On the 25th Anniversary of Pretty Woman’s release, the question for some still remains. Does Pretty Women take the seriousness of prostitution and the misuse of vulnerable women too lightly? Or is there more to the film than that? As a psychoanalyst who just re-watched this spirited and poignant film, I think there’s more.
Sexual exploitation is a grave issue. Yet that’s not the point of Pretty Woman. Certain critics might say it should be. But, the fact is, Edward (Richard Gere) and Vivian (Julia Roberts) rescue each other from some serious fears and fantasies about relationships.
Most importantly, Edward and Vivian’s struggles with each other teach us a lot about love. Relationships have difficulties. We all bring with us our histories, our old feelings – in the common vernacular, our baggage. The best of relationships, like the best of therapy, help us through them.
As Edward says: strawberries bring out the flavor of champagne. That’s what a good relationship cultivates – the best in each partner. To get there though, most often there’s that baggage to be sorted out. What kind of baggage do Vivian and Edward bring to their unexpected love? And what needs to happen to make that love possible?
At the beginning of Pretty Woman, Edward breaks up with a woman in NYC who doesn’t want to be at his beck and call. He’s upset but acts like he doesn’t care. Why? His dad abandoned him. His mom died. He’s afraid of heights; meaning – he’s afraid to go out on a limb and open up to love. In other words, Edward won’t admit he has any feelings at all.
That’s what Edward needs to be rescued from. His feelings are hidden in his killer deals and in the concert piano music he only plays for strangers. He never shows them. But, that changes with Vivian.
Vivian has her own difficult history. She doesn’t believe in love. She’s been a “bum magnet,” as her mom tells her, attracting men who treat her badly. Her mom was the first to make her feel ashamed: locking her repeatedly in the attic for being “bad:
People put you down enough, you start to believe it.” Vivian needs to be rescued from her shame, her belief she’s no better than a hooker on Hollywood Boulevard. Thinking nothing good will ever come her way.
Edward and Vivian are about as unlikely a match as we might find. Yet, then again, they’re not. Their relationship has 3 Things a loving relationship requires. And, to the kind of rescue each one of them needs.
Vivian stands up for herself. She tells Edward exactly how she feels. Misunderstandings occur. Feelings get hurt. It happens in every relationship. Cruel things sometimes are even said. Openly talking is what’s important. Then, the feelings expressed must be listened to and taken seriously. Vivian and Edward learn, in Pretty Woman.
On Edward’s part – he’s more honest than he’s probably ever been with a woman or himself. He admits to jealousy and to cruelty. That is after he tells Phil (Jason Alexander) she’s a hooker. Actually, though, his cruelty is not directed towards Vivian, even though outwardly it is. He’s afraid of being hurt, and he tries to make Vivian someone he can’t love.
Apologizing goes a long way in a relationship. Especially knowing when. Edward apologizes. He tells her he’s sorry for being “stupid and cruel.” He almost admits to loving her. Yet, it takes Vivian leaving, (his worst fear), to make him realize how much he needs her.
Edward needs Vivian in many ways. She’s real. Blatantly honest. Makes him laugh. Loosens him up. Opens up his feelings. She helps him become aware that he wants to build things. And, mostly, that it’s a relationship he needs to build in Pretty Woman.
That’s true for Edward and Vivian. They’ve been hurt. They’ve had losses. Each protects themselves in their own ways. Edward needs to be wanted – and not for his money. Vivian needs to be seen and respected for who she is.
A Real & Healthy Love Story
Pretty Woman is not the insensitive film some think it is. It’s not a fairy tale either. Sure, Vivian has a knight in shining armor rescue fantasy. And, Edward climbs the fire escape with flowers (despite his fear of heights). What Vivian gets, though, is a man with fears and flaws. She has hers too.
“What happens after the knight rescues you?” Edward asks when he finally reaches Vivian. He’s bravely decided he’ll do what it takes to never let her go. And, what does Vivian answer? “I rescue you right back.”
So, that’s the story of Edward and Vivian. It’s a love story that’s as real (and healthy) as it gets.