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Pretty Woman: A Fantasy Theme Analysis

Originally written 22 July 1991, for a presentation

Note: One-page version of this paper available at http://jean-cathy.com/textpattern/television/28/pretty-woman-a-fantasy-theme-analysis

  Gere and Roberts

In 1989 a Hollywood producer was trying to cast a film called 3000. The producer had wanted Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, but they both turned the movie down. 3000 was the story of the ill-fated meeting between a Hollywood Boulevard prostitute and a wealthy corporate raider. It was envisioned as an “anti-Cinderella,” a movie about how men would rather buy women than respect them. In it, the prostitute gets to spend a week with the raider, but she ends up back on the streets, doing drugs. 3000 was a bleak movie with an unhappy ending (Rea CI).

Believe it or not, three complete rewrites later, 3000 became Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Transformed into a Cinderella story, Pretty Woman got its own fairy tale ending: It earned $178 million (Lague 59). Nobody expected that kind of success: Pretty Woman was a low-budget, low-concept movie starring a then little-known actress and an actor known mostly for his bad movies. The studio had so little faith in Pretty Woman that they released the film in March, an off-season for movies. They didn't spend a lot of money marketing it either. Nor did the critical reaction boost anyone's confidence — critics called the film preposterous and predictable (“Critical,” 77).

Nonetheless, Pretty Woman became the second most popular film of 1990 (Kilday 60), and it won the People's Choice Award as Best Picture (Bowles B3). Some women saw it two, three, five, six times. No one is sure why it did so well — you may have wondered yourself. I thought fantasy theme analysis might help shed some light on the subject.

Fantasy what?

But first, I will briefly explain what fantasy theme analysis is. This rhetorical method was first proposed by Ernest Bormann in 1972 (396-407). Fantasy Theme Analysts examine texts, seeking out dramatizations, or fantasies, within them. Fully developed fantasies contain characters, a setting, a plot, and a fantasy theme (Cragan 3). They can be contained in one text or spread out over several. Fantasy theme analysts want to know how certain fantasy themes capture audience's imaginations — why people respond emotionally to some dramatizations, but not others. Bormann believes people identify with a fantasy when it coherently dramatizes a solution to a real-life problem, or makes clear what is confusing in real life (Cragan 3). Bormann also believes that different fantasies with the same fantasy theme can chain together in people's mind to become a whole “rhetorical vision” guiding their behaviour (8). In this way, fantasy themes can motivate.

Films certainly have the potential to work as fantasies. Rushing and Frentz (they did an analysis of Rocky) say “Film is clearly a potent vehicle for symbolizing sociopolitical change” (64) and add “Films arouse an audience to recognize, with varying degrees of consciousness, the most critical social problems and in a form that is appealing” (65) — in a nutshell, what fantasies do. However, fantasy theme analysis can applied to film in many different ways. This is how I intend to proceed. Bormann does suggest beginning the analysis by creatively reconstructing the fantasy (401), so that's what I'll do first with Pretty Woman. I will try to determine what values and motives the characters embody that audiences might have identified with. Second, I will examine some media accounts that suggest the film's fantasy theme has chained out — or grown in popularity — among the American population. The movie may be part of rhetorical vision guiding some people's behaviour. Finally, I will briefly consider the gender implications of Pretty Woman. In some ways it is a very sexist film, yet it appealed more to women than men (Harris, 15). The way in which it develops its fantasy theme may help explain why.

Analyzing the romance

Dramatic reconstructions are easier to do based on a model (Rushing 63). I found mine in two studies of good popular romance novels, one of which was a fantasy theme analysis. By popular romance novel, I mean things like Harlequins, Silhouettes, Danielle Steeles .... By good popular romance novel — because there are bad ones (Radway 157-85) — I mean those that focus on the growing love between a man and a woman to develop the fantasy theme that love is more important than success (Radway 212). Pretty Woman dramatizes this same fantasy theme, and does so in much the same way that the novels do. At first, the woman is associated with love and morality, while the man is more concerned with competition and public achievement. Later, these different values come into conflict. In the end, the woman's values win out over the man's, so love becomes most important to both of them. It's a happy ending because the man gains spiritual redemption, having learned how to be loving and moral, and the woman gains the physical and economic protection she needs from the man (Vanderford 38).

Pretty Woman develops this fantasy theme in three scenarios: distance, conflict, and union. In the first scenario, Vivian and Edward's values are distinguished. It quickly becomes evident that Edward values money and success above all else, including ethics. He is a corporate raider who buys companies in trouble, breaks them into little pieces, and sells those pieces for profit. He is also a workaholic with a history of broken relationships, and he has no real friends. As a typical romantic hero, however, Edward has redeeming qualities. He is wealthy, successful, sophisticated, older, and handsome (Radway 130). He's in a good position to protect someone.

It takes a little longer to discover Vivian's values. She's supposed to be the moral one, which makes it a bit strange that she's a prostitute. Romantic heroines, in fact, are usually innocent virgins (Vanderford 31). Instead, the filmmakers have drawn on Pereleman's dissociation of ideas: Vivian appears to be a hooker, but she's really a good person. Yes, the hooker with a heart of gold. The movie starts with her dressing up as a hooker, as though the clothes were just a costume, and when Vivian talks tough, she doesn't sound like herself — she sounds like her roommate Kit, who is a prostitute. Vivian doesn't do drugs, and we never see her with any client but Edward, so she's quite virtuous within the boundaries of the film.

At any rate, soon Vivian is doing nice things such as leaving money for Kit, being kind to the hotel staff, and nurturing Edward. She also shows herself to be emotionally vulnerable when she's hurt by the snobby saleswoman. The infamous shopping scenes that follow are typical of popular romances, which tend to focus on the woman's wardrobe (Radway 191), but getting new clothes also serves to make Vivian look like the lady she really is. However, at this stage in the drama, Edward's values dominate. For example, the two meet Mr. Morris, Edward's current target, and Vivian notes that Edward likes Morris. Edward says that emotions have no place in business. More importantly, both Vivian and Edward claim theirs is a business relationship only.

The next scenario presents conflict, as the two of them disagree on the fine points of their “business” relationship. Popular romance conflicts are usually caused by the man's stupidly not recognizing the woman's true worth (Radway 133). So it is with Pretty Woman. The problem starts when Vivian speaks to Grandson Morris, the typical innocuous male “rival” (Radway 131), at the polo match. Edward becomes jealous, and realizes he likes Vivian — he feels something for her. However, Edward's lawyer, Philip Stucky, suspects Vivian is a spy for Morris. Edward then does his stupid thing: He tells Stucky that Vivian is a prostitute. Stucky is the villain of the movie — ugly, morally corrupt, interested only in sex and money (Radway 133) (much like Edward at this point, but Stucky can't be redeemed). Stucky makes a pass at Vivian, saying he knows that she's a prostitute.

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