Why Pretty Woman's Shopping Montage Is So Satisfying (& So, So Sexist)

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Pretty Woman, a movie that launched relative newbie Julia Roberts to mega-stardom and contains — by many standards — the best shopping montage of all time. It's not hard to see why the scene is so revered. A truly satisfying shopping montage meets at least one of these criteria: It's about an underdog getting what's owed to her; it showcases a transformation from Plain Jane to Ultimate Woman; and, most importantly, it contains a gratuitous, outrageous amount of clothing, brands, and outfits. In Pretty Woman, the three-minute scene has all three.

Prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) and business tycoon Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) drop a "really obscene" amount of money on Valentino, '80s label Torie Steele, and Chanel. In one of the most satisfying moments of the entire movie, a coutured-out Vivian returns to the Rodeo Drive boutique that turned her away when she was wearing her (now super-trendy) black vinyl boots and cutout dress. "Big mistake," she tells the shop girls who blew off the old Viv. "Big. Huge." That image is burned into our brains, and we'd be lying if we said we haven't played it out in shopping-centric revenge fantasies of our own ever since.
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In 1990, when the movie first aired, there wasn't a lot of controversy about the plot, which centers around a man who employs an escort and, through gifts, kindness, and a heroic moment punching out a business colleague-slash-rapist, eventually wins her love. Obviously today, there's a lot that feels sexist and materialistic about this Prostitute with a Heart of Gold trope, whose moral compass and feminine grit make her the equal of money and masculine power. (The Guardian's Kira Cochrane notes that even though the film sets them up as equals, it's a false equivalence: "[This is] a romcom in which the main male character buys the main ­female character and proceeds to mold her into his dream gal. [Women are depicted as] completely available, ­completely redemptive.")   

This entire message — that a woman can be bought — is most drastically represented in the shopping montage. From the moment that Edward explains that, "Stores are never nice to people; they're nice to credit cards," it's clear who's holding the cards in this pair. Vivian needs his money to transform from a nobody to a somebody, and the type of woman irresistible to anyone — no matter how independent, intelligent, and strong-willed — is one that comes with a designer label. Says the store manager in an oddly profound moment, "We have many things as beautiful as she would want them to be." But, what exactly makes them beautiful? The price tag. It only costs Edward $3,000 to buy Vivian's body for a week. Her heart and soul will cost him more, but not too much to fit in a few shopping bags.

There's a reason that, 25 years later, this movie is still a massive cornerstone of pop culture. The chemistry between Roberts and Gere is the kind of stuff that separate actors from stars, and the film's man-makes-over-woman plot line is a proven recipe for success (see Ovid's Metamorphoses, reinterpreted in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, re-reinterpreted in Alan Jay Lerner's My Fair Lady). But, society's come a long way in the last quarter-century.

While no one understands the mood-altering, life-changing, soul-stirring benefits of a good shopping spree better than we do, we also know that heading to checkout at our local consignment shop with a pile of $1 treasures in our shopping cart and a wad of hard-earned money in our wallet is infinitely more satisfying than dropping thousands on Rodeo Drive. And, nothing dulls the shine of a great new purchase like the nagging feeling that we only bought it to conform to someone else's ideals. Plus, we happen think that Vivian's red jacket was a whole lot cooler than the Dolman-sleeved skirt suit, anyway.   
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