It seems silly to “contemplate” a movie like Pretty Woman. Everything interesting about it is right there on the surface. Yet in rewatching it, what struck me most was the little details that get buffed out over time by our memories in order to make space in our brains for new things. Beyond the iconic things that endure – the snapping necklace case, the bathtub, the fire escape – there are a lot of easily forgettable elements that complicate the naturalistic romance.
First of all, there’s Julia Roberts’ crotch. It’s the very first thing we see of her. Our introduction to this vivacious, intelligent spark of life is Roberts’ underwear-covered thigh-crossing rolling over in bed. Or maybe it’s the crotch of a body double – some anonymous woman who came in for one day of shooting to have a camera get really close to her secret garden so that Roberts wouldn’t have to.
Now, I’m not about go off on how this negates the empowering parts of the story. In fact, I see it now more as a Trojan horse of sorts – a leering camera that objectifies our leading lady before she even gets to open her mouth, but also tricks the lizard brain into sticking around to see what she has to say. That may seem counter-intuitive, but Roberts’ character Vivian is all about illusory first appearances. From the blonde wig hiding her red hair to the cliche of asking what Edward wants her name to be, her job is to masquerade. That goes double for the tough girl act which gives way perfectly to a vulnerable center only because Roberts can’t totally pull off the tough girl act. Most other actresses would have made her too crusty and standoffish, but while Roberts attempts that, she’s genetically incapable of truly owning it because her smile takes up more than half the real estate on her face.
The other reason I see the objectification (which isn’t solely the camera angles; she literally sells herself as an object (that we get to name if we want)) as a Trojan horse is because Pretty Woman is an anti-Pygmalion story. It’s the anti-My Fair Lady. That ruins my headline a bit, but the truth is that this Cinderella with a skid row attitude spins the expected narrative into something fueled by the sheer force of Vivian’s personality. She’s objectified, then mocked by rich morons, but ultimately she’s proven to be more righteous than anyone else we come into contact with.
She doesn’t do drugs, she flosses! She’s incredibly confident despite being new on the street! She’s smart despite not graduating high school! She sings Prince songs loud and terrible, and she’s a kind of deceptive blank slate at the beginning – we know zero about her backstory besides what we stereotypically fill the blanks in with.
Her only potential flaw might be materialism, but she’s hustling for survival, responding to a newly lavish lifestyle the way any normal person would. She isn’t obsessed with it, simply appreciative.
On the money front, the movie straddles the 80s and 90s exactly the way you’d expect a movie made in the 80s and released in the 90s to do. It displays Wall Street-style glorification and effacement equally, rejecting Reaganite American psychos in certain ways. It’s not necessarily anti-capitalist, but definitely against the hollowness of the flavor and extravagance that some other movies of the time championed. Edward’s ultimate lesson isn’t that he shouldn’t want to make money, but that he should want to build things while doing it.
Yet there’s also a grand condescension to Edward as soon as they enter the Beverly Wilshire hotel. It’s his turf, his gang. Vivian doesn’t think she’s good enough to be within miles of these people, and Edward is perfectly happy to reinforce that fear. He’s also perfectly happy to bring her – this intriguing young woman – up to the penthouse he’s afraid of to either have sex or talk all night.
Like her, he’s a man of appearances. There’s an old-fashioned nature about him (he says he misses keys when fumbling with the newfangled plastic room card), but he’s also rooted deeply in the wealthy world of bored excess. As if Gordon Gekko got a collection of Kafka for Christmas and took it to heart. Edward is only charming because he’s calm, quiet, obscenely rich and played by Richard Gere. Otherwise, he’s a figure who does almost everything because it’s either expected or a tradition. He’s a zombie in a suit. He’s also raw and honest with a prostitute he’s known for ten minutes.
That’s another element that’s blurred despite being right in front of us. Vivian has sex for money, but that reality disappears until it’s needed to create friction. The entire film soft-peddles her occupation, and prostitution seems to have zero effect on Vivian’s life other than needing money for rent and having to use a black marker to cover the scuff marks on her heels. The movie could have featured her as a normal, adventurous girl pretending to be a prostitute for Halloween and nothing much would change, but swing it in the other direction to show a bit of grit and Pretty Woman wouldn’t be Pretty Woman.
Instead, Vivian and Edward have a morally-okay meet-cute because he isn’t even looking for a prostitute when he finds a prostitute and she’s never shown genuinely being one. If you’re rolling your eyes at that because she sleeps with him that first night and accepts three grand for being his live-in friend with benefits for a week, consider how inconsequential those details really are. Imagine a different movie where a guy stops to ask directions, a passerby obliges and they sleep together because they both say all the right flirty things. Well-tread paths for indie and mainstream rom-coms alike. Plus, The concept of one character pretending to be something for a week (or an event) is romantic comedy bedrock by now, whether or not money ever exchanges hands.
Instead of immediately gratifying themselves, they watch I Love Lucy that first night, which is appropriate considering the joy of Roberts’ performance. She’s bubbly perfection. A hooker with a brain of gold – easily outwitting Edward, out-driving him, out-laughing him. She does everything but out-class him, which becomes the true butt of the movie’s joke. He’s the unhappy little rich boy who has to change, and while it’s easy to spot her as a Manic Pixie, she’s less manic than most. Her key character component in context to Edward is that she surprises him. She’s unapologetically herself, which catches Edward at a time in his life where his unapologetic personality has driven away yet another girlfriend. People may think Vivian’s line at the end about rescuing her prince right back is a single bullet in the fight against the princess problem, but the entire movie is about how awesome she is and how crappy he is. Or at least how crappy his occupation has made him.
Which is another big reason that Pretty Woman is an anti-Cinderella and an anti-Pygmalion. There’s even an early clue that, if this is one of those stories, it’s for Edward instead of Vivian. She tells him that his borrowed Lotus must “corner like it’s on rails,” a phrase he repeats verbatim to Stuckey when trying to impress/befuddle him. If Henry Higgins teaches Eliza how to speak in My Fair Lady, it’s the other way around in Pretty Woman. In fact, the makeover portion of the film – which is as close to My Fair Lady territory as it gets – is pretty absurd in its structure. Vivian experience classism in all its glory by being bitch-shunned on Rodeo Drive and getting a talking-to by a hotel manager (who ends up helping her out), she is rewarded for blissfully being confused (Little Mermaid style) at what fork to use, and she ends up scoring some nice clothes. That’s it. Edward is fundamentally altered by the end, changing his entire life philosophy and career goals while Vivian discovers the Martha Stewart collection and continues to be rad.
Pretty Woman is, at its core, a film with gorgeous naivete. Stereotypes flourish. It’s only through how they treat each other that Vivian and Edward’s personalities shine through on a human level. It’s also timeless in its way – or at least it’s still modern in spite of the 25-year-old cosmetic trappings. In an era where we’re obsessed with meta concepts and self-aware storytelling, this hit from 1990 stands up as a romantic movie where the woman saves the man, the concept of Cinderella is directly sneered at, and we all get to learn an important lesson: don’t step in the steaming divots.