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The Movie 'Pretty Woman' and the Problem of Prostitution in the Modern Western World

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In alone there are 80,000 female prostitutes alone. It can be seen that the origins of prostitution come from males who were unable to be bound by stipulations and their appetites created a demand for illegitimate pleasures of which the female weakness supplies them with. This exhibits the patriarchal society that has always been current in society as the male dominance was able to persuade vulnerable women to do what they wanted them to do showing how much power they hold over them. Hertzog and Lev (2019) insinuate that when men feel their dominance is threatened, they feel the need to preserve to make females feel like the weaker sex. Males do this by enticing females into losing their virginity at a young age however, when they get older and want to settle down, a woman who has had sex before marriage is seen as having no virtue and therefore is not wanted making it seem like to young girls as though no one will want them. The traditional reason why many believe young people engaging in sexual activity is wrong is because they need to wait until they are married. However, as they are exposed to many different pools of people and opportunities, from a socio-sexual point they are influenced to have sex because of a desire to fit in with their peers (Smith et al., 2013). Vuttanont et al. (2006) states how within a study, parents are more accepting of their teenage sons having sex as they have ‘increasingly powerful impulses’ whereas, for their daughters, it is deemed wrong as they need to be a sweet girl who is modest and doesn’t do anything to disgrace her parents. The concept of virginity influences opinions as everything boils down to the bible and the idea of the virgin Mary. The notion of purity when projected onto a young girl relegates her worth and standards so if she’s not pure then she has no self-respect. Sexual assault and violence are reasons for some people losing their ‘virginity’. Young girls who unfortunately experience this are instead judged not supported by their closest relatives. This is enough to damage and dehumanize a young girl as without support, they are unable to feel safe again.

Prostitution is seen as a crime as it poses a risk to women’s well-being and health (Bindel, 2017). Furthermore, it can be shown that for both young women and men, prostitution may affect their personal lives as Zawisza (2011) states how by someone visiting a prostitute, it affects their family due to the indirect harm posed upon them such as embarrassment disgrace and offence. During World War II, it was found that in Hawaii, prostitutes were reported as entertainers and had a license of which they paid tax and declared their earnings, which suggests that it was seen as a legitimate, legal line of work to help those deployed satisfied with their urges. Once more this conveys how the role of the woman was to keep the male happy to be seen. Recently, it was shown that western society countries banned the purchase of sex but not the actual sale of it, which implies that moving forward, it is the people paying for it that can get into trouble therefore the prostitutes can still make a living and earn money to get a better life for themselves.

A prostitute, by definition, exchanges sex or sexual favors for money, drugs, or other desirable commodities. Within the film ‘Pretty Woman’, it is exhibited throughout that the male lead character Edward is the hero and rescued Vivian, the female lead, from a life of poverty and prostitution. Although she can stand up for herself, the idea of the damsel in distress is still portrayed which shows how powerful the patriarch is as it did not matter that she was able to make a living for herself and get herself out of a situation that she did not want to be in, all that mattered is that she was able to get the man at the end. This actively demonstrates the idea of girls always wanting that fairy tale ending that does not appear to happen in real life. Summers and Miller (2014) convey how in current studies, it has been found that women are portrayed as sexual objects who are sometimes aggressors or victims within the media which relates to ‘Pretty Woman’ as that is the basic plot of the movie. Vivian was a sexual object who had an attitude so it did not matter that she was intelligent and could hold her own because that was not important. The thing that mattered the most was that she satisfied Edward and ended up being rich, falling in love and losing her true identity. Dalla (2000) came up with the ‘pretty woman’ myth, in which the young, beautiful prostitute meets her ‘prince’ and is ‘saved’ from a society that doesn’t accept them as their true self, therefore, highlighting the idea of the patriarchy and the whole point of it.

Bourdieu (1989) created the idea of symbolic violence. This concept of this was to “express ways in which power is granted legitimacy in symbolic form such as actions that confer power” (Bourdieu, 2017). ‘Pretty Woman’ is an example of symbolic violence as clearly, when Vivian enters the clothing boutique and the assistants look down on her, it shows that it’s not just men that bring women down as it is all about class and money, not gender. Her clothing may be seen as provocative so the shop assistants assume she is unable to afford anything in the store so therefore are rude to her. It can be shown that the film portrays characters who know their place and know the dos and don’ts of their gender roles’ (Miner, 1992). This connotates the idea of the main character being quite powerless compared to the male as he gave her money to buy clothes and she is still seen as less of a woman than the assistants because of her current clothes. Furthermore, within the film, when she has the money to buy all of these extravagant clothes which she has never been able to do before, she changes her whole look making it suggest that before she was able to buy the clothes, she was less feminine and therefore less of a woman which conveys that she changed purely because of people objectifying her. Radner (2010) conveys how her new clothes and look in the film are considered significant assents that enabled her to further her education as well as show signs of her worthiness and virtue. Overall, this implies that changing her looks made her more of a lady as well as more desirable to other people. Fitzpatrick (2008) shows how Goffman’s stigma looks at the stigma being the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance. This, therefore, exhibits that to be credited in society, Vivian had to change her ways and looks.

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The looking glass theory is seen to look into the process in which individuals base their sense of self on how they believe others view them. Cooley (1902) describes how people can measure their worth, values and behavior, so gets individuals to self-evaluate and get an insight into how others think of them. This relates to ‘Pretty Woman’ as in that pivotal scene where she gets frowned upon by the women, she will have seen that they believe that she has no worth or morals and therefore urges her to change her personality as well as her looks. It looks at how we as a society conform and go along with others to be able to fit in which implies that because people want to be liked, they are willing to comply with anything to become the type of person society wants them to be (Franks and Gecas, 1992).

From the perspective of symbolic interactionism, it can be seen that “a prostitute is deviant only because heshe is labelled as such” (Bartleby, n.d.), which highlights the importance of objectification in the sex work industry as their line of work has been classified as immoral because others have had their opinion on it and therefore deem it wrong. The moral of the film is to imply that Vivian is a character who although is a nice person who gets along with a lot of people, is demonized because of her line of work and is also judged by others who deem her as less of a female or a woman because she doesn’t live up to society’s expectations of the typical ‘housewife’.

There are more than the 3 class systems in society, as well as the working class, the middle class and the upper class, there is a class that is a social construct below the working class which is the poverty class. Seccombe et al. (1998) proposed that children and relationships are critical factors that can influence a woman’s financial status (Mickelson and Hazlett, 2014), which shows this affects young children who look up to their parents as they are bound by what they have been brought up on and therefore later in life may believe they can only succumb to the poverty line and nothing else. The potential of all working-class children has not been looked at for some time as Ferguson (2017) states how working-class and minority ethnic children are put at a disadvantage from the beginning of their life which makes them less respected than the middle and upper-class students. This conveys how being in a different class can significantly affect not only adults but young people too even though they cannot be expected to do anything about it. Stephens et al. (2014) understand that women in poverty have fewer connections to family and friends and because of so experience greater difficulty with trust and reported more challenges involving relationships compared with working-class women. The ideal life for those in poverty is just to have a sense of stability and to be able to survive to have the best experiences in their life come true. Chon (2005) signifies how liberal feminists believe prostitution should be decriminalized as it is a free choice of occupation for women which could be the difference between living in poverty and living in the working class and also argue that it is one of the longest occupations which lets women decide what they can do and for how much money. These options let women be in control of their bodies and life which is why some countries want to punish them for it (BBC, 2019). In Western society today, the poverty line should not exist, however, it does and therefore shows how those in social classes above poverty diminish them making society as unequal as ever meaning they cannot get employed.

The humanistic approach to self-actualization suggests that the whole person needs to be studied (McLeod, 2020). Maslow (1943) created the hierarchy of needs which suggests that to self-actualize you need to have completed all of the stages and then will become fulfilled and content with life. the stages include physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging as well as self-esteem. With regards to women and poverty, because they are not able to provide for themselves and have their basic needs met, they are unable to self-actualize. This could suggest that in ‘Pretty Woman’, Vivian is not able to be happy with her life until she is loved by Edward who can provide her with a lot of money and stability which implies that before that moment, she hated her life. The film shows that although it deems prostitution as a form of work, “it does not provide the self-fulfillment, to which all single girls must aspire” (Radner, 2010), giving off the idea that she had to change herself and her morals to feel happy with her life. Living in poverty was not good for her so, therefore, she changed her femininity and identity to fit in with society.

Overall, this essay has exhibited how poverty and prostitution affects a young woman’s femininity. This has been done by explaining how the patriarchy that is still existent, can contribute to why women are in poverty in the first place. Furthermore, it has shown how symbolic violence and social class systems have degraded and judged women for years, making them feel as if they should not try to be high achievers or dream of a better life for themselves because they do not have a strong male by their side to help them. Radner (2010) explains how Vivian’s education in the film ‘Pretty Woman’ about corporate life has led her to believe that she can do better for herself, however, it can be seen that the moral is that she can only do it with Edward by her side to get her out of squalor. This, therefore, implies that although society is moving forward every day, there are still the ideologies that show that women cannot do anything without a man and because of that are in deep financial difficulty. This can be as seen why there are so many young women in prostitution in the Western world today.

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The Movie ‘Pretty Woman’ and the Problem of Prostitution in the Modern Western World. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
“The Movie ‘Pretty Woman’ and the Problem of Prostitution in the Modern Western World.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023,
The Movie ‘Pretty Woman’ and the Problem of Prostitution in the Modern Western World. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 May 2023].
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