How do you define a romantic comedy? It’s complicated. Welcome to HuffPost’s Rom-Com Week.
It might seem like there’s an obvious answer to the question: Is “Pretty Woman,” the 1990 film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, a romantic comedy? It’s has been held up as a genre exemplar for decades, alongside movies like “When Harry Met Sally...” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
But a recent discussion among the HuffPost Culture team brought up some interesting questions about how dark a rom-com can stand to be, and how high our standards for the comedy end of that abbreviation can get.
“Pretty Woman” is, on paper, a film about a down-on-her-luck sex worker named Vivian who enters into an arrangement with billionaire businessman Edward. For $3,000, she agrees to spend one week with him, acting as his no-strings-attached companion. Of course, what starts as a business transaction quickly evolves when the two catch feelings for each other. The rest is cinematic history.
Listen, it’s no dark comedy, but “Pretty Woman” ― with its themes of trauma, and the and class and power dynamics baked into relationships between men and women ― can feel slightly different than the rest of rom-com fare when you read between the lines. So reporters Zeba Blay and Julia Craven decided to make the definitive case for why “Pretty Woman,” with all its complexities, still fits into the rom-com genre box. And, in fact, rises above all the others in it.
Julia Craven: “Pretty Woman” is my fave rom-com for a number of reasons — mainly because Julia Roberts gave you funny, she gave you drama, she gave you love, she gave you body, hair, makeup, FITS. But I guess there’s dispute about whether the movie is a rom-com? It’s a dispute that don’t make sense to me, though.
Zeba Blay: I agree on all counts. This movie is pretty much one of THE iconic romantic comedies for me. Not only is it chock full of all the looks you speak of, it also has so many memorable cinematic moments (the bathtub scene, Julia Roberts’ laugh, the store scene ― “Big mistake. HUGE!”). But I think why some people might question its place in the rom-com canon is, I guess, because it has darker elements? Like, this movie is about romance but it’s also about a sex worker who has been having a rough time. It’s about shady business men. It does have some grittier elements, but I think those add to the layers of the movie.
What do you think, in general, about rom-coms that are not all com, all the time?
Julia: They add so much depth to the genre! I can watch “Pretty Woman” and laugh. I can cry. I can rage. And it gave us a good depiction of Vivian’s life outside of her budding romance with Edward, which I think many rom-coms fail to do. It centered Vivian as a complex character who had a life outside of Edward. I love that.
And other movies like, say, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” don’t do that. I stan a movie that makes me feel many things and paints a sex worker who’s hustling, who is dynamic, as an icon. I love it.
Zeba: I love it too! I think it’s interesting that some people don’t see it as a rom-com because of those very things. I mean, the movie could have been grittier ―the original script of the movie had Vivian as a drug-addicted prostitute, with part of the terms of their agreement being that she had to stay off cocaine the entire week they were together. The movie was originally conceived of as a much more darker meditation on sex and class and was actually lightened up.
In reality, when it hit theaters, “Pretty Woman” was a breath of fresh air in the world of rom-coms. Because before it came out in 1990, there was a dearth of what we know today as quintessential rom-coms. According to The Atlantic, there were movies like “Annie Hall” and “The Graduate,” which took slightly more intellectual views of love and had these bittersweet, potentially unsatisfying endings. In 1990, “Pretty Woman” reintroduced the concept of the happy ending, a trope that I think isn’t inherently necessary for a movie to be a rom-com, but is usually a good indicator that it is.
Can we talk about the ways in which “Pretty Woman” does fit some of the standard rom-com tropes?
Julia: Woooow. I didn’t know the original script was that dark! Now I’m wishing they had went with it instead. Dark humor is an underappreciated storytelling tool. As far as it fitting the standard tropes, Edward is recently single and Vivian isn’t an obvious match for him, since they’re polar opposites. They both spend the bulk of the movie fighting their attraction to each another because they don’t think it will work out. Edward lets Vivian almost walk out of his life, then he goes to get her in a grand romantic gesture.
I’d say the bones are pretty standard, but the meat is what makes it so different and filling. (I’m corny, drag me.)
Zeba: Agreed agreed agreed! Plus, they enter into a contract and are all very business in the beginning, thinking they’re not going to catch feelings ― which is a device in so many rom-coms, most recently “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
Julia: Yes! And, of course, they’re crazy about each other in the end. I also think the film makes their chemistry super obvious, like every rom-com. The car scene had me shook. I remember watching it for the first time and thinking, “They gonna have kids in five years.”
Zeba: Right?! There’s really something to be said about casting. Not to get off the main subject here (although I think we both know what the consensus is), but the thing that blows me away the most about this movie is how RIGHT Julia Roberts was for the part. She was a star. She was cementing herself from jump as an actress who knows how to handle a rom-com script, who knows how to get you to root for her and root for her love, and who knows how to make you believe in the chemistry she has with her leading man. That really is the most iconic thing to me about “Pretty Woman.” I’m not even a Julia stan, but as a viewer, you’re truly watching a star being born.
Julia: YES. Julia Roberts killed it. It’s one of those roles where you cannot imagine anyone else playing Vivian. It’s almost like it was written for her.
I’m a stan though. She made Vivian such a large character — much larger and more dynamic than Edward. And Richard Gere had more skin in the game at the time. She crushed his star power.
Zeba: Exactly. You know what, that’s another point for this movie as rom-com ― Julia Roberts is in it and she slays.
Julia: Periodt. Just to loop back to the grittier elements of the movie, my Mama (a certified Julia Roberts stan who named me Julia because of her fandom and love of “Pretty Woman”) said we should talk about Vivian’s backstory. And I tend to trust my Mama.
Zeba: Let’s talk about it! I wish we could have learned more about Vivian, because I think there’s so much that comes up with her around love ― not just romantic love but self-love? Like I think of that line when she talks about how if people put you down enough, you start to believe it, a lot. What are some things about her story, particularly her backstory, that elevated the movie for you?
Julia: She loved TF out of herself. But I think what elevated it for me was Vivian explaining that her mom would lock her in the attic as a kid. Honestly, I can’t remember if she made that up solely to make the point that she didn’t need a man to rescue her but it struck me as a woman who had been through shit as a kid and knew that putting herself first was pertinent. She couldn’t compromise her desire for true love and respect for money.
And I wish we saw more women characters like her.
Zeba: Yup, the film obviously has its problematic points, but I think modern day rom-coms could definitely learn a thing or two about crafting a female lead with this movie.
So! Final verdict. “Pretty Woman” IS a romcom. Yes?
Julia: Yes. It’s a rom-com and anybody saying otherwise can stay mad!
This is Part 4 of a four-part debate series, including conversations around “Clueless,” “Bull Durham” and “The Break-Up.”