Pretty Woman

Pretty Woman Themes


In her role as a prostitute, Vivian has a tenuous relationship to her own self-worth. Labeled a "bum magnet" by her mother, and forced into a profession by financial precariousness, Vivian respects herself enough not to have a pimp, but not enough to believe that she deserves true love. While she can put a value on her services as a sex worker, it is more difficult for her to believe in herself as a woman, and as a lover. As we see Vivian transform physically in the film, we also see her transform emotionally, as she begins to realize her own value in the eyes of Edward. As Edward realizes how bright and special she is, Vivian begins to realize it too. Edward not only saves Vivian from her life of desperation, but also convinces her that she is worth saving.

Prostitution Romanticized

Prostitution is undoubtedly depicted as a difficult profession, and the commercial nature of Vivian's sex appeal is used against her throughout, as when Edward labels her as a "hooker" to Phil, and when Phil assaults her. Apart from this mistreatment, however, prostitution is largely sanitized in the film, often depicted humorously or light-heartedly. When Vivian climbs out her window to avoid the landlord in the early moments of the film, her escape is set to jaunty, up-beat music. Kit spends their rent money on drugs, but her character often serves as comic relief, and her problems are met with a knowing eye-roll and a smirk by her roommate, Vivian. Furthermore, Vivian's integration into the upper echelon is often clumsy and humorous, but never truly strained. While she might occasionally shock her more posh companions, the class differentials never amount to that much more than a punchline or an awkward moment.

The violence of the life on the streets is often distant. Even the murder of "skinny Marie" is shrugged off by Kit as something that Marie had coming, and made into a comic moment by the tourists who snap a picture of the prostitute's corpse. The film glosses over the many tragedies and gritty realities of sex work. Drug addictions, trauma, depression, and desperation are shown as entertaining, which makes for a briskly paced romantic comedy, but a truly unrealistic case study.

Reinvention & Rescue

Pretty Woman is seen as the reworked version of the "Cinderella Story," or of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, in which a rich man takes a poor young woman and re-invents her as a graceful and elegant princess. In Pretty Woman, Edward and Barnard encourage Vivian to transform, in both appearance and etiquette. The movie deals explicitly with Vivian's upward mobility and transformation into the princess she always wanted to be.

However, it is not only Cinderella who is reinvented, but also the Prince. Edward, a serial bachelor and workaholic, reinvents himself as a humane businessman, who seeks to help others, and for whom money is not the be-all end-all. In this way, Vivian helps to reinvent Edward, just as much as he reinvents her. In this "Cinderella Story," the Prince is just as much in need of rescuing as the Princess. This is confirmed at the end, when Edward asks Vivian what happens after the Prince has rescued the Princess from the tower, and she replies, "She rescues him right back."

An Ambiguous Morality

Both Edward and Vivian’s professions are somewhat amoral: she unabashedly works as a sex worker, and he as a corporate raider, working only for his own profit, often at the expense of others. While Edward is not the kind of guy who would normally hire a prostitute, they never discuss prostitution explicitly in terms of ethics. Vivian seems to have no shame about her profession, but she does open up about the fact that she entered the field from a place of desperation, and confesses that she cried the first time she worked as a prostitute. While the film seeks to morally justify sex work, it also takes a relatively nonjudgmental stance on it. The audience is meant to empathize with Kit and Vivian's plights.

Edward's profession is also depicted non-judgmentally. We are meant to understand that he owes his great wealth to his shark-like tendencies as a businessman. While Edward's work as a corporate raider is legal, it is morally unethical that Edward forces business owners like Morse to sell their business to him, forcing them into dependence. Edward only stops being heartless comes to see his corporate raiding as morally wrong when Vivian enters his life. Both members of the couple encourage the other to look more ethically at their own treatment of themselves and others.

The Social Double Standard: Judging a Book By Its Cover

This theme revolves heavily around appearance, and the judgment people apply to appearance. When Vivian is legible as a prostitute in wealthy society, wearing revealing clothes and thigh high boots, she is treated poorly. Guests at Edward's hotel look at her suspiciously, and Barnard requests that she cover her identity. Additionally, when she attempts to buy new clothes at a fancy boutique, she is discouraged from shopping there by a snobby salesgirl, and leaves empty-handed. Once she puts on more demure and elegant clothing, Vivian is not only accepted, but praised. When she walks back into that same boutique, she is unrecognizable to the salesgirls, who treat her with respect. Neither her profession nor her attitude has changed, only her appearance.

In the world of class, aesthetics and presentation give a person immense privilege. A similar double standard is applied to Vivian by Phil, when he learns that she is a prostitute. He is chilly but polite towards Vivian when he believes she is merely another one of Edward’s short-lived girlfriends. Yet, when he find out she is prostitute, his entire attitude changes. He feels entitled to touch her non-consensually, and eventually, attempt to rape her. Phil would never treat any of Edward’s other girlfriends this way, but because Vivian is a prostitute he feels license to treat her poorly.

Unconditional Love

As with many romantic films, an important theme is unconditional love. While the couple have many differences, they both seek to find connection and trust. While Edward is wealthy, used to the best treatment and accustomed to getting what he wants, Vivian is used to scraping the bottom of the barrel and being treated horribly. Despite their many differences, Vivian surprises Edward, and Edward is extremely kind towards Vivian, and the couple fall in love. Their love is nonjudgmental and resilient. While we see their connection tested by many dramatic fights, they keep showing up for one another, even after it seems that their respective differences and flaws have driven them apart.


Business is a major theme of the film. Edward is a wealthy businessman who is alienated from his personal relationships by his workaholic tendencies. Vivian's work is its own business, however tawdry, as she seeks to make rent by selling her body as a prostitute. Indeed, the entire premise of Vivian and Edward's relationship is contractual. What starts out as an employer-employee relationship blossoms into a Hollywood romance. The two lovers' business savvy connects them in many way. When Vivian tells Edward, "I never joke about money," he responds, "Neither do I." The two share a sober seriousness about value and exchange. Edward refers to Vivian's post on Hollywood Boulevard as her "office," and the two negotiate over a rate not like two people who are attracted to one another, but as business associates. However, when the couple does finally fall in love, Vivian demands that their relationship consist of more than material exchange. An apartment and a car are not enough to entice her to stay with him in New York. Rather, she wants a fairy tale romance, she wants to fall in love, she wants to transcend business and find human connection.