Sunday, April 23, 2006

Pretty Woman--Or Not

I just had a very weird deja vu experience. I've been trying to put my house back together after a plumbing disaster. While I worked, I had the television on in the background for noise.

When I realized "Pretty Woman" was the movie being broadcast tonight, my first instinct was to turn it off. You see, that movie and I have a history.

Back when the movie was released (1990), I was a brand new graduate student in Social Work, and things weren't going well. First of all, I'd been admitted to the program "on probation." Secondly, I was suffering from cultural clash. I'd already been out working in the world for a number of years. The hoops that the graduate school professors put their students through seemed really silly and juvenile to me--a sort of "you've got to pay your dues" mentality. I was out of patience and, after only a semester, having second thoughts about my decision to seek a MSW degree.

One of the requirements for a Master's in Social Work was a course called "Race, Ethnicity and Women." In my increasingly oppositional mood, I found myself offended by the notion that I required a course to learn cultural sensitivity. It didn't help to learn that the major part of our grade would be a paper commenting upon some aspect of race, ethnicity and women. I put off writing that paper again and again.

Meanwhile, "Pretty Woman" was chewing up the box office. It reportedly cost $14 million to make and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend. Its eventual box office take was $463 million gross worldwide and another $82 million in rentals. Not bad. EVERYONE loved it. Naturally, I went to see it. And HATED it. I was offended by the whole poor little girl needing to be rescued theme. I disliked the power imbalance between Edward and Vivian and found the entire movie condescending toward women.

I was a minority of one. It seemed the entire world adored the movie. No one I knew agreed with me on how harmful the film was for young girls--promoting a prostitute (no matter how beautiful and funny she was) as a role model and setting up an unrealistic view of love. I particularly disliked the "waiting for Prince Charming" theme.

You have to remember that this was following hard on the heels of the "bodice ripper" era of romance novels. These novels followed a formula in which the hero kidnapped and raped the heroine because, of course, a good girl couldn't have consentual sex. I saw both those novels and "Pretty Woman" as fostering stereotypes of women and encouraging an expectation that women remain passive in the face of sexual abuse.

I wrote my 25-page thesis on "Pretty Woman." I researched the role of women in the arts and slammed both the bodice rippers and the movie as being regressive, repressive and toxic.

To my utter astonishment, the paper earned an A+, the only one in the class. Additionally, the professor became a mentor of sorts to me, helping me to steer around the shoals of a program that, with two lengthy internships, took me three years to complete. I earned my MSW and a 4.0 GPA as well.

Fast forward 16 years to tonight. I ended up sitting on the floor with the cat in my lap watching the entire movie. Did I hate it? No. Was I appalled by it? No. I found it sweet and kind of quaint.

What changed in the intervening 16 years? First, the world facing women is an entirely different one today. Young girls have more role models and more options now than they've ever had. One bad role model is no longer a matter of serious concern.

And me? I now read romances--not the bodice rippers of my youth, but erotic romances where the women embrace their sexuality openly and with enthusiasm.

If, in 1990, you had predicted my reaction today, I would have said you were crazy. What a difference a little time makes.

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