Makeovers in the Movies: Pretty Woman


There are makeover movies I love to love – and some I love to hate. Pretty Woman is definitely one I love to hate: it’s corny, and I don’t believe in that whole “White Knight coming to save you from your miserable life” version of love anyway.


But romantic movies aren’t about my social cynicism, and that’s a good thing. Pretty Woman is still one of the great makeover movies, and many of my friends (who I think should know better) love it. So off I go: instead of finding it midway on TV and moaning as I switch channels, I rented it and watched it from beginning to end. And what I found was slightly different than what I expected.


“I say who. I say when.”


When we meet Vivian, we learn a few things about her: she’s broke, she’s a streetwalker, and she’s balanced enough to prioritize rent over drugs. (We also learn that magic marker hides boot scuffs, if you don’t look too closely.)


Vivian has no pimp, since she wants to be in control of her life and her money. She and her roommate Kit stand their ground on Hollywood Boulevard – they’ve earned the right to walk the best real estate they know. And Viv has the Hollywood-Streetwalker-on-a-budget look down: in a cutout dress, blonde wig, and thigh-high boots, she’s dressed for success.


And she doesn’t really seem to mind the work, or at least she doesn’t complain – it’s a hard job, but she’s her own boss, and nothing terrible has happened to her yet, so she can believe Kit’s rationalizations that they will be fine, since they’re not crackheads. And when a stranger shows up in an outrageously expensive car (Lotus Esprit) asking for directions, Vivian jumps at the opportunity to charge him for giving them. And manages to upsell/charm him into paying for a whole night.


That stranger, corporate raider Edward Lewis, is used to the best of everything. Vivian has no trouble seeing through him and his business – “it’s like stealing cars and selling them for parts”, she notes, and even though he reminds her that his business is legal, he admits that they both screw people for money. But while Vivian is only somewhat uncomfortable in the penthouse suite, and quite unaware of how much money it costs, Edward is more weirded out by her cheapness:




But he’s also fascinated by this completely naive creature, and more than that, he needs a date for his social events in town. So he hires Vivian for the week, and gives her money to buy more appropriate clothes. Which she fails at – the saleswomen on Rodeo Drive immediately recognize that she’s a streetwalker, and bully her out of the shop by refusing to even tell her how much things cost. Only the hotel manager helps her, after almost throwing her out. When Edward vouches for her, he decides that she is a legitimate escort now, not just a streetwalker.


After managing to procure an outfit for dinner, Vivian is almost unrecognizably beautiful and elegant. But she’s still unwieldly: Edward tells her to stop fidgeting, and even with a silverware lesson from the hotel manager, she can’t quite navigate the rituals of a fancy restaurant. It’s a good thing that the CEO Edward is currently targeting built his company from the ground up, and still doesn’t care too much about the fancy things. Vivian manages to fake her way through dinner: what she lacks in grace and escargot-handling skills, she makes up for with her naive charm.


“Wake up, time to shop.”


Edward rouses Vivian with theses magic words. Only shopping wasn’t as fun as she thought it would be. So Edward takes her out and shows her how to shop. And how to make people grovel when they know you have money. Because money is power, after all, and Edward knows this when he tells her, “Stores are never nice to people. Stores are nice to credit cards.”


And that’s when Vivian realizes what the dress-up game is all about. She was an earnest girl in a cynical world, but now that she looks the part of a rich woman, she notices that heads turn admiringly instead of derisively. Her triumph over that game is complete when she pops into the shop she was bullied in before and, dressed head-to-toe in ladylike white,  dresses down the saleswoman: “You work on commission, right? Big mistake!”




Vivian learns to successfully navigate the world in her new persona well enough that Edward’s lawyer, meeting her at a polo match, suspects that she is a corporate spy. If she was anyone, surely someone would know her, right? Which catches Edward off-guard, since he forgot that he would have to come up with some explanation of who she is – instead, he slips and admits that she’s a hooker from Hollywood Boulevard. But having her cover blown is not the end for Vivian – it actually helps her get what she wants, which is Edward himself.


“It’s easy to clean up when you got money.”


Described by its producers as the ultimate “rags to riches” tale, Pretty Woman is less like Cinderella and more like My Fair Lady, with its makeover of an poor underclass woman by a wealthy man, and its resulting dilemma of what to do with the woman once she’s been made over. Vivian is assertive in her own quest for a better life – now that she’s got some good clothes and a taste of the good life, she’ll go back to school and work things out for better. And if she moves to San Francisco, no one will know of her past. Which is not what happens, but since I don’t believe in White Knights, I’ll leave it at that.


The makeover in Pretty Woman is all about the application of money: with enough money, our truest, ideal selves can emerge. Vivian will probably never stop fidgeting, but she knows the power of money from both having and not having it, and in a world as superficial as the one she inhabits, that is enough to get her off the streets and into the penthouse for real.


p.s. I still think it’s a corny movie. But I love when female characters can really drive.

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