The movie “Pretty Woman,” which was released in 1990, has many different interpretations depending on the time period. The differing interpretations of each time period reveal the tensions between the past and current perspectives towards the role of a prostitute named Vivian, featuring Julia Roberts. Twenty-five years after the movie was released, two authors on CNN raised the question about the great success of the movie and the female actress’s rise to stardom even though the movie has a tendency to demean women by portraying the female character as achieving her success through the male character. The authors ask, “how does [the movie] stand up today?” Regarding the question, it is true that people in the past and now both have explicit moral standards in terms of prostitution, but what kind of factors make people only see her beauty and success in the past instead of the role of prostitute through the movie?
The movie has a profound message about the ways of treating women, and this is a notable reason why the film has been re-evaluated by critics after 25 years passed. The movie explicitly challenges the new audience to consider whether a physically attractive woman is guilty of performing moral wrongdoings when her beauty helps her succeed in life. Looking at the plot of the movie, Vivian not only is a prostitute, a profession commonly regarded as shameful and a taboo for women, but also succeeds in her life in terms of finding her love by dating a rich and successful man named Edward, featuring Richard Gere. Regardless of the general consensus that prostitution is an unethical behavior throughout different time periods, the movie was welcomed by the public and swept many awards in 1991 such as the golden globe award for best actress, the kid’s choice award for favorite movie actress, and people’s choice award for favorite comedic movie. Then, why were people so indifferent about Vivian’s role, even though prostitution has been regarded as an obvious unethical behavior from the past?
The perspective on how people view and treat male and female appearance potentially explains how focusing on women’s beauty can play a role as a “smart move” in order to have a successful life. This point of view is first referenced in the third chapter of the book Ways of Seeing by John Berger, an art critic in 1970: he established a visual formula that said, “men act and women appear.” Looking at his visual rules, two terms “masculinity” and “femininity” are defined as observing and being observed, respectively. Contrary to men, Berger claims that women “appear to men,” and their presence “is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” Vivian is hired as a “pretty woman” at the cost of her beauty for the business dinner because her appearance can be a tool that makes the atmosphere smooth among businessmen. As Berger claimed, Vivian’s outstanding beauty and youth satisfy the prerequisite for women to have a successful life regardless of whether she is a sex worker or not.
Nevertheless, after 31 years passed, the usage of prostitution for social climbing interprets differently from the past. For example, CNN journalists in 2015 argued that “Pretty Woman” can be considered a feminist classic because it actually empowers women. There are a lot of opinions that the usage of prostitution for upward mobility dismisses women’s rights. Characterizing a woman as someone who uses sex as a means to obtain one’s social standing is generally considered derogatory because it ignores the intellectual capabilities women have and also builds a stereotypical image of women. Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with Vivian’s choice of profession, both stances focus on how she “acts’’ in the movie, rather than how she “appears.” The argument introduces the idea that it doesn’t matter what Vivian chose for a living because she decided to be a prostitute by herself and autonomously allowed other people to observe her. The remarkable difference in interpreting her role is how modern society does not see her as an appearing object anymore.
As time passes, our different responses to the role of prostitution in the movie display the complex issues present in each time period. The focus of the discussion in 2015 is away from the type of job Vivian has, and viewers are more likely to look at her decisiveness and see Vivian as her own agent. People pay more attention to Vivian’s power and how she “exercises on others,” an action that is usually associated with the men’s presence according to Berger. In sum, present-day viewers do not easily indulge Vivian’s career as a sex worker, even if her beauty qualifies her role as a woman who simply needs to appear.