Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Not So Pretty After All

Since its release in 1990, Pretty Woman has grossed $463,406,268 worldwidei and was the biggest hit for Disney at that time.ii The working title of the film was originally $3000iii, the amount of money that Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), who plays opposite Julia Roberts as the ruthless tycoon, pays for Vivian to be at his “beck and call”iv for a week’s time. I've watched Pretty Woman many times, and each time I seem to get caught up in its ability to entertain me. Yet, therein lies the very problem. It is not easy to recognize the destructive messages it contains. The success of Pretty Woman is representative of a morally irresponsible attitude that it’s okay to misrepresent social issues and foster destructive stereotypical myths in the name of entertainment.

One of the reasons the film was so successful is that the acting is superb. Julia Roberts is believable in an unbelievable role as Vivian, a street walking prostitute. As stated by Vincent Canby in his New York Times review on Jun 3, 1990, “It’s about a prostitute who really isn’t…she is instead a bright, funny, incredibly healthy young woman - who looks gorgeous, almost drop-dead chic when walking the Hollywood streets.”v  While this film is categorized in the film genre of a romantic comedy, the original screenplay by J.F. Lawton would have been categorized as a drama. The story was a dark satire about “a drug-addicted prostitute who gets tossed back into the streets when her romantic fling with a sophisticated gentleman ends”vi and culminated with her bound for Disneyland with a fellow prostitute.” The part of Vivian, which many well-known actresses turned down for the very reason that she was not a “nice girl,”vii ironically “turned Julia Roberts into the most beloved smiling sweetheart since Annette Funicello. The story was shot by director Garry Marshall three ways--sad, straight, and happy, and only until screened in the editing room did he decide to go with “happy.””viii As a result, Marshall, successful TV sitcom director, and a great cast smoothed the path for another Hollywood cinema happy ending: this time with the dream come true for a prostitute. Pretty Woman’s portrayal of fantasy that” is “this movie’s strength and its biggest selling point.”ix The film is a dream for sale. The cost: the price of a movie ticket, video rental or purchase, and the time it takes to watch it. The destructive messages it contains become hidden to the naked eye amidst the props of beauty and materialism. The cry is blatant, yet at the same time, sneaky, as it is yelled by the hustler on the street corner. “Welcome to Hollywood”, “What’s your dream?”x It suggests that anything’s possible here. So now I can imagine my readers saying, why is that so bad? My answer is twofold. Not only does the film misrepresent the serious social issue of prostitution, but its victim is used to promote a fairy tale myth. The knight in shining armor comes to rescue the princess in distress, except in this story the princess is a prostitute and prostitution is really “no laughing matter.”xi

This is a video clip of the film's fairy tale ending. 

Pretty Woman’s false portrayal of this serious socioeconomic issue abuses its most vulnerable population of its viewers: uneducated teenage girls and young troubled women. It is as if, this very population, the victims should be the ones to see to the survival of this self destructive occupation. Of the many strata of prostitutes which includes, but is not limited to the street-walker, escort service hostess, club employee, and high-end service self-employed, Vivian is portrayed as the street-walker. This is the very level of prostitute most likely inclined to drug abuse and victimization from the violence of having a pimp. The magic curtain upholds the narrative when it is revealed that Vivian is just a small town girl from Georgia without a high school diploma who landed in Hollywood because she is, what she says her mother called her, “a bum magnet.” That she tried to work in some fast food joints and as a valet parking cars, but that she couldn’t make the rent. Does this mean that all small town girls without a high school diploma and skills should take up streetwalking? I guess only if they get $3,000, a new expensive wardrobe, and a ring at the end of the week. American girls are being coerced and lured into prostitution due to poverty or manipulation by adults. Many of these girls are crime victims, exploited by individuals who use violence, death threats and drugs to control them.xii
It’s estimated that 40% to 85% of prostitutes were drug users only that among higher class prostitute women, prostitution tended to precede substance abuse, while in lower class prostitutes, the reverse tended to be true (Goldstein, 1979).xiii  
Just as implausible is Vivian’s sudden transformation from selling her body to make the rent into a girl who gets it all and deserves it. She would be more likely to continue the bratty behavior she exhibits in the beginning of the film. When she enters the hotel with Edward and he puts his raincoat over her. They are standing next to a mature conservative couple waiting for the elevator and Vivian pretends to have a rip in her stocking. She puts her long beautiful leg up and less than coyly states out loud,  Why, I don’t even have any pantyhose on.

In an interview with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the celebrated writer/director spoke of the deep sorrow at the condition of film today. There are no values. Some of the films pretend to be moral. Bull. Maybe the good guys win in the end . . . get to go home to the wives in the last reel ... have destroyed the villain ... but there have been ten reels in which the bad guys have had a ball." They've killed people, they’ve humped people, they get all the money ... they get all of everything. That’s what the young person watching the film is going to remember . . . not the final fade ... the ‘morally’ happy ending.xiv Whatever happened to love stories? I can’t remember the last time I saw a love story. Even that Pretty Woman, I liked that film, but it was about a guy falling in love with a prostitute! It may have been picking up crumbs, but there was a human relationship there. 
I say the film Pretty Woman is picking up crumbsxv; there is no human relationship; it is pure fantasy and it conveys destructive messages about women. Two examples which sum up the distortion in this film are in lines from Vivian to her former hooker colleague – 
It’s easy to clean up when you have money.
Who does it really happen for, Kit? Tell me one person you know?
Kit’s response “Cinderfunkinrella!”

If we believe that viewers have an experience when they watch film, then filmmakers ought to work not just to entertain, but should consider ways to produce a more constructive meaning of experience to benefit the ills of this world. Instead there is a continuation of destructive, subjective messages that manipulate our laughter. The truth is covered up and bathed in a wash of commercial success without thought of its impact.xvi  The glossed over reality of a prostitute in the Pretty Woman narrative is melted down to a romantic and comedic Hollywood sentimentality which entertains moviegoers with another fairy tale myth. The reality of women who are prostitutes and men who purchase their services are closeted in Pretty Woman’s wardrobe, putting a blight upon a higher level development of messages this romantic comedy might send. The truth is, there is nothing funny at all about prostitution, and despite this film's commercial success, Pretty Woman is not so pretty [or funny] after all.

Thanks for reading. Peace out.

i    “Pretty Woman” summary page on Box Office Mojo,, Web. 29 Dec. 2009.
ii   Miner, Madonne. “No matter what they say, it’s all about money.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 20.1 (1992): 8. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 29 Dec. 2009.
iii  Brown, Scott. “Tale of Two Endings.” Entertainment Weekly 589 (2001): 72. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 201 0.
iv   Caputi, J. “Sleeping With the Enemy as Pretty Woman, part II? (cover story).” Journal of Popular Film Television 19.1 (1991): 2. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
v    Canby, Vincent. “What the Beauty And the Beasts Have in Common” New York Times (1857-Current file); Jun 3, 1990; ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1851-2006) w/ Index (1851 1993) pg. H13
vi  “The nineties.” Entertainment Weekly 504 (1999): 102. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 29 Dec. 2009.
vii “Trivia for Pretty Woman” on Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
viii Purtell, Tim. “Apples and origins.” Entertainment Weekly 267 (1995): 73. Film & Television; Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 29 Dec. 2009.
ix   Cooks, Orbe and Bruess, “The Fairy Tale Theme in Popular Culture: A Semiotic Analysis of Pretty Woman” Women’s Studies in Communication Vol. 16, Issue 2 (1993)  86-104.
x    Marshall, Garry, et al. Pretty Woman [videorecording] I Touchstone Pictures in association with Silver Screen Partners IV; produced by Arnon Milchan and Steven Reuther; directed by Garry Marshall; written by J. F. Lawton. Touchstone Home Entertainment, (2005). BIR Entertainment. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
xi   Killion, Erin. “Prostitution is no laughing matter.” Green Left Weekly 20 June 2001: Gender Studies Database. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
xii  PRNewswire The hidden crisis: commercial sexual exploitation of girls. 2008. Gender Studies Database. EBSCO. Web. 26 Nov. 2009.
xiii Potterat, John J., et al. “Pathways to Prostitution: The Chronology of Sexual and Drug Abuse Milestones.” Journal of Sex Research 35.4 (1998): 333-340. Gender Studies Database. EBSCO.  Web. 26 Nov. 2009.
xiv Laffel, Jeff. “Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” Films in Review 42.7/8 (1991): 238. Film & Television  Literature  Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
xv  Laffel, Jeff. “Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” Films in Review 42.7/8 (1991): 238. Film & Television  Literature  Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web.1 Jan. 2010.
xvi Cooks, Orbe and Bruess, “The Fairy Tale Theme in Popular Culture: A Semiotic Analysis of Pretty Woman.” Women’s Studies in Communication Vol. 16, Issue 2 (1993)  86-104.

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