Over the weekend, Audrey Bolt, Miss Ohio caused a bit of kerfuffle during the Miss USA pageant when, asked to name a movie she thought portrayed women positively, named Pretty Woman and gave this explanation:
I think it depends on the movie. I think there are some movies that depict women in a very positive role, and then some movies that put them in a little bit more of negative role. But by the end of the movie, they show that woman power that I know we all have. Such as movie Pretty Woman. We had a wonderful, beautiful woman, Julia Roberts, and she was having a rough time, but, you know what, she came out on top and she didn’t let anybody stand in her path.
Mediate and company have juiced the story by saying she thinks that a prostitute is a positive role model. That kind of misses what is wrong with Pretty Woman. It’s not that being a sex worker inherently shuts you out of inspiring stories. I’m finding Connie Riesler’s efforts to get clean on The Shield compelling. One of the most fun side characters in Hysteria is a former prostitute. I could go on.
The problem with Pretty Woman as a positive portrayal of women is that the “woman power” it shows is limited to being vivacious and sexually attractive. Vivian (Julia Roberts) does demand that she be treated with basic decency, whether she’s trying to convince Kit to stop using and to get away from her pimp, or refuses to submit to the advances of Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander). Those are good things to demand and to aspire to, and I appreciate that the movie insists that being a sex worker doesn’t mean surrendering your right to consent.
But the movie is relatively lazy about a fundamental point: Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) essentially purchases a new life for Vivian, starting with a dress, scaling up to a new wardrobe, and finally an amount of cash that is meant to function as Vivian’s escape velocity from her life. It’s a nice fantasy of salvation if you can get it, and perhaps if you’re competing in pageants, you can (Pretty Woman‘s fantasy of a man picking a woman out from a crowd has much more in common with beauty pageants than with actual sex work). But it’s more a portrait of a man seeing something in a woman that she doesn’t see in herself than it is of empowered womanhood.