Film

How a Streetwalker Became America's Sweetheart

Pretty Woman was porn-lite for women long before Fifty Shades of Grey came along, and apparently, it still is.

Why is it that the same women who love to gossip about "sluts" have no problem whatsoever dropping everything to watch Pretty Woman?

Seriously, guys, you could plunk a real prostitute down on your living room rug and snort coke off her ass, but if Pretty Woman were on TV all you’d hear out of your girlfriend/wife would be “Could you move out of the way? I can’t see the movie.”

I know Julia Roberts is “America’s sweetheart”, but why can’t we just let this insipid flick sink into ‘90s obscurity?

What is it about this movie that has captured the imagination of an entire generation of women? And why are they passing this madness on to the next generation?

Why, in fact, has it become the third-most profitable romantic comedy in film history?

It’s all about the fantasies.

First, there’s the Cinderella fantasy. A down-on-her-luck girl is plucked up by a handsome “prince” and introduced to the good life. He eventually falls for her, and despite some misunderstandings, they end up living happily ever after.

And just in case you missed the oh-so-subtle references to Cinderella littered throughout the film, director Gary Marshall specifically highlights a few lines to let you know: Vivian’s roommate Kit calls Vivian “Cinder-fuckin-rella” and Vivian tells Edward she “wants the fairy tale.”

If you don’t believe the Cinderella story resonates with women, consider this: More than five hundred versions of the Cinderella story exist, spanning the entire globe.

Then, there’s the makeover fantasy. I doubt there’s a single woman in the US (and elsewhere) who is completely immune to the power of a makeover scene -- including me, a college lit geek when the movie opened in theaters. It’s hard to resist the appeal of the idea that simply changing your appearance (for the heteronormative "better", of course) could change your life. What woman hasn’t bought into that fantasy? The entire fashion, hair care, cosmetics, dieting, and plastic surgery industries are all built upon that pretty lie.

Ask any woman what she remembers about watching Pretty Woman, and if she remembers nothing else (not likely, since every woman in America seems to know the script better than the Amendments to the Constitution), she’ll predictably mention items from Vivian’s wardrobe: the black gown, the polka-dotted polo match outfit, the red gown, and THE NECKLACE!

In essence, the makeover montages reinforce the film’s overarching message: If you don’t modify your physical appearance, a prince will never recognize your full worth. Securing a fairy tale ending for your life means demonstrating that you’re capable of changing yourself completely, if necessary.

But there has to be more to it than a fairy tale interspersed with makeover montages, so here’s the big one: Pretty Woman taps into a taboo sexual fantasy shared by many women: the fantasy of playing the whore.

I'm certain that many of the same women who love Pretty Woman also adore Fifty Shades of Grey. Pretty Woman did for women of the ‘90s what the Fifty Shades franchise is doing for women of the 21st century: both allow women to have socially-approved outlets for fantasies that mainstream society considers deviant; both depict a soft-focus version of “deviance”, with none of the hard, dark, filthy edges and; in both cases, the main male character is a rich, good-looking, well-dressed, control freak, which in turn appeals to some women’s desire to be taken, and taken care of -- a fantasy that feminism teaches women to feel shameful for indulging.

But let’s be honest: If Pretty Woman's Edward were a typical John, he wouldn’t have kept Vivian around for so long. He wouldn’t have put her up in a hotel room for days playing house with her. Because, let’s face it: most men who pay for sex want to put the money down, get the job done, and leave. (I mean, they already know what it’s like to have sex and then pay for it the hard way by being forced to stick around to listen to their wives nag them about how the drain is clogged or the car is making a funny noise, right?)

And if Edward were the typical John, he might have expected Vivan to do some kinky stuff. Because, the fact is, lots of men who patronize prostitutes don’t do it because they want more vanilla sex; they patronize prostitutes because their significant others won’t do certain things for them, or with them, or they don’t feel right asking their devoted wife and mother of their kids to do “nasty” things.

For a film about a prostitute, Pretty Woman is surprisingly lacking in sexual content (and, astonishingly, rated “R”). There’s a scene in which Vivian slides down Edward’s legs, presumably to give him a blowjob that exists only in our imagination. There are a few scenes in which Edward and Vivian are naked (yet strategically covered) in bed, tangled around each other or kissing like tender lovers. There's a passionate scene at a piano in which it appears that Edward might go down on Vivian... (Sigh!)

This lack of hardcore or realistic sexual content, or even the hint of it, has the effect of romanticizing prostitution, and makes being a whore actually look like a pretty good gig. Pretty Woman makes it seem that a girl can have all the “fun” without the heavy booze, bondage, and beatings that so many real prostitutes have to endure. They can have all the excitement without the drugs, domination, and debauchery. And that, essentially, is what makes it okay for women to adore Pretty Woman -- they can indulge their whore fantasies in a safe, sanitized way.

In fact, we seem to have developed a kind of cultural amnesia regarding the film’s illicit subject matter – so much so that television networks appear to have forgotten that the titular character is a prostitute. Even the ABC Family Channel has televised it. Good family fare, right? Imagine a Pretty Woman-inspired conversation with your eight-year-old-daughter:

“Mommy, why does the man in the suit give the pretty woman all that money?”

“Oh, well, she did some work for him.”

“What kind of work?”

“She just wore some nice clothes and went to some fancy dinners.”

“Ooh, I want to be Vivan when I grow up.”

But in the end, what’s most ridiculous about the film isn’t the lack of realism. Lots of films lack realism. And of course there’s nothing wrong with being fascinated by a character that apparently has no desire to do anything other than an illegal profession in order to survive: Walter White, Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, Nancy Botwin, Don Draper, and nearly every character on Game of Thrones wouldn’t have become household names if we weren’t interested in moral relativism.

No, what’s most ridiculous is the utter hypocrisy of Pretty Woman’s female fans. They want to be Vivian, they drool over Edward, sigh over the fairy tale, yet if any of them were to actually meet a prostitute, or if they found out their significant other had ever patronized one, they’d be judgmental as hell. Catty. Mean. As a matter of fact, they’d act just like the bitchy, blonde salesclerks who treat Vivian so badly on Rodeo Drive. Because prostitution is wrong, and whores are disgusting, right? Except when it’s Vivian, of course, because she’s pretty and funny and we never actually have to see have to see her get paid to do anal or … something.

Oh, and by the way: All the hypocrite moms who have jumped on the Disney-is-bad-for-little-girls bandwagon? All the moms who are so concerned about magazines and television shows sending girls the wrong messages about self-esteem? Two words: Pretty Woman. That same movie they love and never hesitate to watch in front of their daughters whenever it comes on TV sends exactly the same message: If you change yourself in the right way, make yourself different from who you really are, a handsome, rich man will rescue you from your less than glamorous real life.

We really can’t fault women for wanting to watch this film. It’s never been as socially acceptable for women to pursue their sexual fantasies as it is for men. Men have always had porn, and prostitutes, because we all know, “boys will be boys”. Until relatively recently, there hasn’t been much porn made expressly for women, and even when it has been, there’s still a stigma attached to enjoying it. Women, by and large, have had to channel their desires into more benign pop culture texts.

Simply put, Pretty Woman, like Fifty Shades of Grey, is porn-lite for heterosexual women. Watching this film is a socially-acceptable indulgence of “deviance” that allows women to live their fantasies vicariously through the main character without being exposed to all the messiness of real sex -- and real men. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what women want. It’s just too bad our intelligence has to be insulted by the badly-written dialogue, one-dimensional characters, and ridiculous plot in the process.

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