Pretty Woman Hates its Protagonist

Pretty Woman hates its ProtagonistTime and again this movie comes up as a ‘classic’ romance, but Pretty Woman hates its protagonist. Twice this week alone, the Richard Gere-Julia Roberts re-imagining of Pymalion came up as some sort of aspirational White Knight Fairy Tale. It’s not.

Even by the standards of 1990, it’s the most hatefully misogynist, patriarchal, classist, consumerist, and objectifying movies of all time, dressed up as a fluffy rom-com.

Why do I care? Because the writing dares to disguise reactionary American Puritanism as some kind of feminist triumph. Roberts’ sex worker Vivian isn’t even the real protagonist.

Despite the title and the shared of screen time, it’s silver-fox Richard Gere, as uber-capitalist and little-boy-lost Edward Lewis who has to learn the moral lessons. First, he moderates his greed to make his surrogate father proud.

Then he discovers a new philanthropic purpose in life to make himself feel slightly less of a money-grubbing slime-ball. He transforms a street walker into a suitable mate. He rides his white charger (limo) to the rescue, whether Vivian wants rescuing or not. What? Of course she needs rescuing, that’s the sub-text of the entire movie. Pretty Woman is all about Edward becoming a grown-up, responsible member of the patriarchy whom Vivian will love, honor and obey, because that’s her allotted role in life.

Vivian’s mostly flat arc consists of ‘seeing the error of her ways,’ giving up a life of cleaned-up, glamorized prostitution and going back to school. Thus, the archetypal ‘fallen woman’ is reformed as a conforming member of society. She slides back into the gender role expected of her. Next stop, Stepford Wife.

But surely, Vivian sets the conditions of the deal with Edward out of the gate? She’s intelligent, independent, determined. She appreciates opera (La Traviata, about a prostitute, no less).

No, she’s quickly seduced by the money and luxury, and rail-roaded into floral-pattern summer dresses. If we want to be really scathing, she swaps one form of prostitution for another. One is transactional, the other wrapped in rose-colored paper with a diamond-encrusted bow.

But surely Vivian is the one who rescues Edward and makes him the dashing romantic hero? No. He’s still a money-grubbing slime-ball at the end, just smugly deluded into thinking he’s a white knight philanthropist and God’s gift to womankind.

Edward’s lawyer Starkey assaults Vivian in Act Two and she puts up with it. White knight Edward punches the guy once. That’s all the ‘justice’ she gets.

Not convinced yet? Contrast Vivian’s ‘tart with a heart of gold’ with her friend Kit de Luca’s coarse, rebellious and drug-addicted prostitute. The underlying message? Vivian can be saved, street-trash Kit is beyond saving. When Vivian gives her money at the end, the implication is she’ll spend it on her drug habit.

Originally scripted as £,3000, an edgy drama, executives at Disney subverted the whole thing to make a cheesy rom-com. They changed the title to Pretty Woman for the sake of the Roy Orbison theme song. That immediately objectified the character, who is seen entirely through the male gaze, from sex-kitten to trophy wife.

Pitched as a feel-good rom-com, complete with consumerist shopping montage and the hilarity of Vivian’s low table manners, Pretty Woman plays to a patriarchal vision of gender stereotypes. It remains counter-feminist to the core of its shriveled black heart.

To date, it has grossed $463 million. I only paid £1 to see it on release and I still feel cheated. Why doesn’t everyone else?

I rarely ‘hate’ movies, but the way Pretty Woman hates its protagonist, I’ll make an exception.

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