Just over a week after Disney’s live action Cinderella hit theaters, Hollywood’s most famous modern day retelling of the story featuring the role that defined Julia Roberts as America’s Sweetheart celebrates its 25th anniversary. Also revered as another version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Pretty Woman has drawn countless comparisons to My Fair Lady over the years, the rags to riches tale featuring a sassy, abrasive, uneducated woman who is saved from herself by a smooth talking, wealthy older man. Although most feminists thumb their noses at the concept of the Disney princess (with the rare exception of more modern characters like Mulan and Frozen’s Elsa), 2015’s Cinderella takes a few pages out of the Pretty Woman playbook. It provides its leading lady with the brains and backbone to stand toe to toe with her Prince Charming, placing emphasis more in the positive impact both she and the prince have on each other rather than solely focusing on a man who sweeps a down-on-her-luck woman off her feet.
But, alas, even “progressive” fairy tales cannot emerge unscathed from scrutiny. Backlash has been swirling around Cinderella’s tiny waist since the film’s release. She’s corseted and rescued from a hard life by a Prince Charming, so how could she possibly be a good role model? In Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts’ character glorifies the world of prostitution while being the girl who is too smart and put together to be stuck walking the streets, and is rescued from the life by a Prince Charming. These days, a grown woman almost feels embarrassed to openly express a love for these characters, because the modern female is supposed to look down her nose at the girl who needs to be saved. We’re supposed to be rooting for the empowered woman who doesn’t need a man, or who attracts one with her independence and success rather than her desperate need for validation. Criticism over female characters like these are the same now as they were 25 years ago, but is it fair to ever discount these stories just because of the haters? I don’t think so.
Vivian Ward is tough as nails. She’s funny, outgoing, bold, snarky, and sexy as hell. There’s so much more to her than tall, black patent leather boots and a mop of unruly red hair. She gets excited over champagne, bubble baths, a credit card with no limit, and getting dressed up to go to the opera. Julia Roberts brings a vibrance to the screen that’s impossible to ignore, with a laugh that bursts through a room, an easy charm that wins over everyone she encounters, and she challenges Edward, pushing him to loosen up, teaching him that it’s okay to care about people and be successful at the same time. Pretty Woman has its flaws, sure, but at its core it has a hell of a lot of heart.
And yes, this film promotes consumerism, and doesn’t hesitate to imply that life is, well, just plain easier if you’re wealthy and attractive. But does being aware of that mean we are morally or critically required to enjoy it any less? Ask the next woman you see what her favorite scene in Pretty Woman is, and chances are it has everything to do with Vivian and more than a few shopping bags. Vivian’s shopping trip is a guilty pleasure, and her breezy waltz into the store that wouldn’t wait on her gives me the same level of satisfaction every single time I watch it. Is it supporting the concept that money dictates how people are treated in this world? Probably. Does awareness make me feel any less giddy or enviable of her unlimited credit card and the bags she totes around from Rodeo Drive? Nope.
It’s 25 years later, and this rags to riches story is still fun, smart, charming, and sweet as it was in 1990. And while it was valid to criticize the film then, and those opinions can be just as substantiated now, it’s also perfectly acceptable to be totally in love with this movie, and I am. Because after all, what’s wrong with wanting to be rescued by a Prince Charming? Doesn’t every woman deserve to be Cinde-fuckin-rella once in a while?