The sanitisation of sex work and the view of women as commodities was deemed acceptable in the 1990s, but it does not deserve a retread
Tue 11 Feb 2020 08.00 GMT
Sanitising sex work ... Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Photograph: Allstar/Touchstone/Sportsphoto Ltd
I covered the Cannes film festival once and it was instructive. I drifted around following the money, succumbing to the madness of trying to get into parties on boats as big as castles. I watched minor royals doing drugs. I watched women get sewn into dresses, get into limos, drive 100 metres and then hobble up the red stairs. The one thing I didn’t do there was watch a film.
The performance that really fascinated me was the performance of pitching – that’s where the money is. Big-screen writers told me all about good and bad pitches; unfailingly, what I thought was bad – a movie very similar to another successful movie – was deemed good.
In fact, I loved the example I was given as a bad pitch: “Someone blows up the moon, which causes the periods of all of the women on Earth to synchronise and they all go mad.” Why has this film not been made?
Here is another: “A sex worker gets involved with a rich punter. He takes her shopping. They fall in love. But it’s a musical.” Brilliant, right? Sing along to lyrics such as: “It’s so amazing, I can’t believe / That a billionaire would care about a girl like me.” Someone said yes to this – the London run of Pretty Woman the Musical opens this week, based on the 1990 movie, in which Julia Roberts, playing Vivian, gets “rescued” by a wealthy businessman, Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere.
This romance, one may think, does not really speak to us in these #MeToo days. But sex work as escapist fantasy is still apparently a goer. Pretty Woman is Pygmalion with vinyl boots and you didn’t have to be a hard-bitten feminist even in 1990 to be horrified by its prettifying not just of sex work, but of class antagonism, race and drug addiction. But we were all smitten with Julia Roberts’s smile.
Pretty Woman sanitises sex work. One may say that’s fine, and indeed one can find readings that claim this film has a radical element, because while Vivan’s friend is doing it to feed her addiction, for her, it’s a choice. And she is clean. So clean. She flosses a lot. “You shouldn’t neglect your gums,” she says. Really, what more could anyone want in a woman?
Then she transforms from sexy into a lady. There is a wonderful YouTube video from 2016 of some 16-year-olds discussing this film. One girl wonders why Vivian has to dress “so conservative”, another wonders if women can ever rescue themselves.
Vivian’s self-esteem rockets because she has Edward’s credit card. He is a blank. Amoral. He buys companies that are failing, then asset strips them. But when he buys Vivian for a week, its “lurve”.
It’s the old sugar-daddy fantasy, but those words stick in my craw as only last year I interviewed teenagers in Uganda who had two children and were HIV-positive thanks to men they called “sugar daddies”. Sorry to interrupt the flow with the real world. It happens.
Many of the people who consider themselves “woke” prefer to talk of sex workers as women who control their own destinies. Stick with this fantasy if you must. Actually, 10 years before, Gere had made a far darker film about sex work, American Gigolo. Yet by the 90s, Pretty Women’s tale of consumerism was deemed acceptable – although Daryl Hannah turned down the part. “I think that film is degrading for the whole of womankind,” she said in 2007.
Degradation, maybe – but now with singing. Well, it’s in vogue. Another film where a woman is sold – Indecent Proposal – is also being made into a musical. That’s the one where Robert Redford pays happily married Demi Moore $1m to sleep with him. The woman is exchanged between the men, but guess what? She lurves her husband in the end. Sweet.
Mere escapism? If you want to see women as commodities and this exchange being defined as the ultimate in romance, well, you are in luck. How little things change.
My pitch? Prostitution: The Musical. Fun for all the family.