Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Clothes Make the Woman

Film: Pretty Woman
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

There are two ways to look at Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman. There is the happy fantasy version and the unfortunate and sort of ugly truth underneath the happy, happy fantasy. Which view is the real one? My guess is that Garry Marshall’s intent was the first view, but I’m of the opinion that it’s impossible to get through the film without the second view.

Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is a high-powered corporate raider who buys companies and destroys them by chopping them into pieces and selling off the bits. That he is the romantic lead and considered a hero is possible only in the Reagan/Bush era, but there you have it. Lost in Beverly Hills, he asks attractive prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) for directions to his hotel. Vivian, we have learned, lives with fellow prostitute Kit De Luca (Laura San Giacomo), who has the charming habit of spending the rent money on drugs. Once at his hotel, Edward decides to hire Vivian for the night to the tune of $300.

Of course, since this is a romantic comedy, it’s a guarantee that Edward and Vivian will fall for each other, and that the road to true love will be a rocky one. Things stay in motion when Edward hires Vivian for $3000 for the week. Part of the problem is Edward’s lawyer, Phil Stuckey (Jason Alexander), who is crude and without much conscience. Another part of the problem is Vivian’s low-class ways, preventing her from shopping at the expensive stores on Rodeo Drive when Edward gives her free reign of his credit cards. Another issue is the frowning attitude of the hotel manager Barnard Thompson (Hector Elizondo), who is eventually roped into doing the full My Fair Lady/Pygmalion treatment on Vivian. The fourth hurdle are the Morses (Ralph Bellamy as grandpere and Alex Hyde-White as grandson), whose company is on the chopping block for Edward’s money making enterprise.

Okay, it’s a rom-com. There is no question that once the wheels are set in motion, the moment Vivian slides into Edward’s car, that these two will finish the film with each other. That they overcome all of the obstacles listed above is no surprise and no secret. So let’s talk about the fantasy message of the film and the dark secrets that lie underneath.

Let’s address the fantasy first. I get why this is considered an ultimate female fantasy film. I really do. Julia Roberts, of course, is gorgeous, and was especially so in 1990. She doesn’t really want to be a prostitute but is forced into it, in part by her lowlife friend Kit. Edward is filthy rich, powerful, and attractive. He’s also sensitive enough to see the diamond in the rough (or the true elegant beauty in the hot pants and thigh-high boots, as it were) in Vivian. And, overcome with her blossoming potential from streetwalker to lady of society, he can’t help but be swept away with love for her, become a better man for her, and eventually (once we get through the two hours of film, at least) carry her away like the modern version of a knight on a white horse, or in this case like a knight in a white limo.

I get it. Who wouldn’t groove on the fairy tale fantasy of someone screamingly rich discovering that you are all they hoped and dreamed for and escorting you away to a life of love and luxury to the end of your days? How is that measurably different from the fantasy of winning the Power Ball lottery?

So now let’s talk about the real message behind this film. There are several deeper and much darker messages here, and none of them are going to earn me any friends in the “I love Pretty Woman” club.

First is the shopping. Look at the picture just above this paragraph. Look at the expression on Julia Roberts’s face. This is a woman who is overjoyed specifically because she has been given free reign of a rich man’s credit cards. This is a woman who is confident specifically because she has suddenly been given nice, expensive clothes to wear. Her value here, both to herself and, quite frankly to Edward, isn’t from anything intrinsic to her, but because of the value and appearance of what she is wearing. Put her in her hooker gear and she’s a hooker. Put her in designer outfits, and she’s a woman of society. When Vivian tells the arrangement she’s made to Kit, Kit complains that she shouldn’t have sent Vivian over to Edward’s car the night before. We’re made to think that everything would have been different if Kit had been the one to approach Edward. But would it have been? Oh sure, she might have bought some drugs, but who’s to say that with the film’s particular ideology that Kit wouldn’t have cleaned up just as nicely as Vivian?

The real proof of this comes in the shopping trip. In the hooker gear, she’s booted out of a store because she doesn’t belong there. In the right clothes, suddenly, she’s too good for them. Yeah, there’s that delicious revenge in play in this moment, but the minute she’s in something nice, suddenly all doors open for her. Her worth as a person comes directly from her wardrobe. This is mirrored by the reactions of the people on the street, who stare at Vivian all hookered up, no doubt thinking her nothing more than what her appearance tells them she is—a prostitute. Later, she gets only looks of approval—because of her clothes.

This brings up the second, related message here—Vivian is of value strictly as something ornamental, and her value is limited by how she looks. Initially, in the thigh boots and washcloth-sized skirt, Vivian’s value is strictly as a sex object. With the right clothes, she has a much greater value. We know from her own admission that, while not particularly stupid, she is uneducated, having dropped out of high school. We know, thanks to the lessons from the guy in the hotel, that she is completely uncultured, which is frequently reinforced, especially in the opera scene. So why does Edward fall for her? ‘Cause she’s purty. It has little to do with her as a person. Edward decides to keep her around because she’s attractive and convenient. And from this, love blossoms.


Additionally, there is very little conflict in this film. I mean, there’s no shock as to what the ending is going to be, and that’s common with rom-coms. The tension isn’t “will they get together,” but “how will what is going to happen happen?” But beyond that, the tension is generally lacking. The big business deal is given fairly short shrift throughout, so little conflict arises here. The one moment of tension is the attempted rape, and were it not an attempted rape, this would be comic. Seriously, the Jason Alexander character tries to rape Vivian. He’s giving up 5-6 inches, and my guess is she could bench press him pretty easily. And even that is immediately resolved. The one fight Edward and Vivian have lasts only long enough for her to get to the elevator—and not long enough for the elevator door to open.


I get why this film is effective. I get why people love it as much as they do. I can’t get past what I think is the underlying message of the film—women are valuable for their appearance alone, and all that anyone really needs is someone to buy them the right designer labels for their true worth to shine through.

Why to watch Pretty Woman: In the romantic comedy world, you can’t avoid it.
Why not to watch: The Julia Roberts character is replaceable by anyone who looks good in an expensive dress.


  1. This film also pretty much set the template for romcom's to come (Even more critcally acclaimed ones like Silver Linings Playbook). And can't you hear the jaunty background music as Julia Roberts walks down the street in the picture above?

    1. My problem with rom-coms is that they tend to be incredibly formulaic. There are good and great ones out there (High Fidelity, When Harry Met Sally), but too many of them devolve into the sort of wacky hijinks and unbelievable premises that are too damn common in the genre.

      Pretty Woman's success is what helped create that modern template.

  2. I really like your commentary about Vivian's wardrobe, it's a point I hadn't thought of, but a very good one.

    Pretty Woman was required viewing when I was in college (living with six girls at once... *shudder*). I liked it, and I used to watch it whenever it came on cable, but I couldn't let myself think too much about it because, frankly, it squicked me out on closer inspection. The outer fantasy is nice and fun and diverting, but I agree with you that there are some real problems beneath the surface. I haven't watched it in several years, and honestly, I'm a little nervous about seeing it again to write about it because I have a feeling my inner feminist beast is going to rip it a new one.

    1. My wife hates it when I talk down films like this one, but I do it because I don't want my girls to go through life thinking the fairy tale is anything like reality. Films like this one are potentially dangerous to young women, depending on how much they accept the underlying narrative.

    2. It's a really slippery slope to take movies like this at face value. It's like a modern-day version of the Disney Princess Dream, only in this movie, our princess is a hooker, ladling on all kinds of notions about the objectification/sexualization of women as well. Slippery, slippery slope.

    3. True--and she in fact talks about a fairy tale fantasy she had in the past, and then says that that is specifically what she wants.

      And objectification/sexualization is here in spades. Her initial shopping foray is met with aggressiveness and looks of derision. She is, essentially, slut-shamed by everyone. Later, in the nice clothes, she is ogled just as aggressively, but it's somehow positive.

  3. "I can’t get past what I think is the underlying message of the film—women are valuable for their appearance alone, and all that anyone really needs is someone to buy them the right designer labels for their true worth to shine through."

    Sorry, but I feel you're way overthinking this. First of all, it's hardly only women who are judged by their appearance and clothes. Gere isn't exactly Quasimodo and he dresses in the most expensive suits in the film. You're not a woman. Ever go to a job interview and NOT dress up for it? Right or wrong (and I go with wrong) we are all judged by our appearances. That's just the world we live in and this film did not introduce or worsen that tendency. Show up for an interview looking like a bum vs. show up for an interview looking like Richard Gere in this film. Which way do you think you have a better chance of being hired? Show up in a store looking like a hooker vs. show up in a store looking like a rich woman. Which way do you think you have a better chance of being waited on?

    Second, and you are far from the first person to only place value on the changes Gere's character effected in Roberts', Gere is also presented as an unlikable character to start. You note that it was the Reagan/Bush era, but that wasn't it. He is shown to be a soulless businessman and that it's a bad thing. He's not happy and he "doesn't sleep much." Roberts' character effects just as big a change in him as he does in her - bigger actually. She teaches him to live life, to care about others, in short, to have a soul. That's why he falls in love with her, not because she's now wearing pretty dresses. (Yes, if she looked like Quasimodo he wouldn't be getting together with her either, so her looks do play a part, but you can say the same thing about why Roberts was cast in the first place.)

    Do I love this movie? No, but I consider it an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours and NOT have to think about hidden deeper meanings and what the director was REALLY trying to say. This is a movie with no agenda other than to entertain and make money.

    1. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

      I don't disagree that a proper appearance does make a difference, but in this film, her clothing is the only difference. In My Fair Lady, at least Henry Higgins gave Eliza diction lessons.

      Ultimately, I don't buy it.

  4. You don't have to over-think this movie to find it's message very shallow and maybe a little disturbing. You just have to think about it a little to get there.

    I purposely missed it when it first came out, but it was on cable and knowing it's on the List, I DVRed it and watched it today. It's watchable. I was never bored or annoyed. Some of the music made me flinch a little.

    The performances are pretty good. Richard Gere is supposed to be lifeless, so I think he's well cast. And Julia Roberts is a very good actress, which is something I tend to forget because I don't really see that many of her movies because I don't really like the kind of movies that she makes.

    Some great people in the supporting cast! I could hardly believe Ralph Bellamy was still around in 1990! And if I had known Laura San Giacomo was in this, I probably wouldn't have waited almost 30 years to see it.

    And poor Jason Alexander! The attempted rape of Vivian was kind of gratuitous and unnecessary, and was highlighted another of this movie's problems regarding the way the beautiful people are portrayed. Because of course the would-be rapist with the disrespectful attitude towards women is dumpy and bald and rat-faced. Handsome Richard Gere would never be like that!

    I guess I get why it's on the List, but I'm not much of a fan. At least I was never bored with it.

    1. For all of its acclaim and love, it's a one-and-done for me. I think the problems are just too big for me to ever really appreciate it.

      It's a good point about making the dumpy, balding Jason Alexander out to be the rapist. That's almost a Disney-level ugly=bad moment. But beyond that, it's simply a ridiculous situation.

      As for Julia Roberts, I can't say I really dislike her, but I don't know that I've ever been that interested in any of her movies in general.