Julia Roberts' much-loved character in Pretty Woman operated with barely any agency, and that's a problem

Shreya Paul
·8-min read

In our new column, Through Her Looking Glass, we try to decode iconic films from a female perspective. The series will attempt to understand the agency each female character holds in the film's narrative (mostly, from a contemporary standpoint) and whether the purported meaning of the film alters under such a viewing.

My introduction to English rom-coms was mainly heralded by Gary Marshall's 1990 classic Pretty Woman. Julia Roberts with a head full of auburn curls had me giggly as I joined her at the doe-eyed-marvelling at the oh-so-wonderful Richard Gere. I remember celebrating the all's-well ending and blessing the couple as if I were a rickety grandma at their engagement ceremony. Vivian (Roberts' character) had the best luck, I'd told myself.

Almost two decades later, I wonder if my delusion still holds strong, if Edward Lewis' (played by Gere) charms still makes me weak-kneed or whether Marsall's world could even exist in present circumstances, let alone survive.

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Pretty Woman has often been considered a watershed moment for Disney (its producer), which went an extra mile to break away from its PG-13 image to deal with a more "adult" genre. A desperate move to rebrand themselves gave birth to a whitewashed retelling of JF Lawton's 3000. As contrived as all the coyness may be, one has to offer a hat-tip at how cleverly Marshall and his team achieved the seemingly impossible. They cast America's sweetheart as a prostitute alongside the charmer who played a male escort in American Gigolo.

Thus, was born the Cinderella romance between Wall Street fat-cat Edward and feisty Vivian, comfortably ensconced in her naiveté. Their meet-cute is acutely more 'romantic', (at least what the makers would have audiences believe), essentially because Edward exists in a vacuum of transactional meaninglessness when Vivian arrives in his life, a la Hollywood Boulevard's streetwalking prostitutes. A ruthless businessman, Edward is a blitzkrieg in his spheres, a successful amoeba, acquiring failing companies to rebrand them for higher market rates.

Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in a still from Pretty Woman
Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in a still from Pretty Woman

Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in a still from Pretty Woman

Marshall's idea of placing Vivian against such a perfectionist is predictable €" opposites attract. An obvious misfit in her profession as a prostitute, Vivian is all heart and no money. Roberts' character, therefore, is a perfect hassle-free and temporary addition to Edward's life. Being a sex worker, he'd hardly have to spend energy trying to woo her. There's pleasure only in the 'chase,' right? Well, wrong.

The very foundation of Pretty Woman is imbalanced, another reason why the fairy tale ending is not only implausible, but impossible. Edward and Vivian (contrary to mass opinion) occupy the very same side of the transactional spectrum. Both deal with impersonal barters on a daily basis and are privy to the human costs of it, which includes a complete erasure of emotionality. So, to suddenly place Vivian in a more helpless scenario, where she'd be a damsel in need of rescue, is diminishing her individual status and pride.

The film, on multiple occasions, gets embroiled in this odd gender politics, deeply enmeshed within a monetary power struggle. Edward's social stature draws its worth from the millions neatly stashed away in banks €" so much so that, it insures him from heinously treating the hotel's service staff, a behaviour that is packaged as a 'win'. His elan lies in his no-nonsense, clinical tradings with people. As much as Pretty Woman would want him to care about something that doesn't involve him reaching into his wallet, it's all about the moolah.

Roberts' Vivian in Edward's hotel suite
Roberts' Vivian in Edward's hotel suite

Roberts' Vivian in Edward's hotel suite

However, when Vivian takes centrestage as an investor, the narrative chooses not only to ridicule her, but reduce her to a stereotype. A steely, fashion-forward shop assistant then greets Vivian at an upscale salon when she wants to buy herself an outfit. Even after she insists, she's "got money to spend in here," her demands for a "conservative" outfit are blatantly rejected with an "I don't think we have anything for you. You're surely in the wrong place."

Marshall's idea of redemption is dangerously more problematic than the issue itself.

After Vivian's talk-down, Edward swoops in to salvage the situation with an ostentatious show of monetary dominance over another Rodeo Drive outlet, where he standoffishly explains to the store manager, they need "some major sucking up." As the assistant scurries to fulfil the needs of his capitalist warlord, Marshall extends a literal smile on his male protagonist's face, as if, utterly complacent with his 'revenge.'

The female characters in Marshall's world, with the exception of Vivian and her best friend Kit De Luca (Laura San Giacomo), exist in a constant realm of petty reactions that surface through a shallow understanding of each other's kind. They glare, they scowl and they judge to glory €" always spiteful and never generous. The insolent store assistant, the women in the hotel lobby, or the polo match attended by Vivian and Edward, are all baying for each other's blood, frustrated with the success of their compatriot.

In addition, the 'success' in question is the acquisition of the alpha male, the prince extraordinaire €" Edward. This not only brings the patriarchal gaze into focus, but catapults its harmful effect by making women its perpetrators.

Vivian's profession is always an impeding factor. All references to her sex work are treated with rose-tinted glasses or under a film of revulsion. Not only prostitution, but even the act of sex is bowdlerised in the film. Gere's character never wants to 'get down to business' per se when he meets Vivian. Seemingly unaroused, Marshall's Edward chooses to be casually condescending of Vivian instead, scoffing and amused at her 'wild' ways in equal measures.

Vivian meet Edward for the first time
Vivian meet Edward for the first time

Vivian meet Edward for the first time

On finally reaching his suite on their first night together, Vivian prompts him to action, "Well, now that you have me here, what are you going to do with me." "You wanna know something, I don't have a clue," moans her awkward host, sounding less like a confident business tycoon than a virginal dork in a college play. When Vivian takes the initiative, Edward retracts, pleading: "Why don't we just talk for a little bit, Ok?", almost ashamed to acknowledge her position as a prostitute. The times when Vivian mentions what sex workers actually do for a living, Edward sighs, winces, or laughs in uncomfortable embarrassment.

Executive producer Laura Ziskin famously said in a 1991 People magazine article, "I didn't want a movie whose message would be that some nice guy will come along and give you nice clothes and lots of money and make you happy." Ziskin is often credited with the popular line "She rescues him right back," with regard to Vivian in Pretty Woman.

But this heroic quest to save the beloved (mutual or otherwise) stands for nothing. Even if Vivian did manage to pull Edward out of his coma and breathe an iota of life-force into him, she'd compensate her moment of glory with a lifetime of getting mansplained as he waved his arms in grotesque disregard of her "unconventional" ways.

More than a human presence, Vivian stands for a project 'in need of refurbishing' for Edward. Her person and the agency that comes with it are a secondary factor for prince charming.

Proof of this is Edward's handling of a molestation attempt on Vivian by his lawyer Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander). After the confrontation and a hurried scuffle with his longtime associate, Stuckey says in shock, "What is wrong with you? I give you 10 years; I devoted my whole life to you." Edward replies, "It's the kill you love. Not me." Vivian's violation never features once in their dialogue, immediately bringing the focus back to the men of the hour.

On a similar strain lies the much-admired ending of the film, which in retrospect, could pass off only as bizarre.

Vivian and Edward's arcs don't naturally meet in the original script (of 3000), and rightfully so. A week of frivolity and experiencing the high life together could not have translated into a lifetime of happiness without either partner's complete sacrifice. And from the looks of it, it may well have been Vivian bending backwards.

Not only is she checked by Edward for any odd tick she may have, but is continually schooled for her outlandish exuberance.

For example, the hotel manager's (Héctor Elizondo) role as Vivian's decorum coach demands that the audience place him as the epitome of gallantry. But, in fact, his actions are a result of the underlying unease that Vivian's lowly presence brings to his epicurean sensibilities. And Elizondo is only the gatekeeper to Edward's world into which Vivian ought to mould herself.

Apart from winning Roberts an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Pretty Woman paved the way of a string of Hollywood and Bollywood rom-coms in the 90s. Which is an understandable reason why the genre is plagued with warped narratives on love and companionship.

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