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Pretty Woman almost had a far more cynical ending, concluding with Julia Roberts’ Vivian Ward staring blankly from a bus bound for Disneyland.
Coldly entitled 3,000 – a nod to the cash deal that initially binds the leads – this bleaker take would have wrapped up without the central characters’ respective salvation.
Instead, we got the full blown, glitzy fairytale, which remains consistently bouncy, fun and well, pretty, despite some genuinely harrowing themes running beneath the breezy soundtrack and makeover montages.
Pretty Woman, which turns 30 today, begins with astronomically wealthy corporate raider Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) picking up sex worker Vivian on Hollywood Boulevard.
Brief glimpses of Vivian’s pre-Edward life make it clear she longs for escape, starkly illustrated when a sex worker’s body is dragged from a dumpster moments before that Lotus Esprit pulls up.
Their initial connection centres around the simple transaction of money and sex, with disenfranchised Edward having just been ditched by his girlfriend. Edward, requiring a date to help smooth business meetings along, needs an unattached, unromantic ‘professional’.
However, Edward soon begins to take a vested interest in Vivian’s future and, after a week spent in the luxurious bubble of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, their bond deepens into something transformative.
Edward immerses Vivian in a crash course in affluence, an experience that inspires her to strive for a new beginning.
Vivian is guided through the social niceties of salad forks and $250,000 necklaces, and in return her authenticity and emotional intelligence pushes Edward to consider the emptiness of his own work and social circle.
I wanted to find out how contemporary sex workers (SWs) view Roberts’ dazzling portrayal of Vivian 30 years on, and whether there is anything in Pretty Woman that feels true or relatable.
I spoke with Elysia Nicole, a 29-year-old sex worker from Buxton, Derbyshire, who began working in the adult industry a few years back after losing her job in fashion photography.
Elysia likes the character of Vivian and can relate to her to some extent, noting that the prejudice she has to deal with is a ‘very real’ issue for sex workers:
Vivian is initially looked down upon by many of the other characters, but her down-to-earth and warm personality changes their opinion.
The film touches upon her tough childhood and relationships and we begin to see her as not only a prostitute, but as a very likeable human being.
In many ways, Roberts gives a glowing, humanising portrayal, bringing us a nuanced, vulnerable and charismatic individual simply trying to get by and who – like those from many professions – wants more from life.
Vivian’s external and internal changes are framed as indicative of the potential she has to become an elegant, cultured lady of high society.
The story takes great pains to show Vivian to be ‘better’ than her circumstances, highlighting her emotional reaction to an evening at the opera, and the graceful impression she makes at a polo match.
Indeed, at times, Vivian quite literally seems to sparkle, whether that be the light catching on priceless diamonds or against Roberts’ 30-watt grin. She is aspiration personified, the dream of a shop-bought new start waiting around the corner.
UNILAD also spoke with London-based dominatrix Adreena Angela, who runs a contemporary dungeon space.
Adreena didn’t give the characterisation much thought when she first watched Pretty Woman when she was about 15. However, in retrospect, she views the narrative as ‘blatantly anti-SW’:
The whole premise is that the woman is ‘saved’ by the man, and rescued from her life as a prostitute. He literally rides in at the end to take her away from it.
This perpetuates the idea that women need saving from themselves, that they are in that work due to circumstance, not choice. The SWs that I know would all object to that and we actively push against the idea that anyone can or should ‘save us’.
Adreena does however note that Vivian is well written in some respects, being ‘vivacious, strong-willed and sweet’, without necessarily being ‘damaged or broken or desperate’.
As she and Edward grow closer, Vivian reveals her childhood daydream of being a princess in a tower, awaiting her prince. In many ways, Vivian is characterised as a secret princess; a girl who has had to endure squalor until her true destiny arrived.
Framed as a rare diamond hidden beneath an easily scrubbed-away layer of grime, Vivian’s work is shown to be something to shed rather than a choice, with Edward as her white knight, charging in on his limousine.
Many contemporaneous critics have criticised this simple fairytale narrative, believing it glosses too neatly over the more serious issues that are briefly alluded to.
Most notably, upon discovering Vivian’s profession, Edward’s lawyer Phillip Stuckey (Jason Alexander) harasses her, before attempting to rape her.
Edward arrives in time, and we don’t see Stuckey again. However, Elysia feels ‘more should have been done’ to hold him to account:
She was ‘saved’ by Edward who kicks him out of the hotel room but that is a serious crime, and there are men out there who think that they can behave in this way, especially towards sex workers.
Sexual harassment and assault shouldn’t be taken lightly regardless of whether or not the victim is a sex worker. He should have received more punishment than a punch in the face from Edward.
Elysia remarked that there have been many changes in the decades since, both in terms of female aspiration and the nature of sex work itself:
Many women are aspiring to more than marrying a rich man. The way sex workers operate is changing too.
Since the mid to late nineties, the introduction of webcam modelling and advancements in computer technology mean more and more sex workers are able to work and meet clients online. Pretty Woman is a classic film for its time, but times have changed.
Elysia explained how she and many other sex workers at her agency are ‘happily single’ and ’empowered’ women who like being independent, adding, ‘We aren’t looking for a knight in shining armour to save us.’
Considering portrayals of cinematic sex workers, Elysia remarked that Hollywood is often guilty of writing ‘very stereotypical characters’, pointing to the character of Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in Quentin Tarantino’s romantic crime drama True Romance.
In True Romance, released three years after Pretty Woman, Arquette’s Alabama is controlled by dangerous drug dealer (Gary Oldman) before ultimately being rescued by protagonist Clarence Worley (Christian Slater).
This theme of sex workers being exploited and in need of rescuing by a man is prevalent in Hollywood movies, and even though the sex worker characters are portrayed as strong women in many ways, they still perpetuate the idea that not only sex workers, but women in general, need rescuing by a man in order to have a happy ending.
This sort of widespread stereotyping is something Adreena has also noticed, remarking that movie portrayals of sex workers tend to fall into two camps: ‘vulnerable, abused and downtrodden women’ from broken homes and ‘high class’ escorts living glamorous, easy lives’. There isn’t much in between.
Adreena believes a more realistic portrayal of Vivian would show her to be an educated, independent woman with ‘multiple skillsets and degrees’, like the sex workers she knows.
Adreena, who is a trained pastry chef with an art degree, noted:
It’s more than likely she may be in education and using sex work to fund it. I would hope the ending would be totally rewritten and we wouldn’t feel the need to see her get saved from herself.
It would be nice to have her partner support her in her career and for people to realise we can sell our bodies and our sexuality and still maintain healthy, loving relationships.
In terms of the inevitable remake, Adreena would want to see a more ‘contemporary portrayal’, noting that ‘street walkers’ make up just a small fraction of sex workers:
The boom of the internet since the film was made has completely changed the face of sex work. Workers now advertise online, vet clients, have websites.
Social media has made SW more publicly acceptable – on a shallow, hypocritical, level although we are no less subjected to discrimination and marginalisation – and some of us can even enjoy minor celebrity status through social media, with porn performers often having larger following counts than musical artists.
Although Elysia admits ‘sex work certainly isn’t all champagne and strawberries in a Beverly Hills hotel’, some aspects of the movie do, to some extent, reflect reality.
According to Elysia,’big-spending businessmen who treat you well’ like Edward do exist, however they aren’t all ‘millionaires that look like Richard Gere’.
Elysia has previously seen sex workers and clients go on to have long-term relationships, but has yet to see ‘the fairytale ending’. She also revealed there have been ‘one or two occasions’ where she has been attracted to a client. However, unlike Vivian, she hasn’t fallen in love.
‘Hollywood glamorises and romanticises everything – we know that it isn’t necessarily a true reflection of reality,’ she said.
‘I think the film acknowledges this with the last lines of the film, ‘Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Everybody comes here; this is Hollywood, land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don’t; but keep on dreamin’ – this is Hollywood. Always time to dream, so keep on dreamin’.
According to Adreena, clients regularly believe they’ve fallen in love with their sex worker, and she compares this to the dynamic between patients and therapists:
Whether or not its genuine love is debatable. What man wouldn’t want to be with the attractive, successful, desirable and sexually liberated woman who showers them with attention?
It’s happened to me a number of times, and it’s more often than not accompanied by the desire to change us and rescue us.
Adreena, who keeps her personal and professional lives strictly separate, revealed most sex workers are well aware of this.
She has occasionally dated those she’s met through work. However, she sees this as ‘just dating, like anyone else’, noting:
I don’t see it as a ‘great romance’ just because we met in socially controversial circumstances.
Pretty Woman is, to paraphrase Kit, a Cinder-f*cking-rella story, but – as confirmed in the final famous words of the film – she ‘saves him right back’.
While Vivian is indeed shown to be ‘bettered’ by their encounter, Edward’s fate is also significantly altered.
The formerly ruthless tycoon undergoes a process of renewal that culminates with him joining forces with a ship-making tycoon whose business he initially wanted to pull apart. Vivian’s likeability keeps us believing in this redemption to this day.
No doubt any potential remake would further highlight this sense of mutual growth; hopefully while emphasising that there isn’t anything wrong with living as an independent, single woman and sex worker, if that is what they choose to do.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact the Rape Crisis England and Wales helpline on 0808 802 9999 between 12pm–2.30pm and 7pm– 9.30pm every day. Alternatively, you can contact Victim Support free on 08 08 16 89 111 available 24/7, every day of the year, including Christmas.
Male Survivors Partnership is available to support adult male survivors of sexual abuse and rape. You can contact the organisation on their website or on their free helpline 0808 800 5005, open 9am–5pm Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays; 8am–8pm Tuesdays and Thursdays; 10am – 2pm Saturdays.
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