Pretty vacant

It came out in 1990 and people still talk about it. Why?

Feature by Nine | 04 Feb 2010

My loathing for Pretty Woman is well-documented. It’s not that I resent the disposable fluff of the film itself: more the mind-boggling frequency with which people will shoehorn a Pretty Woman reference into discussions and debates on sex work. Some wise sage will inevitably pronounce, “It’s a far cry from Pretty Woman,” as if the rest of us had been taken in all along. We bloody know that. It’s also a far cry from Teen Wolf, but nobody bothers highlighting that.

In honour of Pretty Woman’s twentieth anniversary this month, I decided to grit my teeth and see how it compared with my adolescent recollections.

My most vivid memory of the film had been the hug shared by Vivian (Julia Roberts) and Kit (Laura San Giacomo) before Vivian walks over to Edward (Richard Gere)’s car. A tender moment, it showed affection whilst also underscoring the danger of the job. This time round, what stood out more was that she gets into a car with a punter who drives like a maniac. If this was real life, their alarm bells would be ringing.

Subsequently, I marvelled at the transition Vivian undergoes: not the rags-to-riches theme, but her unfortunate metamorphosis from a straight-talking, confident sex worker to a slack-jawed airhead as soon as she finds herself in an expensive hotel. He showers her with money; she soaps him in the bath. Finally, after the inevitable trials and tribulations, he arrives at her flat in a limousine blasting opera, and the happy ending ensues.

Jennifer Jason Leigh recounted why she didn’t go for Vivian’s role: “[Director Garry Marshall] said: ‘She’s only been doing this a few weeks, so it’s still a lot of fun for her’,” she told the Guardian. “Yeah, it’s a lot of fun getting into a car with a 68-year-old and giving him a blow job. Really exciting.”

Since the love story dominates the plot, there isn’t a whole lot of airtime given to life on the streets. Edward is the only punter to make an appearance, and he’s not even a ‘proper’ one – he stops to ask for directions, rather than actively seeking a sex worker. Although it’s titillating to have a film about a prostitute, presumably audiences aren’t expected to sympathise with someone who habitually pays for sex.

Originally, the film was intended to be much darker, with Vivian addicted to cocaine – any remaining traces of this approach feel like punchlines. Nearing the end of the film, Kit talks to a prospective flatmate. “So, you got a lot of stuff you gotta move in?” she asks. “No, Carlos burned most of my stuff when I said I was moving out,” says the other woman, before the scene cuts abruptly. There’s a sense that the audience may be expected to actually laugh at lines like this – no-one could really live this way and be so matter-of-fact about it, right? Except that in real life, lots of people do.

To say that Pretty Woman glamourises prostitution is perhaps a bit of a leap. It glamourises staying in fancy hotels and being fawned over in fancy shops. But it’s obvious that Edward and Vivian’s transaction is not your average escort job – otherwise the whole Prince Charming story would be redundant. Meanwhile, criticisms of the film are often based on the stereotype of all sex workers as pimped and addicted to drugs – which is, on the whole, misleading. Dumb as the film may be, perhaps it’s nice that they allowed a sex worker to have an uplifting ending for a change. Sure, the plot doesn’t resemble real life, but which happy-ever-after, Hollywood romance does?