Contextual attitudes and values regarding gender and class in Pretty Woman (1990), directed by Garry Marshall, and Pygmalion (1913), written by George Bernard Shaw, are predominantly maintained throughout both texts, although minor adaptions have been made to preserve contextual relativity. The power inequality in relation to gender is clearly existent in both texts, whilst first and third wave feminism have influenced the individual storylines differently. Class mobility proved to be more challenging during the Victorian period; however, critical assessment of class stratification remained a sustained notion throughout the novel and the play.
Throughout Pretty Woman and Pygmalion, traditional gender hierarchies are sustained. Both explore the transformation of a poor underclass woman through the aid of a wealthy upper-class man. In Pretty Woman, Vivian relies on Edward for her income and her new, lavish lifestyle. In the scene where Vivian calls Kit and divulges to her the offer she’s accepted, the cross cutting between Vivian in the hotel suite and Kit in their apartment displays visually the change Vivian has already undergone through her connection with Edward. The mis-en-scene in Kit’s room is comprised of empty cans and takeaway boxes littered throughout the small, cluttered space. Comparatively, Vivian is situated in an immaculately clean hotel suite, showing the difference between her undesirable past and her favourable present that has been made possible because of Edward. Similarly, in Pygmalion, Professor Higgins and Pickering act as a means for Eliza to advance herself in society and to detach herself from the poverty cycle she was born in. Higgins claims that ‘Pickering could set you up in one: he has lots of money’ when talking to Eliza about opening up a florist’s shop. The men are richer and therefore have supremacy over major decisions and opportunities. Women are shown as living within patriarchal societies where they are dependent on powerful men to improve their own lifestyles.
However, various waves of feminism have characterized the female protagonist differently in Pretty Woman and Pygmalion. Sexual stereotypes of women are portrayed through Vivian’s introduction in Pretty Woman, underpinned by editing and costuming decisions. The framing of the camera introduces her as a series of fragmented body parts clothed only in lacy lingerie, whilst depriving the viewer of a shot of her face. Combined with a soundtrack of ‘The Wild One’, the framing and music are intended to dehumanise her character and depict her as a sexual figure. Throughout the film, Vivian’s sincere and childlike-character is made evident with shots of her jumping on the bed and sitting cross legged on the chair, illustrating her candid nature. Her wanton representation is re-established to reinforce how her carnal profession misconstrues her genuine character, reflecting upon the ideologies of third wave feminism wherein there was a strong focus on the injustices found pertaining to sexual stereotypes of women in the media and embedded in society. On the contrary, Pygmalion explores the loosening of early 19th century Victorian rigidity as women began gaining more independence from their male counterparts. Eliza’s refusal to stay and marry Higgins is a representation of Shaw’s feminist beliefs as he expresses how women do not need to pursue the interests of men nor follow the strict societal norms of time. The implied marriage between Eliza and Freddy show Eliza going against the custom of keeping marriage within classes by wedding an upper class man. Freddy is characterised to be ineffectual and abides by the orders of his mother and sister obediently. Eliza does not worship Freddy nor does she see herself as his inferior as they treat each other as equals. Her decision to be with Freddy presents to women that they deserve to be treated on par with men as well as the importance of marrying for love. The distinct feminist dispositions in both texts are affirmed through the contextual issues highlighted with the separate representations of Vivian and Eliza.
During the Victorian era, social stratifications were more rigid and mobility from the lower class was extremely difficult because of poverty’s restrictions on opportunity and access to education. Eliza states, ‘I aint got no parents. They told me I was big enough to earn my own living and turned me out’ in response to Mrs Pearce asking about her parents. Eliza’s impoverished background has prevented her from gaining leverage in order to increase her level of education and therefore has limited her prospects in life. She is characterised to be hardworking in order to survive but is nevertheless trapped in poverty because of her unfortunate upbringing. However, in Pretty Woman both Eliza and Kit are able to be ambitious as they have the chance to achieve higher levels of education. Kit expresses to her new potential roommate ‘You just can’t turn tricks forever. You gotta have a goal, do you have a goal?’, underpinning the notion of the ‘American Dream’ whereby individuals pursued fame and fortune. This establishes how even the lower class were able to accomplish great triumphs and remove themselves from poverty through self-determination.
Both Pretty Woman and Pygmalion criticise the superficiality of social class distinctions through Vivian and Eliza’s presence amongst the upper class. In the embassy scene in Act III, Bernard Shaw details Eliza’s elegant and impressive costuming, ‘opera cloak, evening dress, diamonds, fan, flowers and all accessories’. Upon meeting Eliza, Nepommuck, the expert interpreter, notes that her English is spoken ‘too perfectly’ and claims that she must be of royal Hungarian descent. The description of her costuming in this act juxtaposed with her outfit of a ‘shoddy black coat’ and ‘brown skirt with a coarse apron’ in the beginning of the play, highlights the shallowness of Victorian social class divisions as it heavily reliant on exterior appearances. Pretty Woman parallels this concept as Vivian is presented as being accepted by the upper class through her association with Edward. During the divot stomping scene at halftime in the polo match, as the announcer says ‘kings and queens used to do this’, the shot cuts to Vivian joyfully engaged in the activity. The irony of Vivian’s prostitution and being involved in this ‘time-honoured tradition’ which was typically reserved for the wealthy upper class, exemplifies her adaption to this echelon through her new identity whereby she appears to be in a relationship with Edward. The presence of social class superficiality and the importance of appearance are issues reflected upon across the novel and the film.
Ultimately, feminist ideals and class mobility opportunities have developed substantially over the period of time between Pretty Woman and Pygmalion through various feminist successes and the enhanced ability for higher education. In spite of this, many traditional values and customs are kept static such as patriarchal sovereignty and indicators for class distinction. Despite their 77 year difference, both texts explore strikingly similar concepts that are still present even in our modern day society.