More Than A Conventional Cinderella Story
At first, it may seem that the portrayal of gender is Pretty Woman's most problematic element. Mari Ruti, in her book, Feminist Film Theory and Pretty Woman, argues that Pretty Woman is not easily categorized as feminist or anti-feminist. Some aspects promote women's rights, such Vivian's positive influence over Edward. Although, this is over-shadowed by the negative depiction of many of the female characters, and their willingness to turn to prostitution. However, I would argue the portrayal of class distinctions is more striking than these gender depictions. Music is continually used to portray the division of class within the movie. At the beginning of the movie, the lower-class world of Vivian, occupied by hookers and pimps, is portrayed using popular music such as King of Wishful Thinking by Go West, and Real Wild Child by Christopher Otcasek. The upper-class world of Edward Lewis (Richard Gear) is represented by light, jazz-inspired piano music. This contrast can be seen in the following scenes taken from the beginning of the movie:
Figure A. Edward drives through Vivian's neighborhood at the beginning of the movie
Figure B. The movie's opening credits
As Vivian (Julia Roberts) gains more exposure to Edward and his upper-class world, classical music becomes a more prominent part of the movie. The ultimate battle between the two class worlds is beautifully showcased in the powerful love-making scene between Edward and Vivian on top of the piano in the hotel's restaurant (figure C). Vivian finds Edward playing the piano, for purposes of therapeutic relief, in the hotel restaurant. In this instance, Edward's skill on the piano represents his high-class status. He plays well because his parents evidently invested in music lessons as part of his education. In contrast to characters, such as the drug-addicted hookers, encountered earlier in the movie Edward abstains from alcohol and uses music to temper his emotions. Edward's upper-class status is reinforced in this scene by the audience's willingness to leave the room in response to Edward's request. Once Vivian and Edward begin interacting, and subsequently making love on the piano, all that is heard is intermittent cluster chords produced when Vivian's body hits the keys. These cluster chords almost sound musical and would be at home in an avant garde classical concert. This is the music of Vivian's intrusion into Edward's upper-class world.
Figure C. Edward and Vivian's interaction in the hotel restaurant
The sense of harmonic tension and blurring of class boundaries is also evident in Vivian's black cocktail dress theme, also referred to as the piano lounge theme (see the score below). The unstable rhythms, harmonic tension, and frequent time signature changes remind us that Vivian's position in Edward's upper-class world is unstable. However, the overt charm of the joyous but timid motive draws our attention to Edward's fascination with Vivian. There is also noticeable panning of the piano audio during the lounge scene shown below. As Edward and Vivian lock arms the theme moves from the left speaker to the right speaker. Arguably, this panning adds to the instability of the motive.
Figure D. Score of the Piano Lounge Theme
Figure E. The black cocktail dress lounge scene
Traditionally, opera has been used as a representation of high culture and the upper-class in movies. In Pretty Woman, Edward takes Vivian to a performance of La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) by Verdi. The plot of the movie mirrors the plot of the opera. Violetta, in the opera, is a courtesan who is dying slowly of tuberculous. Alfredo, who is from a wealthy family, falls in love with Violetta and attempts to save her. However, she eventually dies from tuberculous. Pretty Women has a different, more positive ending. Vivian, rather than dying, declares that she will also save Edward (see below). Possibly, this is the movie’s moment of redemption after multiple stereotypical portrayals of the virtues of high culture and society, and the inadequacy of the poor. Does Vivian truly save Edward from himself, and his obsession with wealth?
Figure F. Edward and Vivian at the opera
Figure G. The ending scene
Ultimately, socio-economic status is dealt with in conjunction with gender. Women's relationship with money is troubled throughout the movie. This can be seen in the movie's opening credits (figure B). Women are presented as not being financially trustworthy and concurrently money hungry. This theme is continued throughout the movie. Women are desperate for Edward's attention because they desire his money and upper-class status. Ultimately, money represents status, power, and freedom. We are made to guess for the majority of the movie whether Vivian embraces Edward's company for financial gain or if she genuinely is falling in love with him. Edward initially believes that his money protects him from having to be considerate of women's needs and emotions. However, it is arguable that money has also brought Edward pain throughout his life. He was resentful of his money hungry father, who emotionally neglected him, so he destroyed his father's business and became estranged from him for the rest of his father's life. He pushed away his ex-wife, and ex-girlfriend because he was so focused on earning money. Additionally, Edward's wealth results in him being continually surrounded by morally questionable characters, such as his lawyer, that bring out his worst character traits. Ideally, we hope that by the end of the movie Edward realizes that money does not bring happiness. However, it is not clear whether he has learned his lesson. He permits Mr. Norris to keep his business. However, Edward is already so rich and powerful, so this is of little consequence to him.
On many levels the story of Pretty Woman is archetypal. It mirrors the story of Mary Magdalene, who some believe was a prostitute, whose savior was Jesus, or Cinderella, whose savior was the handsome prince. Cinderella is even referenced in the film as the only disadvantaged woman with a happy ending. However, the story of Pretty Woman goes beyond this archetype. It is not only the poor, fallen woman who needs saving. As we have seen, the rich, handsome hero is arguably more in need of redemption and being saved.
Ruti, Mari. Feminist Film Theory and Pretty Woman. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2016.