Pretty Woman

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Q: Outline the discursive and representational tropes of post feminism in Pretty Woman.

The quintessential romance Pretty Woman (1990) staring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere is essentially a modern day fairy tale where the underprivileged young woman meets her handsome prince and lives happily ever after. The film resonates the same narrative formula as classic fable Cinderella, in that the film’s protagonist Vivian (Roberts) plays a prostitute who is bought for a week by wealthy businessman Edward (Gere) for everything but the standard reason, sex. Pretty Woman contains a number of themes that are comparable to common traits of post-feminist discourse, in particular the third wave. Third wave feminists interpret gender, consumerism and sexuality as central to their ideology. This essay will discuss some of the discursive and representational tropes in Pretty Woman as a postfeminist text.

Feminist discourse from the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s emerged in popular media using representational tropes centering on a privileged female protagonist. Texts featured narratives focusing on the empowerment of women, be it social, economic or physical. For many feminists, feminine values and behaviour were seen as a major cause of women’s oppression, so they rejected anything associated with a patriarchal culture where men and masculinity were deemed higher in status than women and femininity. Some of the main key issues and debates raised during the second wave period included but were not limited to: equal pay in the workplace; access to education; equal job opportunities; the right to contraception and abortion; and provision of childcare facilities. Feminist ideas and discursive motivs became popular in the media, based on a premise of the rejection of femininity and it’s ideals, which included female oppression and subjugation. The pursuit of independence arose as a common theme, featuring strong female characters unrestricted by male control, subordination or dependence. Feminists rejected femininity labeling it as a patriarchal construct “associated with passivity, submissiveness and dependence” (Hollows, 2000, p 10) and saw it fundamentally as an inferior state to masculinity. Feminism began to be sidelined due to the backlash of antifeminism and growing discontent. In the 1980’s gender discourse and rhetoric in representational culture shifted from ‘feminism’ to ‘post-feminism,’ which included a number of variations of the feminist critical framework. Due to all the ideological uncertainty that goes along with post-feminist discourse another body of thought emerged categorized the ‘third wave’. Some of the common representational characteristics of third wave thought are touched on in Pretty Woman, therefore the film could be considered as a ‘third wave’ post-feminist text.

Early feminists were an anti-beauty and anti-consumption culture, which shunned fashion; make-up and anything deemed to construct the female as more attractive to the opposite sex. Contemporary western society however has embraced consumerism and beauty culture as two characteristics central to post feminist media. It is no longer considered a taboo to wear lipstick or lingerie and “freedom is construed as the freedom to shop.” (Taska and Negra, 2005, p. 107) This reawakening of feminine consumption can be characterized as post-feminist in nature, more specifically, the third wave. Pretty Woman acknowledges beauty culture and consumerism in the iconic Rodeo Drive shopping scenes. We find great pleasure in watching as Vivian gets her revenge on the snobby saleswomen who wouldn’t serve her, when she returns moments later empowered by Edward and his credit card, of which at that moment the clerks morph into Vivian’s minions, waiting on her hand and foot. The ideological power of beauty culture is also illustrated by a sharp contrast from in the lobby scenes at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, before and after Vivian’s makeover....
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