Drawing on Bourdieu’s Notions of Taste & Distinction:
Dear National Film Registry Committee,
In my view, The “Pretty Woman” movie is an appropriate addition to the National Film Registry collection as it is arguably a timeless piece as well as an effective commentary on the prominent role class structure has played and continues to play in our society and culture.
In keeping with the Registry’s selection criteria, I will draw on some of the concepts researched and explored by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu especially as it relates to the notion of taste and how it operates to, as Carl Wilson puts it, “perpetuate and reproduce the class structure.” (۸۹) “What we have agreed to call tastes [.. according to Bourdieu himself] is an array of symbolic associations we use to set ourselves apart form those whose social ranking is beneath us.” (Wilson 89) “Pretty Woman” cleverly demonstrates this in various sequences within the film, including the one where the leading actress enters the lobby for the first time in her – borrowing Bourdieu’s coined term – “lowbrow” style of clothing and is quickly alienated and looked down on by the hotel guests and staff alike.
Similarly, in the first shopping sequence, Vivian is portrayed as severely out of place, and later ignored, humiliated and asked to leave by a high end store saleswoman. According to Wilson the flinching that happens when a different taste is encountered can in fact be rooted in one’s own insecurity: “the stain of the déclassé, the threat of social inferiority.” (۸۸)
To take this a step further in exploring “Pretty Woman’s” cultural significance, one can draw parallels between the film’s Opera sequence and what Wilson refer to as “cultural filters”. “The argument is that the kinds of [cultural activities] we choose, and how we talk about them, are socially shaped.” (Wilson 91) While Edward has dramatically prefaced what she is about to experience dividing it into two distinct outcomes, and every other audience member is getting up to leave the theatre having gracefully remained and operated within the respective codes of etiquette, the teary-eyed Vivian gleefully exclaims to her elderly neighbour “it was so good I almost peed my pants!”. This scene is a fine instance of what Wilson describes as follows: “even when they’re enjoying the same stuff, the classes still have different motivations, [.. with the “low cultural capital” individuals valuing relatable-ness, while the “high cultural capital” members emphasizing ..] quality, cosmopolitanism and personal creative expression.” (۹۸)
Additionally, one cannot ignore the role coolness – referred to interchangeably by Wilson as distinction (91) – actually plays in one’s quality of life. “Being uncool has material consequences. Sexual opportunity, career advancement and respect, even elementary security can ride on it.” (Wilson 92) “Pretty Woman” plays every category out masterfully. By adapting Edward’s sophisticated taste, Vivian is magically transformed from a prostitute, to an escort and eventually a fairytale princess. She goes from controlling “who, when and how much” to “wanting more” with Edward and starting to contemplate the pursuit of higher education. She starts off as a vulnerable target for the endless derogatory and invasive stares and quickly gains significant respect and safety, not to mention immense admiration, as she embraces her “classy” wardrobe and conquers her uncool “fidgeting”.
In the end, I urge you to consider “Pretty Woman” as the strong candidate it is, not only in its social accuracy and cultural value I touched on, but also in the timeless aesthetic, narrative and formal qualities it packs in so cohesively. It is these qualities that continue to keep “Pretty Woman” relevant, entertaining and enjoyable almost three decades after its release, even to today’s younger audiences, a large number of whom I had the pleasure of re-watching the film with earlier this week.
Wilson, Carl. “Let’s Talk About Who’s Got Bad Taste” Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Bloomsbury Academic, 2007. Page 87 – ۱۰۴٫ PDF