In today’s New York Times Magazine, Carina Chocano has a piece explaining why and how her possessing an undergraduate degree in cultural studies, in fact, ill-prepared her to understand actual popular culture. She focuses on two movies from 1990 and 1991, respectively, Pretty Woman and Thelma and Louise, and she makes a lot of sense, though I disagree on a few points. I think she leans more heavily on the political question than those movies can bear.
What Chocano calls Vivian’s (Julia Roberts’ character in the first of the films) denial of being a fallen woman is actually a true innocence. She (unlike her roommate, whom she tries, eventually successfully, to save) is really a good girl, fallen in with the wrong crowd and with few choices available to her (in part because her roommate is stealing her money, making a mockery of her attempts at prudence). She is shown to be more moral than any of the wealthy men, or the servant class who caters to them. She simply doesn’t know how to behave. She is Auntie Mame—a few decades younger—as the hooker with a heart of gold. She is perfect wife material—just marred a tiny bit by the excesses of popular culture. (Moreover, her perfection is the only thing that keeps the women in the audience from suspecting that in a few years she will be just as mean as the Rodeo Drive sales clerks whose treatment of her made every single one of them cringe.)
The movie was released in 1990, as Chocano points out, but it was produced in the days of Madonna, who sang about how much better her Wall Street boyfriends liked her than their uptown fiancées and wives. But not all the young women in the clubs were artistes. Hollywood blockbusters aren’t usually known for their nuanced characterization, but it can be enlightening to pay attention, not only to the beautiful people on the screen, but to some of the passing bits of dialogue that seem almost inserted just to have something to fill out a scene—especially if they all tend in the same direction. Looked at this way, the story of Pretty Woman is, in essence: Hard-partying club girl is wooed by the boringest, but richest, guy on campus, and finds her inner fuzzy-slipper wearing suburbanite. The easy equation of “club girl” with “prostitute” seems dubious, admittedly, until you realize that Pretty Woman isn’t Vivian’s story, but Edward’s. (Even as Vivian’s story, as Chocano says, it’s the story of her accepting a life as his living female accessory.) He has two choices, romantically: a woman from his own social circle, or someone who chugs champagne straight from the bottle and hangs out with lowlifes downtown. This is how he sees the situation.
The brilliance of Pretty Woman is that his story can apply to anyone. Successful businessman looking to have a little fun slumming, old letch fascinated by the customs of young girls these days, or head-in-the-books college student who thinks girly girls are stupid: any one of these can see himself in the story of the man who leaves the bitchy ice princess for a “real” woman. On the contrary, the story of Vivian is reduced to a generic plotline about the girl who accepts the proposal of a man who is actually coldhearted, though powerful: a merely clever reworking of the Cinderella story, the real innovation in which is its appeal to the male half of the audience.
It’s hard to understand how Chocano thought either her rejection of the overt message of Pretty Woman, or her delight in the transgressiveness of Thelma and Louise, augured any imminent change in the nature of society. She is surely correct that “Thelma’s transformation is about evolving from chattel to free agent” (the opposite of the path taken by Vivian in the other movie); this is a common theme in Ridley Scott’s films, from Blade Runner to Body of Lies. She is also right that the two women’s “solution” turned out to be a dead end, and that that fact ought to have been obvious from the film itself on its initial release.
However, Scott’s recycling of the American genre of the road movie can’t disguise the fact that the stories he tells are not American ones. As such, they are irrelevant to American society, and Chocano cannot really use them to make arguments explaining what did and didn’t happen in the United States in the twenty or so years since Thelma and Louise appeared. Ridley Scott loves to make films in which naïve American men free themselves from their corporate and military-industrial overlords, and Thelma and Louise can be seen as a female version of the same narrative (or even—interestingly—as initiating the freedom of the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is chasing them). But the idea that most men are, initially, chattel, is a European one. The whole point of the road movie, on the contrary, is that we don’t need Europe; because we have the Painted Desert. Moreover, Thelma and Louise don’t become gangsters, and they don’t become revolutionaries—rather, they engage in the kind of happy-go-lucky, wild-and-crazy fun and games that movies about young men have made a staple for decades.
To a woman, under thirty, watching the movie for the first time, this onscreen gender switch was exhilarating. Chocano argues that the film has dated, because many of us women no longer hope for the kind of transformative social change that Ridley Scott seemed to have been predicting. I would disagree, to the extent that I doubt Ridley Scott was predicting anything of the kind. His movies are fantasies, imposing European social fantasies onto the freer seeming American character and landscape. Kind of the way Edward Lewis imposes his fantasies onto the lovely Vivian, as a matter of fact.