Pretty Woman, Ugly Truth
by Hannah Williams
In Pretty Woman (1990) Vivian Ward, a prostitute working the streets of Los Angeles, meets a wealthy businessman named Edward. Edward’s lavishly wealthy lifestyle is explicitly show through his unnecessarily pricey purchases. Edward can afford to buy expensive clothes, food, and even women, like Vivian. Outward signs of wealth, such as gourmet food and deeply entrenched social etiquette, are foreign to Vivian and are a symbol of the constraints that stop her from leaving her “inferior” status and connecting with others who are wealthier. Whilst the audience may understand the relationship between Vivian and Edward as one of romance and care, a deeper view at the use of food in this film tells another story. Vivian, much like the ornate foods eaten in the film, is consumed by wealthy men (like Edward) and used for her appearance and the direct pleasure she provides.
The constant disapproval Vivian meets in the film as she attempts to assimilate into upper class society is discouraging. Vivian attempts to shop at expensive stores, where she is turned away for the way she has presented herself, much like a rejected dish that doesn’t visually please it’s clientele. Vivian slowly learns that the language of the upper class is that of dinner etiquette; forks and spoons for specific occasions, napkins on laps, and appearances. These facets of upper class culture keep the “ordinary,” like Vivian separate from the “worthy” like Richard. In the main meal scene where Vivian accompanies Edward to an important business dinner, her newly acquired skills are put to the test as she is presented an array of dishes that are unfamiliar to her and cause her anxiety. Foods with acquired tastes, deemed “above” other foods, are reserved for those with a “superior” status and one’s ability to appreciate and properly consume these items are pivotal to their status. If the men find out that Vivian doesn’t know how to properly consume these foods, she will be viewed negatively. The film sends out a message to its audience about appearance and the ethics of judging based on class differences. The same men who are respected for the appearances they maintain are also the men who use prostitutes, showing a discontinuity between their respected status and their deplorable actions. The man and the prostitute are both involving themselves in the same action, yet one is condemned and the other is praised. No one seems to bat an eye at a man who buys sex, but a man who doesn’t understand the fine points of meal etiquette is unacceptable. For Edward’s unknowing audience, it doesn’t matter that he has a prostitute at the table, but only that the appearance of unity and relational health is in place.
Pretty Woman can be seen as a commentary on the ways in which we view consumption. Public matters, such as eating and relational associations, define social status. Private matters, such as sex, are kept in the dark. As long as one appears to be gourmet, regardless of the possible cheap ingredients within (men with cheating and greedy mentalities), they can be accepted. Pretty Woman paints a picture of the divide between lower and upper class as well as the ways one can manipulate appearance in order to be considered “worthy” of respect.
Marshall, Gary, director. Pretty Woman. Touchstone Pictures, 1990.