I’m a sucker for a rom-com, but when “Pretty Woman” came out in 1990 I couldn’t believe something so retrograde got produced.
So I was shocked to learn that in this #MeToo moment 28 years later, producers are still drilling the “hooker with a heart of gold” mine for cash, recycling “Pretty Woman” as a Broadway musical currently previewing in Chicago.
Sure, it’s a fairy tale. But to enjoy any fairy tale you have to suspend disbelief, and even in 1990 I knew that the most likely reasons a young character like Vivian crosses state lines for the streets of L.A. include economic desperation, sexual abuse as a child and drug addiction, and that the lives they land in — or are trafficked to — can cause horrific physical and psychological harm.
That made it hard for me to fall for the guy who bought sex from someone who might not be free to refuse because he didn’t have time to find a real date, or to think Vivian was just one shopping spree away from happiness.
Escapism that requires me to deny the reality of other women’s lives is a fairy tale that costs too much.
Yet “Pretty Woman” was a box office smash, and producers have to eat too. So before this show goes to Broadway, I’d like to volunteer as a script doctor to update this chestnut for 2018 in Chicago.
After their meet-cute, Edward drives his fancy car back to where Vivian is selling her wares on the street and offers her money to spend the night. Whoops! A new character, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, jumps out of the shadows. Dart handcuffs Edward as an all-cast song-and-dance about the sheriff’s campaign to reduce demand by arresting hundreds of johns a year swirls around them.
We follow Edward’s journey through sentencing, where he is required to pay someone to save him from his own emotional failings. Sigh! She’s called a therapist, and she sings a power ballad about how twisted it is that someone as rich and handsome as Edward would choose to buy sex in the age of Tinder.
A chorus of educated, employed women who would love a rando romp with an opera-lover pop for the saucy bridge: “Sex is fun, sex is great. When you don’t pay me, it’s called a date. Swipe right! Swipe right!”
We return to our heroine Vivian, who is free of delusions she can be “saved” by a shallow rich guy. Woke! After Edward’s arrest she is empowered by people in mentoring groups like the Dreamcatcher Foundation (led by survivors of the sex trade) and advocacy groups like the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (which works for legal and culture change) to take control of her own life.
But Vivian still wants to save someone else. Wonder Woman! Armed with new confidence and resources, she turns her energy back to the love story driving this show — her love for her 4-year old son, Rudy, who has been trapped in our tragic foster care system.
Vivian overcomes every obstacle to reunification, and gets an apartment and a scholarship. Fairy tale! While studying together at the kitchen table, mother and son sing a duet about the fun of having food and a home and being able to fall asleep without being afraid of getting raped and stuff.
We jump years ahead. Wrap it up! Vivian wears a lush suit she paid for herself and sits at a huge desk where she works as a wealth-management specialist. A new client walks in, a man 20 years older than she is, who has put on weight and lost all his hair but still looks vaguely familiar, and she …
No? The producers are passing on this version?
Then I’ll pass on theirs. Instead of spending $100 supporting this anachronistic idiocy, let’s turn this show’s stop in Chicago into an accidental fundraiser. This weekend I’m going to donate the cost of a ticket to a local group like CAASE or Dreamcatchers, and I hope you will too.
And I’m going to write “Pretty Woman” in the memo line of my check. Because the way groups like these help women is gorgeous.
Katie Watson is a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and the author of the newly released book “Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion” (Oxford 2018).