Pretty Woman is available to watch for free on BOB.
I actually hated Pretty Woman (1990) the first time I watched it. I was just coming into feminist consciousness when my mother put it on after years of raving that it was her favourite rom-com. I felt betrayed that she deemed it in any way romantic. Richard Gere with his male saviour complex comes along to sweep Julia Roberts off her feet? Yuck. These conservative sexual politics are what a lot of people dislike about the film thirty years on, or it’s the case that people like the film in spite of them. However, as I grew up and my initial repulsion evolved into critical and somewhat guilty enjoyment, I realised Pretty Woman’s biggest issue is not that it is outdated, but that it isn’t. In its approach to sex work, the film is as old hack as the current discussions surrounding sex workers’ rights.
I believe sex work should be legalised; the case for which sex workers and activists Molly Smith and Juno Mac make very clearly in their book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights. There is inarguable evidence that criminalisation actively creates the unsafe working conditions for sex workers that many feminists use to argue against its legalisation. Looking at the various degrees of criminalisation globally, it becomes evident that carceral measures operate in structurally racist and sexist ways to endanger sex workers rather than protect them. Now, Pretty Woman is not a serious mediation on the legal position of sex workers in the US, and it might be laughable to try and read it that way. However, it does speak to many of the issues with how sex workers’ rights are still being discussed.
Gere’s character Edward Lewis is the worst. Despite seemingly passing little judgement on Vivian’s source of income compared to those around him, his belief that she could “do more” is exactly what makes him such a problem. In fact, he compares his job as a businessman, who buys struggling companies and sells them off in smaller parts, to Vivian’s job as a sex worker, saying “you and I are such similar people Vivian, we both screw people for money”. Edward believes that he (the millionaire) could be ‘doing more’ too. You may have heard of “The Hooker With A Heart of Gold” trope, which Kristen Cochrane argues Pretty Woman typifies, portraying the sex worker as sweet and usually “too smart” or “too cultured” for her job. Edward Lewis is in turn portrayed as “The Capitalist With A Heart of Gold”, who finds he is far too sensitive, with a tendency to empathise with the underdog, to be engaged in the kind of business that he is. Just as Vivian seeks a new career path by the end of the film, Edward supposedly takes his business in a new direction and becomes a “more humane capitalist”, according to D. Soyini Madison. Hilariously, this more humane version of capitalism involves becoming a private investor in a company’s new venture into building ships for the US military.
Edward’s initial qualms with his and Vivian’s work are that they don’t build or make anything, they aren’t productive, and they hold no social value beyond economic exchange. The idea of work’s social value is often invoked with regards to sex work, even at times by its advocates. For example, Smith and Mac highlight that sex work is often professionalised and sanctified only in discourse around disabled clients, whose needs are supposedly driven by intimacy and connection, rather than carnal passion. Therefore, these workers perform work of social value. They point out that this is not just patronising and ableist to disabled people, but an inadequate approach to discussing sex workers’ rights, who deserve safety in the workplace regardless of any perceived social value to their work. The economic exchange element for Vivian, who needs money for rent, is exactly why her job is valuable to her and should be enough argument for her protection.
The equation of their supposedly similar professional developments also glosses over Vivian’s specific working conditions and how Edward’s unconvincing ignorance to these endanger her. Consent becomes a real issue once Edward is no longer paying Vivian for an hour but a whole week of her life. Many anti-prostitution feminists take the view that sex workers are so at risk of sexual violence because once a man has paid for a woman’s time or body, he feels entitled to do whatever he wants with both. However, clients are not buying time or bodies but services, and sex workers have rules surrounding these services like any other worker. Criminalisation of sex work endangers sex workers because it ensures they cannot call on the law to protect them when the terms of their work are violated. Clients know this, which can create a very dangerous environment where sex workers feel they have to agree to more than they would otherwise, for fear of a client growing violent with them.
Edward crosses Vivian’s professional boundaries multiple times, each time with the rom-com excuse that he loves her. Notably, he discloses to his attorney that she is a sex worker, who then uses this information to inappropriately proposition her and in a horrific scene later in the film, attempts to assault her. Vivian explains why she is so upset – she can handle a “guy like that” when she is in her own clothes and usual work environment, but the situation Edward puts her in made her exceptionally vulnerable. She exclaims “what are you my pimp?”, to which he responds “I hate to point out the obvious but you are in fact a hooker and you are my employee”, confusing quite evidently the lines between client and employer and the power he therefore believes he holds. His act is dismissed as a jealous response to Vivian talking to a business rival, as though he does not put her in very serious danger. Edward violates Vivian’s professional terms (“I say who, I say when”) and highlights the pressure she is under to keep renegotiating these terms.
Of course, Edward is supposed to be the hero in their fairy tale narrative – driving up in his white limousine to rescue Vivian from her tower. This is conservative at best in any conventional love story, but the hero on a rescue mission is quite the liberal figure in modern sex work policy. Smith and Mac lay out in significant detail, better than I could begin to do here, how anti-trafficking narratives and laws are constructed and weaponised against people working in commercial sex industries. They point out that anti-trafficking work invariably involves arresting sex workers themselves and that the US media often portrays these arrests as “rescues”. Thus, the subsequent incarceration and/or deportation of sex workers is framed as not just progressive but “actively humanitarian”.
Hollywood and real sex work policies are never too far apart. In 2015, Amnesty International developed an internal policy document which concluded, based on findings from wide-ranging interviews with sex workers around the globe that criminalisation makes them less safe, that they should advocate for sex work’s decriminalisation. A number of Hollywood actors including Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, and Emma Thompson signed a letter to Amnesty International insisting that they reject the proposal set out in this document. Smith responded to this in an article for The Guardian, in which she highlights “the draft policy notes that the voices of sex workers are often ‘obscured or silenced’ during such debates. It is ironic that the vilification heaped upon Amnesty demonstrates just how true that is”.
Luckily, Amnesty voted in favour of this document and now stand in support of sex workers’ rights, but Smith’s article headline “In this prostitution debate, listen to sex workers not Hollywood stars” rings true in every debate on sex workers’ rights. Pretty Woman is just a film; I still have a strange affinity to it, even if that is just down to my crush on young Julia Roberts. But it is in no way the place to look for a politics on sex work. The further away policy moves from Hollywood the better.
– Sophie Chapman
Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd