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Sex, Money and Knee-High Boots: A Cultural History of <i>Pretty Woman</i>

Sex, Money and Knee-High Boots: A Cultural History of Pretty Woman

How Pretty Woman Became a Classic


This month marks the 25th anniversary of one of the best-loved romantic comedies of all time, a modern-day Pygmalion about a romance between a heart-of-gold sex worker and the soulless corporate executive who turns her into a lady. At 25, Pretty Woman—directed by Garry Marshall and produced by the late Laura Ziskin—has left its mark on contemporary popular culture, and on the rom-com genre. Rom-coms are riddled with Pretty Woman references, and this week, the Today Show aired a cast reunion special to celebrate its iconic status. Somewhere along the way, the movie became a classic.

The question is: Why?

It’s not surprising that modern rom-coms still look to Pretty Woman as inspiration; they’re not exactly know for their progressive gender politics. But these days, the movie also appears in some of the most feminist pop culture we have. A few years ago, on Parks & Recreation, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) discovers that her best friend Ann (Rashida Jones) owns a replica of the iconic dress that Julia Roberts wears at the start of the film. (“Ann,” says Leslie Knope, who is trying to find an outfit that will repel a man, “everything you have is too sexy. This is actually the dress Julia Roberts wore as a prostitute in Pretty Woman.” Ann replies, “I know. I look really good in it.”) And just a few weeks ago, the movie got a shoutout from one of the most feminist shows on television, Broad City. Overseas, it remains a quintessential symbol of romance, of Hollywood, of America—even in North Korea, where it’s smuggled in illegally.

Pretty Woman went gangbusters at the box office—it’s still the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time—and Roberts was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, uncommon for a turn in a glossy Hollywood rom-com. Critics were less enthusiastic than the droves of mostly female moviegoers, but even Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, who originally gave it a D, later bumped his rating up to a B on the 20th anniversary: “I was wrong about Roberts and Gere,” he wrote. “They did have chemistry—it was there in the quiet amusement of his reactions, his inner delight at her outward vulgarity, and in her need to melt through his reserve.”

Other critics zeroed in on its shopping sprees. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin argued that despite being the first big rom-com of the 1990s, it was an entirely 1980s artifact. Pretty Woman, she wrote, “isn't about sex, but about conspicuous consumption,” pointing to the iconic and oft-imitated montage in which Edward (Richard Gere) takes Roberts’ Vivian shopping, and to their most pivotal date: a limousine to a private jet, which flies them to San Francisco, where they go to the opera. It’s for this date that Vivian dons a stunning red designer gown and Edward presents her with a dripping diamond necklace—then nimbly, playfully, snaps the jewelry box on her hand. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but in the movie, it’s played as a cute joke, and an opportunity for Julia Roberts to burst into her famously charming laugh. Maslin implied that it’s hard to separate Edward’s purchase of luxury goods from his purchase of a human woman. “Everything in the movie has a price tag,” she wrote.

Maslin was half right: Pretty Woman is about conspicuous consumption and class—and about sex. The movie’s original title, after all, was 3000, a reference to Vivian’s weekly rate. In its original format, it wasn’t a modern-day fairy tale, but a dark story about a man who pays a prostitute for a week, at the end of which they go back to their lives, with no white limousine rescue to reunite them as the aria swells and the credits roll. The screenwriter, J. F. Lawton, described his original Vivian as “this drug addict, a bad-tempered, foulmouthed, ill-humored, poorly educated hooker,” and his original Edward as “a foulmouthed, ill-tempered, bad-humored, very wealthy, handsome but horrible man.” 3000 was, Lawton said, “a grisly, ugly story.”

In a recent interview with US Weekly, Lawton said Disney asked him to rewrite the script, but when he did, he “lightened it too much.” According to Lawton, there were numerous people involved in the rewrite, because Marshall was after “a combination of fairytales. Julia [Roberts] was Rapunzel, Richard [Gere] was Prince Charming and Hector [Elizondo] was the fairy godmother.” Edward and Vivian, like the rest of Lawton’s plot, have been polished, made more palatable for a rom-com audience, and the story is undeniably one about transcending class, or about ascending to the class in which you truly belong.

But it’s also about sex. In fact, it’s about what happens when sex and consumption combine, and though Maslin tried, it’s impossible to disentangle gender and class from this wants-to-be-edgy, live-action Disney princess movie.

Pretty Woman is the first of what scholars of the genre call the neo-traditional romantic comedies, in which the reactionary politics of the 1980s takes a pop culture form. Just as American politics swung right in response to the upheavals of the 1970s, romantic comedies became more conservative in response to 1970s rom-coms like Annie Hall and The Goodbye Girl, in which generic happily-ever-afters aren’t guaranteed, or even the goal. In the neo-traditional rom-coms, writes film scholar Leger Grindon, “there is a move back to an emphasis on courtship over relationships, and the optimistic, happy ending reasserts itself with renewed conviction.” And there’s less of an emphasis on sex, which tracks closely with the resurgence of conservatism during this period—the emphasis on family values, the rise of the religious right, and the emphasis on sexual abstinence and purity.

It’s startling, considering it’s about a sex worker, to realize just how little sex Pretty Woman contains. The sex that does appear is transactional. Unlike other movies about purely sexual relationships that blossom into romantic ones, there is no moment in which the sex takes on a different quality. In Friends With Benefits, for example, there is the fun, jokey sex, with quips and upbeat music and a variety of sexual positions—and then there’s the slow, romantic sex, in missionary position, with shots of the moon and the couple holding hands. The shift from sex that’s “just sex” to the sex that “means something” is clear here. There is no such shift in Pretty Woman. Though Richard and Vivian’s conversations become deeper and more emotionally explicit, the sex isn’t intimate; it’s economical. Everything in this movie, after all, has a price tag.

When it was released, Pretty Woman created a firestorm of feminist commentary that would not be rivaled until Sex and the City came along a decade later. Writing in the Times about her recollections of the movie’s release, essayist Carina Chocano, who was in her final days of college when she saw it, recalls thinking that “there was scarcely a moment in this great popular romance that didn’t strike me then as transactional, instructional or otherwise deeply condescending.” She thought of it as a “clueless throwback…with its Paleolithic attitudes and its confusing agenda.”

Seasoned feminist scholars thought similarly. Writing in the academic film journal Screen, Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake noted that Pretty Woman cloaks itself in the irony of self-reference, all but describing itself as a fairy tale in order to tell the audience a fairy tale. In this way, the movie appeals to the paradox “faced by the spectator who is no longer able to believe in romance (especially in a film so beset with implausibility and inconsistency), yet at the same time wishes to do so.” The movie grants itself a lot of these get-out-of-complaints-about-sexism-free cards, and none of these “bones tossed to equality,” as Jane Caputi termed them in The Journal of Popular Film Television, is more galling than Vivian’s final line of dialogue.

In the climactic last scene, recalling Vivian’s girlhood fantasy about a prince on a white horse rescuing her from the tall tower where a wicked witch had imprisoned her, Edward races to her apartment in a white limo, blaring La Traviata and bearing flowers. He climbs up her fire escape—well, halfway up, as his fear of heights prevents him from climbing any further. Vivian climbs down, meeting him halfway (see what they did there?). “What happened after he climbed up the tower and rescued her?” Edward asks. “She rescues him right back,” Vivian replies.

This is the line of dialogue that is most often deployed to argue that Edward and Vivian are equals, that she changes him as much as he changes her. Which makes sense, until you remember that she is sex worker living hand-to-mouth and he is an obscenely rich corporate raider. His emotional wounds do not curtail his options in life the way her socioeconomic status does hers. They both, as Edward puts it, “screw people for money.” But she literally screws people for money. He buys and dismantles companies. Edward’s emotional suffering is real, but when Vivian describes hers, she doesn’t have the luxury of wordplay and metaphor. They are not equals to begin with, and they are not equals at the end, no matter how changed he is by falling in love with her.

Today, Pretty Woman remains as divisive as it is beloved. While most feminists agree that its depiction of sex work is problematic, they can’t agree on why. “It demonizes sex work,” says Dorothy Miller, a feminist writer and movie reviewer. “The film of course does glamorize sex work,” says Diana Scholl, a feminist and communications strategist who begged her mother to let her see the R-rated movie when she was ten years old. Her mother consented, but as she put the video in the VCR, she told her daughter, “I want you to know this isn't a career you should want.”

Many young feminists, it seems, had their impressions of the movie shaped by what their parents did or didn’t tell them about it. Irin Carmon, a reporter for msnbc.com, says she secretly watched it when her parents rented it on VHS. “The title was just irresistible to a Barbie-loving kid like me,” she says. Carmon recalls thinking a hooker was just a woman who wore a lot of makeup. (“On Purim, my sister asked me, ‘How do I look?’ and I cheerfully said, ‘Like a hooker.’ I think I was eight years old. My mother slapped me.”)

One of my friends, Kate, a medical student from California, wasn’t allowed to watch Pretty Woman at all as a child. “My mother said it glamorized prostitution and she didn’t want that behaviour modeled to me,” she says. “Once I left the house I could have watched it on my own, but honestly I don’t think I’ve ever felt compelled to sit down and watch it all the way through.” Shelby Knox, a feminist activist who was raised in a Texan Evangelical Christian household in the 1990s, says her mother watched the movie many times, but never explained to her daughter exactly what was happening. “It left me with the impression, as a child, that sex workers were doing what they were doing to eventually ‘find a man’ and settle down,” Knox says. “At the time it seemed to eight-year-old me that if a woman hadn't married by a certain age, this is what she'd do.”

Pretty Woman deftly negotiates the tension between loving popular culture and wanting popular culture to do a better job of depicting gender relations. So it’s little wonder that feminists—and their parents—are so divided on Pretty Woman. Despite my cynicism about the genre, I can’t help but find the movie charming at times. I always cheer when Vivian gets the better of the snooty salesgirls who kicked her out of their store because she didn’t look like she had the money to shop there (neither can my 100-year-old grandmother). I see the appeal of switching off my brain, of removing the feminist lenses through which I see the world, just for the 90 minutes it takes to watch this love story.

But that would be a big mistake. Big. Huge.

Chloe Angyal, PhD is a scholar of popular culture whose research focuses on romantic comedies. She is a Senior Columnist at Feministing, an opinion contributor at Reuters, and a facilitator at The OpEd Project.

Pretty Style: A Fashion Analysis


Pretty Woman may be known for its rags-to-riches romance and launching Julia Roberts’ career, but there’s another aspect that’s proved to be just as influential: the costumes by Marilyn Vance. Not only do they continue to influence fashion to this day, they also tell a story of class boundaries, emotional repression and gender expectations, through the use of color (or lack thereof), the skill of accessorizing, and the deployment of menswear detailing to evoke power or self-actualization.

No, really.

The film opens onto the world of Edward Lewis (Gere), a corporate raider who lives amongst colorless people, in gray or beige clothes, having gray and beige conversation. We learn in the first few moments that he is both very good at what he does and very bad at relationships. The lack of color in most of the surroundings and virtually all the people establishes the relationship between color and emotion in the story.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Vivian Ward (Roberts) through a series of shots focusing on her body parts. This contextualizes her as a sex worker, by highlighting her bra and panties. But it also depicts the shoddiness of her clothing (the safety pin in the boot will be remarked upon snottily by Gere later) and the way she uses her streetwalking wear as a form of armor, a point she will reference later in the dialogue. The black lace will be repeated twice in upcoming costumes, first in one of her first “expensive” dresses and then in a black lace slip she wears during a seduction scene on a piano. Lace is shorthand for “sex” in the Pretty Woman world. In every sex scene, she’s wearing either white or black lace.

We see Vivian, sporting an oversized men’s jacket, working the street with her roommate Kit (Laura San Giacomo). The red not only foreshadows the iconic red dress she’ll be wearing later in the film, but it situates her in every shot and scene. Even amongst all the noise and color of Hollywood Boulevard, you can’t ever lose sight of her. An All-American girl in red, white and blue.

The size and coverage of the jacket both protects her and makes her seem more physically formidable than she is.

All three women are wearing layers of costume jewelry; gaudy necklaces, chains and stacked bracelets. This overabundant style will be contrasted throughout the film with “classier,” more expensive styles, which tend to be simpler and less colorful.

Once Edward decides to spend the night with her, he must first cover her lower-class clothes up with something appropriately gray and colorless so that she will fit in at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, where practically everyone in the lobby is wearing gray. Note the older woman’s gloves. Gloves will be used throughout the film to signal upper-class, refined femininity.

In Edward’s room, we see Vivian’s outfit under decent lighting conditions for the first time, and the shoddiness of her clothing is unmistakable. We also notice the abundance of cheap jewelry. Stylistically, her costume has more to do with 1980s street fashions (the tight mini, boots and jewelry), which plays into the film’s unstated theme that lower-class people are not as “advanced” as those in the upper classes. The women in the background of Edward’s parties and meetings dress in the breezy, boxy, broad-shouldered, monochromatic styles of the early 1990s, while Vivian looks like a backup singer in a trashy music video from five or six years before. Her oversized jacket, cap and stacked bracelets are reminiscent of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Several times throughout the film, Vivian’s streetwalking costume (which she wears for almost half the film) is compared to those of the Regent Beverly Wilshire employees. There’s a connection being made between her job “servicing” Edward and their jobs servicing everyone who walks in the door. Her red and black jacket speaks directly to the red, black and grays of their outfits. In the highly classist world of the film, there are people like Edward Lewis, and then there’s the rest of the world, which serves him. Hookers or concierges—it makes little difference. We can see this in scenes between Edward and the hotel manager, whom he treats in a highly dismissive and condescending manner for no real reason.

Even so, the judgmental ladies of Rodeo Drive see no connection between themselves—in their neutral, refined clothing, with their structured hair styles, surrounded by elegantly colorless wares—and this wild-haired, primary-colored thing that doesn’t belong in their presence.

It’s right around Vivian’s first disastrous shopping spree that we check back in on Edward’s world. Just to remind us how colorless it really is. Except for the skin and hair colors, and one or two props, you could have shot these scenes in black and white and not seen any difference. Even the flowers are drained of color.

After securing someone to help her pick out a dress, Vivian appears again, in chic black lace, the way she would assume Edward wants her to be; restrained, yet reminding him of sex—worlds away from the beige-and-white ensemble she attempted to buy at from the snobby salesladies. Notice that she’s wearing gloves, which she will continue to do throughout the film when she is meant to appear ladylike and elegant. Also note her hair here, which is controlled in the front but wild and curly in the back. Much of Vivian’s emotional state and whether or not she feels like she belongs is reflected in her hair from scene to scene. Which only makes sense when you have Julia Roberts, fresh out of the 1980s, starring in your movie. You can’t deny the power of that hair.

Edward takes her shopping and announces several times that he plans on spending an “obscene” amount of money on her. Compare this joyous, colorful, no-limits version of shopping to the beige-and-cream, frosty reception she got the day before.

Vivian is again choosing black-and-white outfits to more closely align her with Edward.

The montage ends with her strutting down the street in this number to the Roy Orbison title song. The broad shoulders and brimmed hat with a relatively short crown give the look an ever-so-slight menswear feel to it, but a much more toned-down version of the extreme menswear-inspired womenswear of the 1980s. After all, she’s a lady now, and that means gloves.

And with this new colorless and class-based confidence newly blossoming inside her, she confronts the saleswoman from the day before in one of the film’s most famous scenes.

Note how all the wares in the store are suddenly exploding with color when they were all the same creamy hues the day before. Note how the saleswoman’s outfit picks up the reds and yellows of the wares she’s selling. Vivian is pure and without color. High class. You’re just a shop girl in your gaudy wares.

Edward takes her to a polo match and she wears one of the film’s most iconic outfits.

She’s neutral, like almost all the well-appointed, upper-class attendees, and like several of them, she’s wearing polka dots, which help cement the idea that she fits in. But there’s an earthiness and warmth to the look that makes her stand out in every shot.

Again with the gloves. The reason we keep pointing this out is because gloves—and the idea that a lady never leaves the house without them—were not exactly in vogue 25 years ago. Even then it was considered very retrograde, which mirrors the retrograde thinking in the film regarding romance and gender.

Later, Edward and Vivian have a huge argument because he, to paraphrase Vivian, made her feel like a whore. She packs her things to leave. He begs her to stay and they reconcile. She reiterates that this arrangement has to be on her own terms. From this point on, her costumes all become much more colorful, reflecting both the growing feelings she’s having for him and the struggle to maintain who she is in the belief that she can never have him.

Edward takes her to the opera with a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of borrowed gems around her neck (none-too-subtly shaped like little hearts), in the film’s other iconic costume. This one is, we’d argue, the most famous dress in the film and one of the most famous film dresses of all time. She looks, not coincidentally, like a giant valentine. Everything about the look, from the color to the hairstyle to the diamond jewelry, signals “romance” in a consumer culture. The diamonds, gloves and gold clutch are also signals of wealth. And of course, her gloves have reached massive proportions to let us know that she’s reached peak Ladyhood. But it’s important that she’s in such a bright red; she’s not just trying to be exactly what Edward wants her to be. She’s not colorless and emotionless the way his people are and she’s done pretending to be.

On their last morning together, she wears a floral robe, signaling the difference in her point of view. She’s blunt about the fact that she needs to go and can’t buy into this fantasy anymore. She’s no longer in the white terrycloth robe provided by the hotel, which she wore frequently up to this point. This is not only the only floral she wears in the film, it’s also the wildest print. Look at how well it situates her in that setting, with all its color, richness and pattern. Note how the pink of the rug and the blue of the drapes are picked up by the robe. She’s become used to this world and it’s beckoning her to stay, almost literally pulling her into it.

One of the most notable things about Roberts’ costumes in this film is how stylish most of them still are, 25 years later. Except this persimmon-colored suit with culottes and massive shoulderpads, of course. But even though this looks like the worst example of early 1990s fashion, the point of this look was to show how sophisticated and powerful she’d become. She stands in contrast to Kit, with all her bangles and pins, while in the same costume holds her own in a broad-shouldered suit against powerful men (also in suits) who want her to do things she doesn’t want to. In Stuckey’s case, he wants to sexually assault her and in Edward’s case, he wants her to become his full-time courtesan.

Gone is all the cheap costume jewelry, although her studded belt calls to Kit’s, subtly referencing a connection. In the end, it’s a business suit—and the costume she’s wearing when Edward literally concludes business with her. She’s also the focal point of color against all three dark costumes. Like the red dress before it, the use of color here is less class-based and more steeped in emotions. She knows who she is and she knows she’s neither an upper-class trophy girlfriend nor a streetwalker—not anymore.

Not only is she no longer wearing gloves, but she’s barefoot half the time in this costume. The artifice is stripped away, revealing her vulnerability and her strength at the same time.

But when Edward comes to “rescue” her, his influence on her is all the more obvious. Virtually every outfit Edward wore was a dark jacket and a white shirt. But lest we worry she’s become too business-like or emotionless, she’s wearing the pearl earrings from the polo match ensemble and her hair blooms to 1990s supermodel proportions practically involuntarily (with one helpful tug from her) at the sight of her prince.

The famous give-and-take ending, as Chloe explains, is mostly undermined by Pretty Woman’s overarching messages. But in the moment, it pays lip service to the idea that they’ve each improved the other person and have overcome their vast differences to come together. In the context of the period, it’s as if all the markers of their story—from her “I want my MTV” streetwear and rainbow-hued collection of rubbers, to his conspicuous consumption and soulless corporate raiding—symbolized all the cultural excess of the 1980s and needed to be swept away. We’re left with the perfect 1990s couple, unisex and colorless. With great hair.

Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez blog at TomandLorenzo.com, and are the authors of Everyone Wants To Be Me Or Do Me.