Pretty Woman: Deconstruction

You know, had I written my 2011 dissertation with the same bitter knowledge of widespread misogyny (both on and off-screen), I’m sure I would have seen that 2.1 into a first.

Poor Garry Marshall, it’s a pity I was still wearing nappies during the debut of his 4.6* million box office hit, Pretty Woman, 1990.


I recently sat through 2.5 excruciating hours of what I can only describe as jaw-clenched fury; being an adult, understanding the media’s intention to mass-manipulate and project sexist ideals. Now that I know myself; the role I play both in and out of society; no amount of cinematic technique will have me fawn over men like Edward Lewis.

Vivian Ward did a great job of that though.

My infuriation rose after making the god awful decision to undergo the ‘Miami Backyard Cinema’ experience – basically a room transformed into “Miami Beach”, using falsified sand and props. It wasn’t awful because it was based on the other side of London, or even because it was overpriced and crammed. It was awful because I’d revisited one of my favourite childhood films and realised I’d been duped.

As I sat there, sinking into an oversized bean bag; feet buried beneath a cold layer of sand and balancing a £12 Piña colada bottle, I promised myself I would watch the film again at home, in an attempt to rip the literary shit out of it.

You’re gonna hate me Marshall.

Perfect timing, considering all the Hollywood wackos who’ve recently been named and shamed. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, John Lasseter, Nick Carter, Ryan Seacrest, Jeff Epstein, Sylvester Stallone and Ed Westwick are among the never-ending list of creeps accused of sexual misconduct. You have to give it to them though: these white collared, high-flying, money-driven, ego-centric, sadistic males – so built up by Hollywood they believe they can do whatever they like and to whom. A culture in favour of misogynistic machoism: where women are as seen as inferior sexual objects and treated as such.

Pretty Woman begins with Richard Gere as Edward Lewis, a wealthy entrepreneur undergoing a failed relationship. Finding himself in the centre of Hollywood Boulevard’s red light district, Ed meets sex worker Vivian, played by Julia Roberts. There is a bittersweet contrast of rags meets riches here, with Edward being the epitome of success and Vivian, a struggling prostitute.


After a bizarre first meeting (where Ed lets Viv drive an acquaintance’s car) the pair check into a hotel where they proceed to have a “magical” time. I say magical, in the sense that Ed is the key-holder to extravagance – he offers his guest strawberries and champagne on arrival – which is clearly goosebump-inducing. It is during this scene, that the viewer gains insight to Ed’s pre-formed low opinion: he accuses Viv of taking drugs before realising she is actually hiding dental floss.

The scene ends with Viv watching a black and white movie, head tilted in delight. It’s clear she has never encountered such worldly opulence, impressed with everything from the room to the refreshments. She then transpires to make a move on Lewis, crawling over to his side & “going down” until fade out. The music and lighting – indicative to romance – hides the narratives true seedy undertones.

The next morning, Ed encourages Viv to stay longer. They negotiate from $300 dollars a night to $3000 for six. Vivian is ecstatic: it is clearly the most money she has ever earned in such a short space of time. She feels lucky to suddenly be surrounded by wealth; that “high-quality” people are now paying her attention. The film encourages a belief that wealth marks human value; that people who are “somebodies” should own high-end wardrobes and know how to use cutlery.

The arrogance which radiates off Ed’s persona becomes quickly tiresome. He is constantly testing, controlling and telling Viv how to behave: warning signs of mental abuse. An example of this is is when he leaves her in the hotel room, calls up and tells her not to answer. Two minutes later, he rings back and states “I told you not to pick up the phone” to which she swoons in delight. I wanted to punch him.

“Stop fidgeting, get rid of your gum”.

Ed has the ability to manipulate and control those around him through money and power. Viv, who’s only ever been treated as less-than, is all for it. For instance, the famous shopping scene where she’s rejected based on her attire. The moment Ed realises his guest has been turned away, he takes her to a new department store and starts flaunting social status, demanding that the clerks  “suck up” to her.


But wait, why has he sent her to Rodeo Drive in the first place? Couldn’t he have asked his driver to collect her things? Aside from what we’d hope to be practicality, it’s no secret that Ed’s embarrassed of Vivian. The moment they initially enter the hotel, he covers her up with his coat.

“Vivian, come back, I am speaking to you”. 

Key moments in the film where Viv actually makes an impression, are the ones where she’s “transformed”.  Ed holds little regard for Viv’s inner being, so it’s no surprise that his eyes light up when she’s dressed to perfection. Scenes where he takes her for dinner, or to the opera, where she’s dressed immaculately from head to toe…

…Is the way to a mans heart through a woman’s wardrobe?


What about the never-ending slew of scenes where Viv dotes on Edward? He comes home and she’s naked with the table set. Viv runs a bath and bathes him with a sponge. He’s in a mood so she bangs him on the piano. I mean, are you sure this isn’t a psychological horror?!

And what about Ed’s creepy lawyer-friend? Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), is a character intended to be a jerk. It’s clear from the get go he’s attracted to Viv, so when Ed discloses his date is “actually a hooker”, Phil has a field day throwing taunts at her. But what’s Ed’s excuse? Was it necessary for him to open his mouth in the first place? Why did he bring Viv to a polo game to ignite humiliation?

“I never had anyone make me feel as cheap as you did today”.

“Somehow I find that hard to believe”.


Nearing the end of the film, Viv tells Ed she loves him. The following day, he says he’s moving to New York, but that he’ll cover her finances.

Vivian feels hurt because he’s assumed throwing money will offer contentment. She reveals this drippy story, about her dream to be rescued by a knight on a white horse. Despite their first meeting, where Vivian appears bold and independent, here we realise she is actually naive; desperate for a mans validation.

“It’s a really good offer for a girl like me”.

The most horrific scene in the film shows creepy Philip at Viv’s hotel room, furious at Ed’s change of heart regarding a business deal. Accurately blaming this change on Viv’s influence, Phil punches her in the face and attempts to rape her. Ed, sticking to his title of hero, catches his friend, socks him in the jaw and throws him out the room…

….I guess this is the moment where Ed deserves a crown, right?


Ed comfortably throws his friend out of the room, and then what happens? Why doesn’t he inform the police? Why has Ed allowed a potential rapist to walk free? What’s the message here, that successful business men are permitted to act obscenely and get away with it? That a sock in the jaw is sufficient punishment for a rapist? Fuck. That. Shit.

….And don’t even get me started on Pretty Woman’s narrow representations. Off the top of my head I recall just two black characters during the entire film: Ed’s driver and the hotel concierge. It may have been the 90’s, but the racial typecasting made my blood boil. The subtext portrayed by Marshall is acutely perverse: where women and black men are inferior to wealthy white business men, that their place is beneath them, quite literally.

The fact that Vivian is a prostitute gives Marshall freedom to both disrespect and construct his ideal woman. Clever, because he wouldn’t have been slammed for it. That he then falls in love with her, shows the viewer what “men” really want: a beautiful sex slave, whose emotional needs are secondary.

Once deemed a classic, this light-hearted, rom-com masterpiece is now shown for what it is: a dick flick, and not the stuff from fairytales. No longer a piece I respect or admire; Pretty Woman is a reflection of the ugliness hidden beneath a gabardine suit.  And yes, whilst it may have been released in 1990, the critique for Edward Lewis is more prevalent than ever.

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