I Watched Pretty Woman For The First Time And Didn’t Actually Hate It

With the musical starting on the West End this week, critics have argued the film doesn't stand up in 2020. Georgia Aspinall explored for herself...

Pretty Woman

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

This week, Pretty Woman: The Musical hits West End theatres for a year-long run. Watching the trailer, I’ve already seen too much – but I have just finished watching the film for the first time. And let me tell you, that was not what I expected.

Pretty Woman came out in 1990, five years before I was born and interestingly enough, wasn’t one of the staple rom-coms my mum introduced to me as I grew up. Nevertheless, I knew of its reputation. I’d heard the criticism that it doesn’t quite stand up 30 years on and as the raging feminist in my family, I was fully anticipating despising the movie.

The premise is enough to make anyone balk: a sex worker happens upon a rich client, he spoils her with his riches and they fall in love as he rescues her from her sad life. Eye roll.

It’s that very premise that has turned many people off the creation of a musical, unsure a film with such an archaic narrative needs reviving in this day and age. And while yes, reviews of the musical have not been good, the premise of the 1990 film doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in summing up what Pretty Woman truly is.

What I watched wasn’t a fairy-tale of a broken woman rescued by an affluent man, it was an exploration of class divides with Vivian Ward (played by Julia Roberts) coming off more heroic than millionaire Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) ever does. Vivian is Edward’s solace in an uptight world of business meetings that are dressed up as social engagements - with brazenly rude peers instead of friends. She’s his moral compass and therapist. As she puts it: ‘did I mention, my leg is 44 inches from hip to toe. So basically we are talking about 88 inches of therapy wrapped around you for the bargain price of three thousand dollars’.

Vivian comes off more heroic than Edward ever does

Yes, Edward is Vivian’s ticket out of sex work – but as we saw from the final scenes, she was more than ready to exit on her own terms before Edward turned up to confess his love for her. And yes, he was her bank for much of the film – but would a woman in her position not value financial reward over emotional support? Am I meant to judge the writers for making a shopping spree something she cherishes?

First of all, let’s get real: financial insecurity is hell, anyone in her position would cherish rinsing a credit card – probably for rent or savings over clothes, but still. And secondly, all that scene tells me is that she is whole enough on her own that she doesn’t need much more from Edward than his money – unlike him, who needs an entire support system just to crack a smile.

If the character of Vivian was a vapid caricature of a sex worker then yes, maybe I would judge the writers. But thanks to Julia Roberts, Vivian’s character goes much deeper than that. And that’s possibly why a musical version hasn’t been very well-received.

If you haven’t read the reviews, I’ll sum up: it is awful. According to critics, it’s a ‘tasteless disaster’ with The Guardian’s Alexis Soloski stating that ‘there’s far more engineering and care devoted to the lingerie than to the story structure.’

Having just watched the film, I can see how this would be a hazard of any Broadway adaption no matter who produced it. For Pretty Woman to be more than a patronising and misogynistic fairy-tale that treats women as commodities with little but a shopping spree to make them whole, it needed the silver screen.

The hustle and bustle of Hollywood Boulevard, the close-ups of Roberts and Gere’s expressions, the artistic direction that makes the sex in the movie feel less transactional and more romantic. These are all necessary to give Pretty Woman some grit, and they’re just not possible on the West End. In fact, the last thing you need during a scene showing an attempted rape is a musical number (to be fair, that scene is likely cut from the musical since it’s a family show)

Ultimately, what I took from Pretty Woman was that public perception of sex work hasn’t moved on much in 30-years. The ongoing theme that Vivian is damaged goods because she’s a sex worker still exists to this day. And while yes, Vivian’s experience of sex work was forced – she gets involved in it because she can’t ‘make rent’ – and thus should be considered a problem needing solving, the film fails to acknowledge not all sex work is forced.

In 2020, the idea that all sex workers are on street corners, needing makeovers and etiquette lessons is outdated (as it likely was then too). But given Vivian wasn’t voluntarily involved in sex work, the fact Edward wanted to rescue her from that life isn’t necessarily something to scoff at. Shouldn’t we expect more men with deep pockets to support getting women out of forced prostitution? Maybe not by paying them for sex, sure, but the notion that we should support those women financially to get them out of sex work shouldn’t just fall on the shoulders of women.

It would be remiss to ignore that the film does sanitise forced sex work, of course. Vivian refuses to use a pimp despite working street corners, her and her best friends mantra is ‘we decide who, when and how much’. One of her hallmarks is how clean she is and only practices safe sex. Edward is respectful and she is consistently initiating their sexual encounters. It goes without saying, in the real world, not all sex work – and especially forced prostitution - is like this.

But then again, it's evident throughout the film that this is unchartered territory for Vivian. There are numerous references to pimps stealing money, to being abused by men and her best friend is seemingly in sex work to feed her drug addiction. While these narratives weren't nearly explored adequately, they were noted enough to realise Vivian's experience with Edward was far from the norm.

It’s take-aways like that that give value to the idea we should leave Pretty Woman in 1990. Some things are better left untouched, especially when they’re great as they are. And if the reviews of the West End update are anything to go by, Pretty Woman is one of them.

Read More:

Pretty Woman Just Turned 25 - So I’m Ruining It For Everyone

Julia Roberts Is Calling Bullshit On Your Favourite Rom Coms

Watch The 'Pretty Woman' Reunion! Turns Out Richard Gere Almost Wasn't Edward Lewis

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