Pretty Woman: A Fantasy Theme Analysis

Originally written 22 July 1991, as an oral presentation for one of my University of Waterloo Masters English courses.

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.

Vivian in disguise

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.

Vivian is less angry at Stucky than at Edward, who has made her feel cheap. Edward doesn’t quite understand this: “But you are, in fact, a hooker, and you are my employee,” he says. She replies, “why didn’t you let me wear my old clothes, then? In those clothes I can handle it. I’m prepared.” Edward hasn’t realized that the real Vivian is the classy woman standing before him, not the one who’d been dressed as a call girl. When Vivian leaves without taking Edward’s money, he figures it out. A prostitute would never do that.

Vivian in new clothes

So after that pivotal scenario, the two unite as Edward learns to adopt Vivian’s values. She teaches him to take time off, walk barefoot in the park, and eat snap dogs. They start kissing on the lips, so their sex becomes more loving, less businesslike. And Edward becomes emotional in his corporate raiding business as well: he acts on the fact that he likes Mr. Morris. He takes Vivian’s advice and decides “to build things” with Mr. Morris, instead of breaking Morris’ company into little pieces. For this, Vivian gives him moral approbation: “It was good,” she tells him. “It felt good,” he has to admit. Edward’s becoming happy—he wasn’t before.

However, the redemption process isn’t complete until Edward dissociates himself totally from Stucky and all he represents. Stucky is already angry that Edward has turned from his own values to Vivian’s, so Stucky tries to rape Vivian, giving Edward a chance to save her and rid himself of Stucky. A true romantic heroine, however, Vivian then demands a full commitment from Edward, because without marriage, she will never be safe and happy. If she’s Edward’s mistress, she says, “There will always be some guy thinking he can treat me like Stucky… thinking it’s allowed…” Vivian formally disavows prostitution and considers going back home to finish high school. Romances must have happy endings, however, so finally Edward saves Vivian, and she gets her permanent protector. And she saves him right back: She’s turned him into a good person, thus saving his soul. And they both live happily ever after.

Wherein the identification?

Pretty Woman is not a complex film. It states its message very clearly: work and money won’t make you happy. Happiness comes instead from true love, real friendships, and leisure time. People responded emotionally to the film, clapping in the middle, clapping at the end, laughing in all the right places. (I know, because I saw the movie at a theatre.) But now I have to try to show that the audience responded appropriately to Pretty Woman because they personally identified with the fantasy theme of love before success. It there any evidence that Pretty Woman symbolized a real-life problem?

Well, according to some 1991 media accounts, many Americans are in fact experiencing a personal, Pretty Woman-like dilemma. For example, the LA Times newspaper ran this story on its front page: “Professionals swap fast-paces lives for chance to relax, reflects about how Americans have experienced a “massive shift of values” (A1) after the materialism of the 1980s. One interviewee said “I was giving my job too much and I learned a difficult lesson: It wasn’t worth the money to give up part of myself.” (A1) Time Magazine ran a very similar cover story called “The Simple Life.” They too claim that many Americans are turning away from materialism and toward “having time for friends and family, rest and recreation, good deeds and spirituality” (58). They call it a major shift in America’s private agenda, a massive reaction against the workaholism of the 1980’s (58). They also said that Pretty Woman was part of this trend (62).

Time Simple Life cover

Finally, the Utne Reader ran a cover story called “For Love or Money”. They quote a poll in which Americans are asked, “Would you give up your job if you could afford to?” in 1989, only 38% said they would. By 1990, that percentage had jumped to 56% (67-8). The Utne Reader concluded that “the nation’s social values are indeed shifting… The desire to change is pervasive” (67).

All these media stories feature the fantasy theme that happiness lies in love and leisure and not in business success. The idea might be coalescing into a rhetorical vision: Some people are changing their lives in accordance with it, making big and small changes (Castro, 58). Rhetorical visions usually have one key term (Bormann, 6), and this one’s is “Downshiping” (Castro, 62), which means to trade off work for quality of life. The term was probably caused by a complex combination of social, economic, and environmental factors that started in the late 1980s and continued into the 1990s (Castro 60-2). Pretty Woman unknowingly capitalized on it in 1990. Interestingly, most women who read romance novels regularly are also overworked and need time for themselves (Radway 51).

Admittedly, romances depict the real life problems in a very unrealistic way. For instance, in real life, “most people can’t afford to make a clean break from their jobs.” (Edmonson 67) In Pretty Woman, Edward is so rich that he and Vivian don’t have to choose between love and money, or morality and pretty clothes. They can have it all. And people want it all. The Utne Reader says: “The problem with this retreat from work is that in most cases it hasn’t been accompanied by a retreat from consumer desires” (72).

Real-life presents other complications: For example, leaving work is not always the moral thing to do. Not everyone works as a hooker, a corporate raider, or a lawyer. Some people are social workers, teachers, doctors, missionaries—their work benefits society.

Another real-life complication: Making love and relationships a priority won’t necessarily make you happy. People commit suicide over love and relationships. Pretty Woman airbrushes this and all the complications away, but fantasies often do; that’s what makes them so appealing. Bormann says that “those who pick up [on a fantasy] and find it personally satisfying are not troubled by contradictory evidence of commonsense experience” (400).

Chick flick extraordinaire

Now we come to the question of why Pretty Woman appealed more to women, than men, though it is a sexist film. It features a heroine who needs a man’s protection and “naturally” prefers marriage to continuing her education. I believe there are three reasons why it appeals more to women:

  1. Putting family and friends before career is likely easier for women to than men, as the Utne Reader suggests (77). Women are still more socialized toward thinking this way, while men believe their identity and worth really depends on their job (Farrell 83).
  2. Women are more likely to identify with Vivian than men are, and Vivian is portrayed more sympathetically than Edward. Vivian has the right values all along, but is inhibited by circumstances from living according to them. By contrast, Edward has been immoral for years, apparently by choice.
  3. This follows from the second. Vivian gets what she wants rather easily. It is the man, Edward, who has to do all the soul-searching and changing. Vivian just has to change her clothes; Edward to transform himself before he’s good enough for Vivian (Merckin F18). Remember that fantasies are supposed to make it look easy.

But aren’t women bothered by the sexism? Well, a New York Times columnist admits that she and her educated friends like Pretty Woman. Certainly they see its sexism, but they no longer feel obliged to like only the type of movie that appeared in the late 70s and early 80s— movies such as An Unmarried Woman and even Flashdance, in which the career comes before the man. In the 1990s, even feminists can admit they want love (F18).

This doesn’t mean that Pretty Woman fans want to be dependent on men. And neither does Vivian. She may end up protected, but she will accept Edward only on her terms. The “career” she gives up is a horrible and degrading one, and she quits for her own self-worth, not for Edward. All in all, Vivian is not a bad woman to identify with—she’s bright, funny, vivacious, and outspoken (Merckin, F18). It’s okay to like her and her movie.

Vivian gets her man

And to sum it all up…

My fantasy theme analysis of Pretty Woman is now essentially complete. I have found that the film’s fantasy theme bears a striking resemblance to those of good popular romance novels. Through the relationship of Edward and Vivian, the film develops the fantasy theme that love and leisure will make you happy and moral. Love is more important than money… but money is still nice to have, as long as you don’t hurt people while you’re earning it.

I also found that in 1990, many people were quite predisposed to hear this message. They felt that they too would be happier if they had more time for family, leisure, and good deeds. However, the way in which Pretty Woman dramatized the fulfillment of this desire made the film more attractive to women than men. The man really had to do all the work to make it happen. I have to admit that I didn’t like Pretty Woman when I started this analysis, and I still don’t. However, I have gained understanding and respect for the film’s fans.


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—-. The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream. Cabados: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Bowles, Jennifer. “People Prefer Roberts, Cosby as Entertainers.” Arizona Republic 18 Feb. 1991: C12.

Castro, Janice. “The Simple Life”. Time 18 Apr. 1991: 58-66.

Cragan, Jon F. and Donald C. Shields. Applied Communication Research: A Dramatistic Approach. Chicago: Waveland Press Inc., 1981.

“The Critical Mass: Pretty Woman”. Entertainment Weekly 8 Mar. 1991: 65.

Dreyfuss, Leslie. “Professionals swap fast-paced lives for chance to relax, reflect”. Los Angeles Times 10 Mar. 191: A1.

Edmondson, Brad. “Remaking a Living”. Utne Reader 46 (1991): 66-75. Farrell, Warren.

“Men as success objects”. Utne Reader 45 (1991): 81-84.

Harris, Mark. “The 1991 Poll”. Entertainment Weekly 7 June 1991: 14-31.

Kaylin, Jennifer. “Downward Mobility.” Utne Reader 46 (1991): 75-77.

Kilday, Gregg. “Summing Up a Spirited Summer”. Entertainment Weekly 7 Sept. 1990: 60-64.

Lague, Louise. “Miss Roberts Regrets”. People Weekly 1 July 1991: 56-64.

Locherty, Lorraine. “Pistol-Packing Mamas”. New York Times 15 July 1990: F18.

Pevere, Geoff. “The battle of the icons”. Globe and Mail 5 July 1991: C3.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Rea, Steven. “Roberts Observed Hookers for her Role”. Pheonix Gazette 28 March 1990: C1.

Rushing, Janice Hocker and Thomas S. Frentz. “The Rhetoric of Rocky: A Social Value Model of Criticism”. Western Journal of Speech Communication (Spring 1978): 63-72.

Vanderford Doyle, Marsha. “The Rhetoric of Romance: A Fantasy Theme Analysis of Barbara Cartland Novels”. Southern States Speech Communication Journal 51 (1985): 24-48.