lundi 1 juillet 2013
Film Talk: Pretty Woman
If there was ever a genre to be condemned by both the public and the critics alike, it would probably be this one. Right next to chick lit, YA, and Cosmopolitan, chick flicks represent everything that is inherently materialistic and shallow in Western culture. And if there was ever a chick flick that can be considered as The Quintessencial Chick Flick, 1990's Pretty Woman is probably the one.
Now, this is a story that gets dissed a lot. I know, because a few months back, I was one of the people who would look down their nose at this movie and sneer. "Pretty woman? That sugar-coated fairy-tale anti-feminist bullshit?"
Anti-feminist... ugh, I admit, I bulged on that opinion.
See, a few months back I took a class that was called "Understanding Business Through Film" - a unit I had an unfair advantage in because I spoke fluent English, and I'd also been watching Channel Awesome for a good four years (four years... man time does fly!) Anyway, I had to write a couple of papers for this unit, and one of them was on, you guessed it, Pretty Woman.
I went into the assignment grumbling and dragging my feet (as you do), and expected to absolutely hate every second of it. But, being the chronic overachiever, I wasn't just content with a quick look through the movie and retelling the events while picking up a few obvious points, oh no! I had to watch it about half a dozen times and analyse the key scenes frame-by-frame, and then try to fit everything in 1000 words.
There's the facts: Yes, this movie is a big fat fantasy. It's chick-lit, boiled down and distilled. It's definitely not Thelma and Louise. But anti-feminist, it is not.
For those of you who don't know what this movie is about: Richard Gere plays an entrepreneur shark who has an identity crisis after the death of his father and the subsequent break-up with the woman he's seeing. By chance, he meets Vivian, a prostitute, and on a whim, hires her for the night, and then for the week as he needs some arm-candy for some big meetings, and possibly someone to warm his bed at night. They end up teaching each other lessons about life and fall in love and supposedly live happily ever after. Oh, and Gere's business associate tries to rape Julia Robers' character when Gere decides to let a business deal drop.
So why do I think this is not anti-feminist?
First of all, even if the two characters "fall in love" over the course of a week and the movie ends with the obligatory romantic gesture and Hollywood kiss, it's never really implied that they will marry and live a happily ever after, or even that they're planning on being in the same city. Edward (Gere) has just started a business partnership that I imagine would require a lot of paperwork and corporate re-arranging, not to mention arguing with stockholders, to make it work. Vivian has bought a ticket to San Francisco and is planning on finishing high school. We don't know what their plans would be for the future, but we're sure that they won't compromise on either side because, guess what? They already established that they won't.
Earlier in the movie, Edward proposes to take Vivian with him to New York, elevate her from the status of a prostitute to the prestigious position of a kept woman (he doesn't DO love, at this point), and she said no. Because she fucking deserves it. So if she was willing to say no, and possibly go back to turning tricks on the corner, when she's not sure the man loves her, she wouldn't bulge just because he got out on an open balcony with her.
This brings me to point two: Vivian understands that she deserves happiness.
No, I don't think prostitution is degrading. Prostitution is a profession, but society has placed a stigma on it (as it does with anything concerning women's sexuality) and it comes with a double whammy of disdain (she's a HOOKER!) and concern trolling (she's a hooker!) Oftentimes people react with outrage and sadness whenever the topic comes up, but I doubt many of them lobby for safer working conditions for prostitutes, making education and health care more widely available, or otherwise supporting women.
Vivian is a prostitute because of a series of events, each leaving her with less choice than the next. She can't leave both because she's skint (her roommate steals their rent money to buy drugs), and because she's ashamed. She doesn't believe she deserves better, until Edward goes and treats her like a human being. That scene where she tells off the bitchy sales ladies? That's her finally starting to realise that there is more to life, and if she has to do so by using Edward's money to get people to suck up to her, then so be it - it's not like the guy uses any of it for himself, and anyway, you won't help the economy by keeping your funds locked away - you need to help them circulate.
Anyway, throughout the course of the movie, Vivian gains enough self-confidence to know that a/ she will not let herself be objectified, regardless of her profession, b/ she will not put up with Edward's BS, and c/ she wants to do better for herself, and she's not afraid to use the money Edward gives her to make it happen.
Seriously, let's talk about the money.
In an earlier scene, after Edward's business partner humiliates her, Vivian wants to leave and demands the money she's earned, only to leave them and head out on her own. That's her saying that there is no price to pay for her dignity, and that prostitution is not something she should be shamed for. Edward understands and apologises.
At the end of the week, Vivian turns down Edward's (repeated) offers to stay (for love?), not because she doesn't want to, but because she prioritises her emotional well-being and wants clarity. She also takes the money. In another movie, she would have let him keep it and say it was her pleasure, but not in this one. Why? Because the money is a wage, one that she has earned, several times over, in fact. It's not her symbolically cheapening their love, it's her being compensated for her time and labour, and I think that's great.
Vivian's labour has a price. Her dignity does not.
And what about Edward? He starts off as this emotionally distant and slightly mysoginistic man who treats the women he supposedly loves like they're his staff, and ends up for the one he did hire. How did that work?
To answer that, let's look at his profession first. It's obvious he's a workaholic, so it's expected that he blurs the lines between private and working life. He's also, possibly, depressed - the death of his father, the lack of closure related to his childhood abandonement, and his inability to enjoy the fruits of his labour, all lead to an identity crisis that he can't make himself snap out of. During his time with Vivian, he also realises that the work he does is, essentially, no different from hers.
"We both fuck people for money."
Edward is an entrepreneur - he buys off companies with debt, chops them up and resells the pieces for profit. There's a rude, animalistic logic to the work - kill off the weak to feed the others, and one that leaves Edward with relatively low risk, but it generates nothing of value, and once he realises it, he's left with nothing to aspire to.
His decision to change, and help a company instead of tearing it up, is symbolic in many ways. He doesn't know if this would pay off - in fact, it's likely he'll lose more than one associate along the way. He doesn't even know if the new company would be profitable. But he's willing to take a risk. More importantly, he's willing to do the humane thing - make a business decision to help someone weaker than him - and he's also about to contribute to the creation of something tangible. (And not just the ships, but also the creation and sustainability of working places, subcontractors, etc. etc. etc.)
In that context, he's also able to take a risk with love.
One can't talk about this movie without also mentioning Stucky, Edward's business associate and the guy who eventually tries to rape Vivian. Stucky is everything that Edward is not - ugly, decadent, shark-like and completely business focused. He's equally comical and terrifying, because he represents all that is casually mysoginistic about this culture, as well as everything that Edward doesn't want to become.
He wants to be Edward and is insanely jealous of him. The only thing keeping him sane is the fact that Edward is like him, and so Stucky tries desperately to keep the status quo. But when Edward decides to change, he also holds up a mirror for Stucky to look into, and Stucky doesn't like it. Stucky doesn't want Edward to be better than him, so Stucky finally targets what he thinks is the source of the problem - Vivian.
And isn't that just typical, blaming the woman for making the man stray off the path? But that's what Stucky does, and he tries to break her in the only way that makes sense - sexual violence. She's a woman, but she's also a hooker, which in his mind adds to her objectification. He wants to exert his dominance over something Edward feels emotionally attached to, so that Edward may still be in his control.
Which is sick, but makes a kind of sense.
But you know what is good about the aftermath of that scene? Vivian refuses to be cowed. She's sarcastic and wry, but she doesn't give into terror, or beg Edward to protect her. She praises him for his decision, but doesn't stay with him, not unless he's honest with her. She's supportive of him, but not dependant, and this is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the movie.
I could go on and on about this, but I think I should wrap this post up. Pretty Woman is an idealised movie. In real life, both prostitution and business are much more complex than they are represented. At the same time, the movie does a good job with these two characters and the life stories given to them, and I think it's important to acknowledge that this fairy tale has both the prince and princess saving each other.
*Note: Image via Wikipedia.