Because, like everything else, it happens on her terms. She says who, she says when, and that's that.

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