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We need to talk about the way Pretty Woman deals with consent

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Roxane Gay believes that in Vivian’s empowered approach to her body the movie cements itself as a feminist masterpiece. 

There’s a scene in Pretty Woman that Roxane Gay, bestselling author of Bad Feminist, says crystallises how progressive and forward-thinking that movie really is.

Let me see if I can remember it. I’ve only seen the movie about, oh, at least 20 times. It’s the scene when Vivian and Edward return from the polo. Vivian’s in the latte-coloured polka dot dress and Edward’s in pathetic condescension, after he tells his odious lawyer Stuckey that Vivian is a sex worker he picked up on Hollywood Boulevard.

The two have a blistering fight. Vivian rails at Edward: “You think you can just pass me around to your friends, I’m not your toy. You don’t own me, I decide! I say who, I say when, I say who!”

(Later, Vivian tells Edward that she has “never had anyone make me feel as cheap as you did today.” His totally inadequate response was “Somehow I find that very hard to believe.”) 

Love the dress, hate Edward’s condescension 

This, Gay said in a panel on romantic comedies in Toronto, is a sign of how much of an empowered character Vivian really is.

“Consent is a real part of this movie,” Gay said. “I think the way she acts is pretty feminist, especially for the time… For a woman to be sexy and to be self-actualised in the ways that Vivian is self-actualised is not something we saw a lot of in movies [at the time] other than, like, Terminator. Sarah Connor was totally badass but she was asexual. Here, you have a character who, even though a lot of people wouldn’t have framed it that way, who was pretty badass and sexual and that combination I’ve always found pretty alluring.”

There are problems with Pretty Woman, she notes. Primarily, the way that the movie presents sex work through the fantasy lens that every client will look like Richard Gere, take you to a five star hotel and send you off to Rodeo Drive to buy fancy clothes.

But there’s an undeniable power in seeing this confident, sexy woman in control onscreen. “I love fairytales,” Gay said. And in these cynical times we’re currently living in, fairytales and romantic comedies offer the tension release that we need in order to make sense of the world. 

Author Roxane Gay

“I recognise the fallacy in fairytales and still, I believe in them,” Gay added. “If we don’t believe in joy and love and hope, then what are we doing?”

It’s a marker of the enduring patriarchy that romantic comedies are largely critically derided and have never received the kind of awards attention or widespread acclaim enjoyed by other genres. A romantic comedy hasn’t won Best Picture at the Oscars since Annie Hall in 1977, for example, and until the resurgence of the genre this year with Crazy Rich Asians, Set It Up and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, romantic comedies on the whole had been declared dead.

“People treat things that women like as frivolous,” Gay said. “Ultimately it comes down to misogyny, as usual, because women are the primary consumers of romantic comedies, so anything women like is seen as trivial.”

Gay’s favourite rom comes, aside from Pretty Woman, are No Strings Attached (“Most rom com couples are over in three weeks, except for No Strings Attached. They’re still together. Ashton Kutcher is very attractive”), Imagine Me and You, You’ve Got Mail, Something’s Gotta Give and Love Jones

Pretty Woman is pretty feminist, actually

Currently, Gay is starting work on turning her short story North Country into a romantic comedy-drama hybrid of sorts. The story follows Kate, a lonely black woman teaching at a college in Michigan reeling from a recent stillbirth. While there she meets Magnus, a kind-eyed logger and musician, and the two fall in love.

In her dream casting of this movie, she wants Cynthia Erivo to play Kate. “I would love to see her in a rom-com because she’s so tight and muscular, people are going to give her action roles, but I want to see a woman like her be sexy and sensual onscreen.”

And for Magnus? “Just [a] thick country boy, you know,” Gay said. “Tom Hardy would work well,” she said. (Earlier in the talk, she referred to Hardy as “the meaty guy”. “Just give me Tom Hardy naked,” she demanded, of Hollywood producers.)

Cynthia Erivo and Tom Hardy falling in love on screen? We’d watch it. 

Images: Getty

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