If I went back in time and met my teenage self I’m sure the conversation would fairly swiftly turn to movies. Clearly there are any number of life events I could prepare him for and warn him against but come on, haven’t you seen Back to the Future 2? I’ve seen it, he’s seen it, we’d surely agree that talking about films would generally be safer. After I’d told him about the twists in Fight Club and The Usual Suspects allowing him to be infuriatingly smug at ‘having seen them coming from the start’ then we’d probably get on to films it wasn’t really okay for him to like. There’d be much said about the sexual harassment in Breakfast Club, Rocky and Blade Runner and we’d have to discuss the representations of women in the early Bond films. Then there’s that stuffed beaver joke in Naked Gun too. Laughing at looking up a woman’s skirt? Really? One film I’d reassure him on though, one film I’d tell him he should be okay with is Pretty Woman.
He’d need to hear that as well because I remember having mixed feelings about the film when I first saw it. I’m afraid my repressed, Sunday schooled young self had an issue with the fact that the protagonist was a prostitute. Not just because of what this said about the male lead who procures her services but because, you know, that wasn’t really a respectable thing to be. (I don’t think my Sunday school fully covered Mary Magdalene’s supposed background.) Still though I loved the film and once it had finished I immediately rewound the tape and watched it all again. I’d never done that before and I’ve never done it since. No doubt this had quite a lot to do with the presence of a twenty three year old Julia Roberts, remember I’m a teenage boy at this point, but I think I was also enamoured with the story and the characterisation.
My wife, the incredible woman and wise feminist who made me the liberal man and striving feminist I am today, hit the nail on the head with this yesterday. We watched the movie again last night because I put it on to kill five minutes while I waited for her to came back downstairs (easy to do with Now TV, you don’t even have to put a disc in let alone rewind a tape) and then we didn’t turn it off. She pointed out that the plot is problematic by modern standards but still the people involved and the actors who play them are just so appealing.
She’s not wrong. Julia Roberts is the absolute star of this film and her portrayal of Vivian is magically charismatic and so wonderfully likeable. She is a hooker and she has in many respects been bought by this man but she is still managing a business contract and never loses her agency or confidence. She may be victimised on occasion and has moments of vulnerability but she’s never a victim. She’s also proud and she’s funny and she’s kind. I’ve no idea how many LA hookers are like this in reality but being less judgmental now I’m happy to accept that there might be many. Why shouldn’t there be?
Richard Gere’s Edward in turn is financially powerful but emotionally fragile. He may have hired a prostitute which somewhat suggests he is open to using women for sex but under the confidence he is sad and lonely and so desperate for companionship that he is prepared to pick it up on a street corner. He knows all the other people in his life probably spend time with him because of his money so there’s an honesty with Vivian that appeals to him. He does have sex with her of course, which undermines his broader intentions, but not until he’s got to know her a little you understand. Yep, this is the problematic bit, my justifications of him feel hollow as I write them, but he grows as a person with this relationship more than she does. He might save her but she fixes him. Also he’s still quite charming and by the end, because of her, he’s kind too.
Considering all of this you realise that actually the plot is less troublesome than you might think. It does have all the traditional gender issues of the Pygmalion/Cinder-f~€%ing-rella tales it so heavily borrows from but actually she has saved herself by the end. She has taken the money she has earned fair and square and has got herself out of the game. She is going back to school and realising her potential. It is only then that Edward turns up to whisk her away and I’m sure she’s still going to pursue an education. There’s also that nice little exchange between the two of them that encapsulates the whole movie. He asks what happens after the prince rescues the girl and she tells him that she rescues him right back. It goes both ways. There is equality here.
There’s no denying that if this were made now, almost three decades later, it would be a very different movie but its aged surprisingly little. Don’t write it off as being too sexiest for a contemporary audience, to do so would be a big mistake, huge. There is much to enjoy in this story of a woman rising above her circumstances and a man climbing down from his crumbling pedestal and in the end Pretty Woman holds up pretty well.