Pretty Woman: a Feminist Icon on film

Duana Posted by Duana at March 23, 2020 16:19:28 March 23, 2020 16:19:28

Oh, yo. Oh, yo. Catch this… 

Today is the 30th anniversary of the release of Pretty Woman! If you, like me, were forever changed and shaped by this film, then I wish you a happy anniversary, and apologies that we can no longer deny the march of time. Although given that most of us memorized this movie through rigorous viewings of the VHS tape, we may have a year or so’s grace. 

The hardest thing to untangle about this anniversary is that 30 years since Pretty Woman also means 30 years since Julia Roberts. The two are just about impossible to separate. Yes, of course she existed before Pretty Woman, but come on – it was undoubtedly the movie that made her, and once it did, “Julia Roberts” was instantly not just an actress but a Movie Star, a household name, and yes dammit, an attitude. A tone. A person not to be f-cked with from the very beginning (not to mention a beacon for tall girls everywhere).  

Though we’re celebrating Pretty Woman, it’s important to note that Roberts’s preceding roles, in Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias, still hold up as classics. Imagine landing roles like that, in movies like that, right at the beginning of your career? Not to mention how much space there was for movies about the interior lives of women; I mention that not just to be all grumpy Scorsese about how different the cinematic landscape is now, but because I think it’s important to note that “Julia Roberts” would not have become synonymous with “sassy, funny, surprising, ballsy” if she was starring in action movies or even some sweeping period piece. She was always That Girl, but also That Girl, Right Now. 

Lots of actresses are vivacious and effortlessly charismatic, though, and none of them are Julia – or, none of them got the opportunity to be. Jennifer Aniston is the closest, and yet her career has a far different tone. In fact, you know who has Julia’s same quality and doesn’t get the credit for it? Amanda Seyfried. Don’t roll your eyes. Go watch her play the kind of girl you might know – Lilly Kane in Veronica Mars or Karen in Mean Girls – and tell me that, whatever their flaws, you wouldn’t be stoked to hang out with either of them. That’s Big Julia Roberts Energy and everything that describes her charisma is a cliché, but it’s also her superpower. 

Pretty Woman is what ultimately made Julia Roberts a star – and Julia Roberts is what made Pretty Woman. You can’t unpick the two. Her character, Vivian, shares so many performance similarities with Shelby and Daisy that you realize Roberts is never going to disappear entirely in her role, but I’d argue that the Force Of Julia makes Pretty Woman an unlikely feminist film. Stay with me…

If you haven’t heard the legend, Pretty Woman was originally a much darker film, and it was originally called 3000, a reference to the three grand Vivian is paid for her week with Edward. Then Disney bought it, and it became lighter (you can read the original if you want to compare) and Pretty Woman. 

The thing that’s interesting about the movie, really, is that by all accounts it should be Edward’s movie. The title, “Pretty Woman”, implies she’s an object, a desire. A complication that changes him. That’s the mark of a protagonist in any movie: that they’re the one who changes through the course of the story. On paper, that’s true here, too. Edward is a corporate shark who realizes he can care for someone else, and changes his ways, whereas Vivian is just someone whose life changes because she was at the right place at the right time. 

But if you watch closely, the opposite is true – Vivian is the one who makes choice after choice, and Julia Roberts gives her the conviction to do it. Pretty Woman is unequivocally Julia’s movie. Not just because we see a thousand shades of her that are way more interesting than “sexy” (Vivian, confessing, about her hair: “Red” Edward: “Better”), and not just because the camera loves her and her smile and the crazy laugh she let out, entirely unscripted, when Gere snapped the jewellery case on her fingers. It’s Vivian’s story because she makes firm choices in the face of enormous pressure – and Julia Roberts makes us believe Vivian can stand behind every one of them. 

Those choices are there in the script, of course. She gives him directions – literally – from the moment they meet. “Lights. Lights would be good here!” She’s in the driver’s seat five minutes after she gets in the car, which any screenwriting professor would tell you is great imagery that echoes the movie’s themes. She sasses him in his own hotel suite – “I come here all the time!” But we really find out what Vivian’s made of a few minutes later, the first of a dozen casually feminist moments: 

When Vivian whips out her condoms to find out which Edward would like, “I got red, I got blue, I got yellow, I got green”, he sneers at her, disdainful: “A buffet of safety.”  Remember, this is in 1990. He’s rich, powerful, and he doesn’t want to have to wear a condom, for God’s sake – but she shrugs at him. 

“I’m a safety girl.” 

 

The delivery is matter-of-fact, but unmoving. She shrugs as she shakes the condoms at him - take it or leave it. These are the rules, and he has to play by them. And he does. 

That sets up a blueprint for the whole movie. In this moneyed, sophisticated world, people keep telling Vivian, “You’re in Beverly Hills, and we do things a particular way.” She shrugs – we’re going to do them my way. She doesn’t kiss on the mouth. 

“I say who, I say when, I say how much” is a catchphrase that Vivian and Kit share, and it’s occasionally used as a defensive weapon when she’s emotional, meant to underscore times when that isn’t the truth – but clearly Vivian has internalized it, or always known it. She has self-respect and self-worth, regardless of what she does for a living. Society is finally beginning to grapple with the revelation that sex work can be a valid and empowering choice of work (though it isn’t always, obviously) but Vivian knows this from jump, and if the performance (from a 22 year old, I have to stress!) was any less confident, none of the movie would work. 

Don’t get me wrong, the movie bends over backwards to tell us that Vivian isn’t like “those other girls” – she’s careful with Edward’s money, she’s not blonde, she doesn’t have drugs, she has dental floss! – but she never becomes a Mary Sue, even if she is portrayed as the exceptional exception of a girl from Hollywood Boulevard, where Laura San Giacomo’s delightful Kit is supposed to be more the rule. (A fun-as-hell rule, but still.)

But the movie works because Vivian is herself no matter what. Take another iconic scene – the boutique bitches. Yes, everyone remembers the part where Vivian goes back and shows the women just what they missed out on, (say it with me: “Big Mistake. Big. Huge!”) but to me, the true juice is in the first appearance. She asks the price of an outfit, and they tell her she can’t afford it. Vivian takes this, sets her jaw, and says: 

“Well.” (beat)
“I didn’t ask if it would fit, I asked how much it was.” 

 

To me, there’s so much in that “Well”. She knows, and they know, that they’re being c*nts, and they have the upper hand – but she’s not going to be defensive about it. She’s ready to meet them head on. “Well.” The whole movie underlines Vivian realizing she has stores of self-respect and self worth – that she’s always had them, in fact, and that she’s gonna be just fine with or without Edward, the mild-except-when-punching-Jason-Alexander millionaire who allegedly rescues her. 

Articles and film critics are fond of calling the movie a “fairy tale”, I suppose because of the happy ending. But chop off those last ten minutes, where Edward decides not to get his flight and instead goes to “climb up and rescue” Vivian, and Pretty Woman still has a happy ending (regardless of whether or not Hollywood in 1990 would admit it.) Vivian is fine – better than fine! She’s moving on with her life! She’ll use the money and the week of new experiences as a launch-pad. Sure, she’s maybe a little sad that this guy she loved didn’t love her enough to change his life, but she’s not waiting on him to rescue her … because we’ve already seen that the moment that would change her life has already happened: 

When Edward wants to keep seeing Vivian when he’s in LA, and she says that’s not enough? She smiles, nods – and she leaves. She won’t settle for “better than nothing”, and Julia Roberts made us believe that when Vivian tells Edward she wants “the fairy tale” and then walks out the door, that she does it with no regrets. She’ll be fine, either way. And you buy it, because we’ve seen her hold her own with him from the beginning – since we know Edward is as powerful as they come, the extrapolation is, she can hold her own with anyone. 

 

We understand it, too, from the way she takes care of herself. Through sheer force of personality, she makes everyone from hotel managers to executives to snotty women on Rodeo Drive see her differently. Like, yeah, a lot is made of the outfits and the shopping montage, and don’t get me wrong, I love it too… but Vivian is in her original Hollywood Boulevard dress – the only thing she has to wear – when she gets Hector Elizondo’s hotel manager to see her as someone worth spending time on. She’s in that dress when Richard Gere realizes he wants to spend more time with her, and not just in bed, either. She is in the dress, and penniless and status-less when “Bridget”, the nicer shop assistant, takes her under her wing. 

In short, Vivian—the one from Hollywood Boulevard, not the one who looks like a product of Beverly Hills – wins everyone over while she looks like a “hooker”, to use the movie’s language. Money and fancy clothes don’t change her ability to relate to people; Vivian changes how they think of “a prostitute”, and what kind of a person could be in a profession like that, without any of Edward’s money or those clothes.

That’s why I reject comparisons to Pygmalion – Vivian stays Vivian no matter what. She throws herself into the divot jumping at the horse races, she’s confident enough in herself to tell the truth about loving opera so much she almost pees, she doesn’t wilt in shame when she loses an escargot at a fancy restaurant. People used to say the movie was about “a hooker with a heart of gold”, but that’s incorrect; she’s not seeing the good in everyone, or helping them be better people – Vivian is focused on Vivian. “A hooker with unflappable character and a sense-of-self of gold” is a lot less pithy in a review, but it’s much more accurate. 
 
Even when she runs up against situations where her charm and self-possessed nature can’t save her, (“Why do guys always know how to hit a woman? Do they pull you aside in high school?”) she’s never under any illusion that the problems she faces are because of something that’s wrong with her. She keeps her worth – far more than the weekly fee, obviously – sharp and clear in front of her all week, and pushes back whenever Edward tries to make her smaller, so he sees her that way too. It’s not that “she rescues him right back” and so therefore gets a bit of agency – she was confident enough in the core parts of who she was that she could fit in anywhere. She never, ever apologizes for who she is, or for the choices she makes, and that, to me, is as feminist as it gets. Edward doesn’t apologize for being alpha – and Vivian doesn’t either. Which is why this movie feels as fresh now, on what must be quite literally my eighth or ninth hundredth screening, as it did when it made such an indelible impression the first time. 

We think of Julia Roberts as being the original queen of romantic comedies (and in fact, most of her iconic roles have echoes of Vivian in them), but in fact she’s the queen of self-love: “This is it, warts and all. I come in as-is condition, and I’ll be fine whether you’re into that or not.” Whether that’s what Julia Roberts, the actor, always thinks (which gets my vote) or she tuned in, laser-sharp, to the reality that it’s what she can do that nobody else can, it began, and was almost genius-level already, in Pretty Woman. Vivian is, and should be, a Show Your Work icon – the unlikeliest one of all to “have it all”, and yet probably the one with the fewest conflicts about the path she’s taken to get there. 

But none of this should be a surprise. That red-and-black blazer Vivian shrugs on to feel confident was clearly the wardrobe of a boss, and I would wear it today. Let me know if you would, too. 
 


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