Hello and welcome to Is This Problematic? the ongoing thought experiment where we (Brooke and Shannon) revisit the films of the past and near-past with a feminist lens and ask ourselves the tough questions about the narratives that shaped the culture, and our younger selves. We’ll watch. We’ll discuss. And we’ll probably only explain this once, so thanks for being an early adopter!
The film: Pretty Woman
It’s 1990 and Julia Roberts is an ingenue and a freshly minted star, but she’s not yet America’s sweetheart. In fact, she’ll only claim $300,000 for her iconic performance as Vivian Ward, the hooker with the heart of gold. (Even typing that feels cringy now). If you’ve forgotten the finer points of Pretty Woman, here they are: Edward Lewis is a wealthy workaholic who can’t drive a stick for a damn. He gets lost trying to get to Beverly Hills and meets Vivian, who approaches him in her professional capacity, on Hollywood Boulevard. Intrigued, he asks her to spend the night with him, and then the week. And well, you can imagine what transpires from there.
Shannon is coming in hot with a read that will change the way you see basically everything about this picture. So let’s get to it.
S: Here’s the thing: Edward is a monster. But this movie doesn’t want you to see it that way. Instead, Pretty Woman hands us Philip Stuckey, Edward’s rapey attorney. I think we can all agree that Stuckey deserves to go the way of Harvey Weinstein. But what 90’s me didn’t realize (probably on account of the scrunchies and tightly rolled jeans restricting blood flow to my brain) and ’10s me now sees, is that there’s a much more subtle villain lurking in our billionaire hero.
Run away, Viv. Eddie’s emotionally abusive.
I present the evidence:
I didn’t keep track of exactly how many times Edward told Vivian to stop fidgeting, but I think it was somewhere around 80,000.
“There are four other chairs here”
Let the lady sit on the table if she wants, dude. She’s a grown-ass woman.
“I saw you talking to David Morse. I didn’t like it.”
He. is. literally. the. worst.
I 100% get why Ed would fall in love with Viv. She’s delightful. But why Viv would give this patronizing, abusive fool the time of day? Are we supposed to forgive his condescension because he’s rich and handsome and slightly less evil by the end of the movie? Consider me noped.
B, this brings me to another big question. Does Pretty Woman even care what Viv wants? Does she have any agency? Or is her purpose simply to manic pixie dream girl (yes, I used it as a verb) Eddie?
B: First, let me note that I am pleased as punch that me from the very recent past decided to take notes about my minute-by-minute thoughts because that was a more thorough and delightful dressing down of Edward than I could have dreamed.
It’s interesting that you should ask whether this movie cares at all for what Vivian wants because I only just realized that Edward is the hero in this movie, not Vivian. It might be called Pretty Woman, but our girl Vivian is the object here, not the subject. And while I’m off making literary metaphors, I’ll just say that the Hero Journey Circle favors Edward as well. Sure, arguably both of their lives are changed by this encounter, but Vivian just gets some dough and a guy who doesn’t deserve her. Eddie, he’s transformed from asshole with a fear of heights to low-key asshole who can climb a fire escape if properly motivated.
Which brings us to the question of agency. Does Vivian have it? Maybe. Chuck Wendig has a pretty stellar piece on the topic and I’m going to pull from his definition to guide our ultimate conclusion on this matter.
The character has the ability to make decisions and affect the story.
Viv has this kind of power sporadically at best. If this were Dangerous Minds, Michelle Pfeiffer would tell us that even a choice we don’t like is a choice, but I’m not trying to prove a point to at-risk youth, so I’m going to go ahead and say Edward’s money was the only viable option for a girl who had to sneak out of her apartment because her roommate took the rent to buy drugs.
The character has motivations all her own.
I’d give this one a firm yes. Vivian may not have a lot of options, but she’s not in Eddie’s hotel room because he wants her there, she’s in this game for the cash, at least initially.
She is more active than reactive.
That’s going to be a nope. Vivian literally signs on to be Edward’s “beck and call girl.” From there it’s all go shopping, eat snails, get naked on this piano.
She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her.
Again, not really. Vivian is an agent of change for Eddie, but she primarily follows his lead and that of all the people who presume to tell her how to exist so as not to offend the divot stomping crowd.
I’m left to conclude that Vivian has flashes of agency, but it’s nothing to write home about — agree or disagree? And while you’re at it, talk to me about Vivian as a manic pixie dream girl. I admit I didn’t see it of my own accord, but I think you’re on to something. I mean, she says the Lotus “corners like it’s on rails!”
S: I think you’re spot on re: Vivian having flashes of agency. And I’m fascinated by your take that Edward is actually the protagonist of this feature…which brings us to the manic pixie dream girl.
This classic trope, which makes its way into so many “chick flicks” seemingly to show us a fantastical, free-spirited female is, in actuality, a plot device to help a male character self-actualize.
So is Viv, in fact, a manic pixie dream girl? To my delight, the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of the term (which was coined in 2007 by AV Club’s Nathan Rabin). Via oxforddictionaries.com, the manic pixie dream girl is “a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.”
Let’s break that down.
I mean…the character’s name is Viv. You can’t tell me that’s an accident.
The lady loves Prince in the bathtub, fast cars, barefoot “copping a squat,” “slippery little suckers” and floss. Quirky AF.
“Inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist”
Eddie is inspired to tackle his fear of heights, punch his creeper of a lawyer, treat a woman as more than arm candy at his beck and call, and change the entire direction of his career. So I’d say yeah, she inspires in him a greater appreciation for life.
Verdict: yes, Vivian is, in fact, a manic pixie dream girl. Though she does have flashes of agency, her entire narrative purpose is to be the catalyst for a dude to change.
But B, what am I to do? How do I reconcile the serious problems we’ve unearthed with my love for that shopping montage and “Reg. Bev. Wil.“? Is this film too problematic or am I still allowed to enjoy it as a piece of art of its time?
B: Here’s the thing. All reasonable humans love the shopping montage and hope that someone will work a “Reg. Bev. Wil.” moment into a meeting to make Friday afternoon just a little bit better. Yes, Shannon, *all* humans hope for exactly that. And I’m definitely not using that example because you did it for me and it gave me life. This is universal.
The answer to the question of whether or not we give ourselves permission to enjoy entertainment that we know to be problematic is rather less straightforward. I think it’s important we recognize the issues, but short of inventing a time-machine and zipping back to 1990 to intervene, I don’t think we can fully reconcile the cringy bits and the delightful bits. Our only option, then, is to make like archeologists and mine the past for treasures amidst the trash. I think that metaphor came apart somewhere around archeologists, but you see what I mean. Right?
Before we draw a proverbial line in the sand about whether or not Pretty Woman is too problematic to function, we should probably factor in all those stray observations we simply don’t have time to unpack fully. I’ll go first:
- “My wife went to a lot of trouble, she called a caterer.” Yeah … Stuckey can fuck right off.
- As we pan over Viv’s room when we meet her, we see picture after picture of her next to men whose heads have been torn off. What are we meant to take from that? This dream girl can’t keep a guy, so she’s attainable?
- The movie goes out of its way to differentiate Viv from other sex workers — the girl who’s dead in the dumpster? She was a crack addict … and one throwaway line.
- Edward watches Vivian begin to enjoy herself while watching I Love Lucy — an episode she’s never seen before! — and *then* he’s in a mood to make come hither faces at her to remind her why she’s there. Cool, bro.
- Edward can’t be bothered to dial the phone when he’s calling Vivian to test her.
- Edward desperately tries to break Vivan’s one rule — no kissing on the mouth — during the piano encounter. Was she supposed to be so impressed that being rich means he can send hotel employees out of the room so they can have uncomfortable (for her) sex on the piano that she’s game to let him break her rules too?
Alright, S, hit me with some stray thoughts and let’s make a ruling on this one.
S: Oh, I’ve got some stray observations for you.
- We first meet Vivian via a slow, creepy shot of her underwear. Gross.
- Every woman in this film is either someone’s assistant, someone’s wife or someone’s Bechdel test failer.
- I’m on team Jessica (who is decidedly not at Edward’s beck and call at the beginning of the movie).
- Can we not slut shame Vivian while she’s trying to buy a dress? A cocktail one? Because also, she’s killing it in that body con frock and I only wish I could pull off thigh high boots like that. #shortpeopleproblems
- I really love the song, “King of Wishful Thinking.”
- And not in an ironic way.
- I mean, really.
If only this were a think piece about delightful pop music from the early 90’s (in which case, I would also have A LOT to say about Richard Marx). But alas, it is not. Instead, it’s time for us – as modern-day feminists – to pass judgment on one of the most beloved films of the last 30 years. No pressure.
S: And so, I present our unit of measurement: a cringe. On a scale of 0-10 cringes, how cringeworthy is this piece of cinema?
For my part, I’ve prepared an algorithm.
- +6 cringes for Philip Stuckey.
- -1 cringe each for “Reg,” “Bev,” and “Wil.”
- +2 cringes because “the boys back home” were the ones into cars, not Vivian of her own accord.
- -3 cringes because Julia Roberts is sunshine for my soul.
- +4 cringes for all of the euphemisms male characters used instead of “sex worker.”
- -1 cringe for the brown outfit Vivian wears to the polo match. Adorbs.
My conclusion? Five cringes.
And that seems about right, based on the feeling I had as I walked away from this movie after my first watch in probably a decade. Yes, the movie is a manifestation of the male gaze. But what piece of culture wasn’t in the early 90s? And yes, it has some serious, and unforgivable problems.
But here’s the thing. Though the female characters have little to no agency, they’re damn delightful to watch. Julia Roberts is a national treasure. Laura San Giacomo is brilliant. Elinor Donahue, who plays Bridget, the department store associate who lets Vivian shop, is adorbs. And, yes, I realize that shopping montages are reductive (We’re girls! We love shopping!), but I still find myself mesmerized by the rapid accumulation of an abundance of clothing.
And so, to quote the masterful lyricists, Go West, “I refuse to give in to my blues. That’s not how it’s going to be.” Though I do find Pretty Woman to be highly problematic, if it happens to be on TNT on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I’ll enjoy the shit out of it – warts and all.
B, your take?
B: Not to break the fourth wall here, but it’s been days and I still can’t get over how much I love your cringe math. It’s so perfect that I only have this to add:
- +1 cringe for the oh-so-clever fact that Eddie takes Viv to “La Traviata” — an opera about a sex worker who falls in love with a wealthy man.
- -1 cringe for Viv shaking things up at the polo match with her exuberant cheers
That still leaves us at five cringes for Pretty Woman. And I think we’re right on. For all of the reasons you already mentioned, and because we can watch with the confident assurance that Viv is going to drop this guy like a bad habit just as soon as she realizes that all the money in the world can’t buy Eddie even a scrap of her gumption.
Next time: We’ll watch sheroes Geena Davis and Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice and ask that ever-present question, Is This Problematic?
Main image courtesy Touchstone Pictures
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