30 Years Later, Pretty Woman Is So Much More Than A Guilty Pleasure

According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
Update: In honor of Pretty Woman's 30th anniversary, revisit what critics originally thought of it, and why they were wrong.
To understand how Hollywood views women, look no further than Pretty Woman, a rags-to-riches story about a sex worker whose blurring of the lines between her profession and her personal life, fundamentally shaped our understanding of the elements that make up a successful romantic comedy.
Perhaps because of the transactional nature (sex — and by extension, the woman giving it out — for cash) of the Pretty Woman relationship, many of those elements involve money: the shopping scene, the makeover, the BIG, meaningful gesture (in this case, a ruby necklace). And then there’s the more gendered aspects: the reveal of the woman’s true self, symbolized by Vivian’s reddish curly mane, untamed and raw. There’s the first kiss, even more significant here because, as a sex worker, it goes against Vivian’s rules for dealing with johns (it proves she’s really falling in love). The trope of a fallen woman who is rescued by her prince smacks of an archaic version of male/female relationships, which partially explains the decline of the genre in recent years — until very recently, when new voices and perspectives have given the rom-com a makeover of its own.
But while Pretty Woman now holds rom-com emeritus status, the film, 30 years later, deserves a second look as a legitimate work of cinema with serious concerns about women, men, sex, class and power, among other things. Indeed, it was controversial when it hit theaters in 1990, and the subject of some vicious takedowns. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman panned the film with a “D” rating, focusing so much on Julia Roberts’ physical appearance that he completely misses her star appeal. (Although, to be fair, he’s walked that back a little since.) And then there’s this doozy from Richard Corliss over at Time, comparing Richard Gere and Roberts’ characters (a soulless businessman and a sex worker) to “a toxic-waste dumper” and a “terrorist hijacker.”
Many of the male-dominated reviews focus on the film’s frivolity, a criticism regularly applied to rom-coms, viewed as a genre that appeals to women and therefore less serious than say, a wartime drama. That said, women also took issue with the film, mostly for its male gaze (although that term wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is now), and its vanilla, palatable handling of prostitution: the hooker with the heart of gold.
Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times, criticized the film’s “covetousness and underlying misogyny,” while praising then-newcomer Julia Robert’s performance as a “complete knockout.” Revisiting the film on its tenth anniversary in 2000, MaryAnn Johanson questioned its continued appeal among women, stating that “the relentlessly cheerful depiction of prostitution is revolting.”
Still, the film resonated with audiences — it grossed almost half a billion dollars worldwide — becoming a huge blockbuster that propelled Roberts into stardom (and eventually the highest paid woman in Hollywood), and earned her an Oscar nomination. The rise of Pretty Woman is also the rise of a new female Hollywood icon. This is her movie, and as a result, it can be ours too.
Julia Roberts’ performance is the magic spell that makes Pretty Woman work. Written by male screenwriter J. F. Lawton, the film was famously originally titled 3,000, a reference to the money exchanged between the two protagonists. It was a much darker version of the story, and one which might have been more interesting (not to mention truer to life), had it not been for Roberts’ delightful star-making turn, which makes the more lighthearted premise feel snappy and palatable.
From the very first shot of her as Vivian Ward, filling in her worn stilettos with a black Sharpie before pulling on her vinyl thigh highs and shimmying down the fire escape, she’s magnetic. It’s partly due to her smile, that big-mouthed, big-toothed all-American grin that brightens up every scene. When she laughs — with that loud cackle of someone who’s in on every joke — you want to laugh with her. You want to be friends with Vivian. Man or woman, gay or straight, we’re all a little seduced. It is impossible not to root for her.
Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is a corporate raider who buys and sells companies with as little regard for the fate of their employees as he has for the women in his life. One night, having borrowed his sleazy lawyer’s (Jason Alexander) equally sleazy sports car, he gets lost and ends up smack in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard’s red light district, where Vivian and her friend Kit De Luca (Laura San Giacomo) are setting up for the night. A simple request for directions somehow morphs into an arrangement: Richard will pay Vivian $3,000 for a whole week of her services. And while this initially seems like the ideal short-term solution for his commitment issues and her cash-flow, their relationship morphs into something neither Richard nor Vivian can really control.
The story of a rich guy who’s lost the meaning in his life and finds it in the arms of a gorgeous, poor, down-to-earth lady with pluck is as old as Hollywood itself. This is the industry that gave us a movie called Rich Man Poor Girl, a 1938 comedy starring Ruth Hussey and Robert Young. “How she landed a millionaire,” the tagline read. From Love Story, to Working Girl, to Maid in Manhattan, it’s a tale that’s almost synonymous with the romantic comedy genre. Pretty Woman itself if based on the Pygmalion dynamic so famously captured in 1964’s My Fair Lady.
What makes Pretty Woman different from all the other films named above is that the woman in question is a sex worker, someone whose proverbial love is technically available to the highest bidder. She’s “clean” and responsible, yes, a heavy-handed point made when she pulls a stash of multi-colored condoms out of her boot. She flosses her teeth after every meal. (“You shouldn’t neglect your gums!”). But she’s not an ingenue, or a virgin seduced by expensive gifts under the guise of generosity and feeling, a la Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey. The transactional aspect of such an imbalanced relationship is out in the open. In that sense, Pretty Woman is actually revolutionary, and more closely fits into the way sex work is thought about now among certain feminists. As long as the consent is there, why should Vivian feel ashamed? Rom-coms have always been about an exchange of goods, so why not have the cash up-front?
Talking about Pretty Woman in 2018 means talking about the evolution of the attitudes around sex work. A lot has changed in the 28 years since its release: the decriminalization of sex work has been claimed as a feminist issue by many, with the view that it’s just another job. Her famous thigh-high boots, the sartorial marker of a lady of the night, are now as basic a wardrobe staple as flats. Even the term “sex worker,” is emblematic of that shift. Pretty Woman and its reviews both uses “hooker” pretty liberally, a label that feels shockingly out of date today. All in all, this makes for more a lightning rod than male director Gary Marshall (Beaches, The Princess Diaries) probably originally expected of a movie that spends so much time on Rodeo Drive.
In the post-#MeToo context, the scenes between Vivian and Philip Stuckey (Alexander), Richard’s gross lawyer who assumes he has a free pass due to her profession, feel more modern than ever. After finding out that Richard’s “date” has been hired to play that role, Stuckey repeatedly makes sexual comments to her, implying that he too might want to pay for her services, and eventually tries to sexually assault her. Here, too, Roberts’ performance is stellar. Her body language, which has her almost folding in on herself, as if hoping that taking up as little space as possible will dissuade this man from touching her, is instantly recognizable to any woman who has been in a similar situation.
In other ways, however, the film is woefully limited. The dangers faced by sex workers are addressed early on, specifically in one scene where Vivian walks through an alley, and she sees a group of cops pulling the body of a woman she knows out of a dumpster. This prompts Kit to wonder if she and Vivian should consider working for a pimp, someone who could technically protect them. Vivian refuses, repeating their shared mantra: “We say who, we say when, we say how much.”
It’s a scene that reminds me of a more recent one in HBO series The Deuce, in which Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) explains that she won’t work with a pimp because she wants the freedom of working alone and keeping her profits for herself. Like Vivian and Kit, that’s a luxury that Candy enjoys as a white woman who technically has other options to fall back on. And while Pretty Woman hints at the darker side of this arrangement, The Deuce actually took pains to show us the violent, strained flip side of Candy’s so-called freedom.
Vivian’s rag-to-riches story largely depends on her ability to pass. Her relationship with Thompson, who treats her with respect from the start, evolves the way it does because he sees her “potential.” She’s a beautiful white woman who has the ability to blossom into our cultural ideal. That famous, class-fixated scene where Vivian returns to the Rodeo Drive shop that snubbed her (“Big mistake. Huge!”), only works within that context. If she were a woman of color, no matter how well-dressed, the reaction from the salesperson would have been vastly different. This fits in with a legacy of limiting the face of sex work — and any other kind of supposedly morally transgressive behavior — in pop culture to acceptably white, acceptably attractive women. (The Girlfriend Experience and The Secret Diary of a Call Girl are other examples of this trend.)
Still, The Deuce is an exception. The creators, George Pelecanos and David Simon, made the effort to hire female directors and writers to root the show in women’s experiences, rather than through the perspective of the men around them. Male director Marshall doesn’t avoid this male gaze trap as effectively. Vivian’s feelings and everyday struggles are mostly glossed over once she moves into Richard’s suite, and we really only see her as others — men like Richard, Stuckey and Barney Thompson (Hector Elizondo), the Regent Beverly Wiltshire’s dapper manager — see her: Something to be tamed, and/or won over. An object. The fact that women have claimed her as their own in the years since the film’s release has more to do with the strength and honesty of Roberts’ portrayal of Vivian than Marshall’s vision of her.
The movie’s premise is still controversial. It most certainly requires a healthy dose of suspended disbelief (as all fairy tales do). But love it or hate it, its cultural impact is undeniable. I suspect the reason behind Pretty Woman’s continued appeal is its age. The movie screams of a kind of late 1980s, early 1990s consumerism that firmly dates it, even as its aspirations are rooted in a more fundamental version of the American Dream. Vivian’s outfits may be back in style (and if her salmon-colored bermuda/blazer combo just happened to find itself in my closet, I would not object), but the gender dynamics portrayed in the film certainly are not. But knowing that, and having that hindsight, allows the audience to sit back and just enjoy something that we might feel we have to find issue with today.
But most of all, it remains popular because fighting with this movie is to rob oneself of some true viewing pleasure. The soundtrack, including the Roy Orbison classic that gave the movie its name, is bopping, and the pacing is breezy. Gere is charismatic, and he and Roberts have a subtle chemistry, a complicity that you want to share. And really, who can steel themselves against the dad-like charm of Hector Elizondo?
If this movie were made in 2018, Vivian wouldn’t need — or want — a man to save her. Maybe the story would be written and/or directed by a woman, and focus on Kit De Luca, the girl who got left behind when her friend ascended to the ranks of the 1%. But hey, Hollywood loves a sequel so Kit, I’m rooting for you! Pretty Woman 2: “Cinder-fuckin-rella” has a nice ring to it.
"Pretty Woman" is available for rental on iTunes and Amazon Prime.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series