Pretty F'ed-Up Woman: Dating 101 From a Hooker With a Heart of Gold

by Rose Maura Lorre
Originally Published: 
Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in the “Pretty Woman” film, dressed elegantly, looking at each other

Pretty Woman unleashed its unique brand of torture on the world 25 years ago, on March 23, 1990. I was 15 years old at the time, with a love life frustratingly stuck in zygote phase: I’d yet to acquire a boyfriend, kiss a boy, or precipitate the sort of awkward, gropey episode that could be construed as either.

The romantic-comedy genre was similarly clawing its way back from a long, gray, dormant period, triggered by the successful release of When Harry Met Sally the year before. Once Pretty Woman hit theaters and ultimately grossed $463 million, rom-coms became omnipresent—from the 1980s to the 1990s, Hollywood would roughly double their output—and with no actual dating experience available to me, Pretty Woman and its litany of knockoffs became my Relationships 101 ur-text.

© Buena Vista

I honestly don’t remember my adolescent life without Pretty Woman in it, which sounds like the kind of melodramatic, self-serving proclamation Julia Roberts’ streetwalker, Viv, often makes as she tussles with her feelings for Edward Lewis, the suave businessman played by Richard Gere who hires her to spend a week as his “beck and call girl.” And for many years—years squandered on self-defeating thoughts, counterproductive shouting matches, unhealthy psychological habits, and yes, emotionally unavailable partners—I never realized just how much the movie had molded my warped, fucked-up Weltanschauung when it came to guys and how to deal with them. All of my worst behaviors and patterns are on display in this film; the through-line is undeniable.

Pretty Woman, you owe me at least a decade and a half of my dating life back.

© Buena Vista

I’m not even talking about the movie’s surface stuff, like the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold clichés or the idea that true love is about a woman needing to be rescued by a man. Pretty Woman has been routinely maligned for such retrograde gender politics, but its take on interpersonal relationships is actually profoundly modern.

Romantic banter from Hollywood’s golden age acknowledged the war of the sexes largely by reveling in what was flirty and fun about it. What passes for witty repartee in Pretty Woman (and on Twitter, or The Bachelor, or anywhere you look in 2015) are straight-up, passive-aggressive barbs. “You make $100 an hour and you’ve got a safety pin holding up your boot?” Edward quips on the night he meets Vivian, which is basically making fun of her for being a prostitute. “Back to your ‘office,'” he jokes once they’ve arrived at his hotel, again making fun of her for being a prostitute—and this after she rescued him from the seedy part of Hollywood Boulevard and his own inability to drive a stick.

If you recall Edward and Vivian’s fight in the Regent Beverly Wilshire penthouse suite, which comes after Edward reveals to his slimy lawyer (Jason Alexander!) that Vivian’s a hooker, then you’ve essentially witnessed every blowout I had with a boyfriend for the first 15 years after college. “I’m sorry I ever met you,” she seethes at him, despite the fact that she clearly is not. “I want to get out of here,” she declares while standing completely still.

© Buena Vista

These are the lines girlfriends say when they want their boyfriends to stop them from walking away and give chase. These are the lines girlfriends say to engender the cinematic dramas they’re desperate to role-play in their real lives. When I fought with a boyfriend, inside my head I was always figuring out a way to get to the walking-away line so I could see if he came after me. It was a test.

Of course, movies shouldn’t only script admirable, therapist-approved disagreements. (As someone now enjoying a blessedly mature marriage, I can attest that quarreling conscientiously is boring as fuck.) But when none of them do, then you can go for years carrying around a false image of what a fight should look like. That it’s about saying anything except what you really mean and feel, because those are things he’s supposed to just know—or at least intuit—if he really loves you. That it’s about one-upping the other person while silently begging him to be the one who backs down first. Not accord, but victory.

Pretty Woman, you owe me at least a decade and a half of my dating life back.

Despite such psycho-hose-beast tendencies, Vivian is arguably cinema’s first Manic Pixie Dream Girl, if not her even more modern iteration, the “Cool Girl” infamously epitomized in Gone Girl, a “hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex…A woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists.”

Viv knows about cars, takes Edward to a greasy spoon, uses slang like “cop a squat” and likes to perch her ass on tabletops. Watching Pretty Woman today, she’s an exhausting and discomfiting reminder of how it felt to constantly evaluate what aspects of myself a man wanted me to show, to what degree, in which situations. Edward, a world-class douchebag who makes Mr. Big look like Dr. Phil, rarely accepts Viv for who she is, tossing around cavalier judgments that would make an actual woman feel like utter shit.

© Buena Vista

When Vivian ditches that ridiculous Carol Channing wig to reveal flowing red tresses, Edward doesn’t say her hair is beautiful or nice; he says it’s “better.” When Vivian is nervous about attending the polo match, he tells her, “You look gorgeous. You look like a lady.” He admonishes her to “stop fidgeting” at least three times and at one point informs her, “When you’re not fidgeting, you look very beautiful.” What a fucking prick.

If I wasn’t a hooker with a heart of gold, I was certainly a hussy with a will of steel.

Yet I dated that prick repeatedly: charismatic, intellectual, handsome, droll, smooth-talking, shrewd, guarded, unreliable, domineering, selfish. With guys like Edward, the mental subterfuge is so subtle that it takes months or years to realize just how awfully they treated you. Like Vivian, I was always the agreed-upon more damaged one in the relationship whose baggage must be the cause of whatever problems we experienced, and I willingly lived in his world and tried my hardest to pass his unofficial tests (remember when Viv cries at the end of the opera?) despite receiving no indication that things might change. If I wasn’t a hooker with a heart of gold, I was certainly a hussy with a will of steel.

But honestly, what pisses me off most about Pretty Woman is the way it trolls Vivian for wanting what she wants. Her grown-up desire for an equitable relationship with Edward, one that’s more than just the accoutrements he can provide, is reduced to a fairytale childhood wish that somehow has something to do with being “rescued” by knights who scale towers with their “colors flying.” You probably remember that in the last line of the movie, Vivian tells Edward that she’ll “rescue him right back.”

I’d like to think she hurls him off her fire escape instead.

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