Pretty woman 25 years later: Fairytale or cautionary tale?
This past week, NBC’s Today Show hosted a Pretty Woman reunion in honor of the film’s 25th anniversary much to the delight of thousands of viewers and fans of the 1990 blockbuster film. For those who need a refresher, Pretty Woman depicts the struggles of a young prostitute, Vivian, who finds her prince charming driving, lost, through Hollywood’s red light district in a Lotus sports car. The man turns out to be Edward Lewis, a successful workaholic businessman. Vivian quickly charms Edward who offers to pay for a week of her time. In the end, Edward “saves” Vivian from her life as a prostitute while Vivian teaches Edward how to enjoy the life he’s made for himself life and the two discover they are in love.
These days, Pretty Woman is one of the most financially successful films in the rom-com genre and is widely considered a classic judging from the 25th anniversary celebrations. Nevertheless, I myself had somehow never seen it – that is until yesterday.
In preparation for my viewing, I did a bit of research. One of the more interesting articles I read came from Vanity Fair. In a recent interview in honor of the 25th anniversary, screenwriter J.F. Lawton revealed the ending to Pretty Woman before the film was bought by Disney and the ending rewritten. Pretty Woman was originally, it turns out, titled 3,000 in reference to the $3,000 Edward offers Vivian for the week. 3,000 does not end with Edward climbing up Vivian’s fire escape – rather, he says goodbye and they each go their separate ways. For Edward, that is undoubtedly back to his life as a Wall Street mogul. For Vivian, reality hits a bit harder. The 3,000 script ends with Kit and Vivian on a bus bound for Disneyland – a trip financed by Vivian’s week with Edward. Kit, thrilled with their little day adventure, babbles on while Vivian “stares out emptily ahead.”
Juxtaposing Pretty Woman’s happily-ever-after ending with J.F. Lawton’s original ending, the differences are plain to see and the effect of the film is without doubt much darker. It’s not surprising that when Disney sought to turn the film into a blockbuster hit, they ditched the gritty ending, one that is in fact more often the reality for prostitutes, for the more enticing fairytale ending. That being said, I don’t think the film is entirely disconnected from the reality of prostitution.
If you pay attention, you see the hints: the police man’s investigation into an alleged murder of a prostitute at the very beginning of the film, tourists photographing the crime scene, Vivian and Kit’s debate over working for a pimp named Carlos, Vivian’s explanation to Edward about how she ended up where she was, Edward’s lawyer Philip’s treatment of Vivian and the climactic ending with Philip attacking Vivian in an effort to force her to have sex with him. For the average viewer however, all these moments recede into the background of Vivian and Edward’s love affair without any context.
So here’s the context: prostitution is far from glamorous. 70% of women in prostitution experience physical assault. They are additionally 40% more likely to be murdered when compared to the average American woman and 60% more likely when compared to the average American male. Fortunately, however, awareness of this reality is rising.
In the 25 years since Pretty Woman was first released, views on prostitution have changed dramatically. Research shows that the vast majority of women do not select prostitution as a career. Rather, they are forced into it through physical and psychological abuse or enter the trade due to the constraints poverty imposes on individuals and families. That is not to say, however, that there are not women who do engage in sex work on their own volition. There most certainly are. Unfortunately they are vastly out numbered by women and children who were never given the option of making that decision for themselves.
Building on this new perspective, anti-trafficking activists and women’s rights groups have endeavored to change the language and the policing of trafficking so that women and children are seen as victims first rather than criminals. In many ways these groups been met with success. Aside from the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which is currently stuck in Congress due to debate over a piece of the bill regarding abortions, Congress has passed well over a dozen bills aimed at beefing up funding for law enforcement training and service centers just in the past few months. Numerous states in turn, have passed Safe Harbor laws protecting children from criminalization as well as vacating convictions statues which provide trafficking survivors with a clean slate.
Watching the film for the first time now was fairly entertaining. Gone are the days when anyone would use traveler’s checks to go on a shopping spree or a Walkman in the bathtub for that matter. Beyond traveler’s checks and Walkmans however, a far more serious change has is underway – that is, society’s view on the sex trade. In this light it’s unsurprising that Pretty Woman takes the heat it does from anti-trafficking activists who consider the film to be a blithe and tendentious depiction of prostitution. But does it deserve the flack we give it? If we consider the ways in which views on prostitution and awareness of sex trafficking have changed just in the last 25 years, it seems possible that Pretty Woman could soon turn from Disney fairytale to cautionary tale and perhaps even a tool for anti-trafficking activists. Fortunately, I don’t think we’ll have to wait until the 50th anniversary to see.
– Hannah Eddy, 3 Generations