Because Pretty Woman intends to be a modern version of Cinderella and Pygmalion, with an allusion to the title character being a princess who is rescued from a wicked queen by a knight on a white horse thrown in to boot, it hardly seems appropriate to criticize this fairy tale as being unrealistic. Suffice it to say that it is far-fetched that a rich, handsome man like Edward (Richard Gere) would not find the right woman until he met Vivian (Julia Roberts), a streetwalker who is so perfect that she even likes the opera. Perfect for him, that is, not for me. My perfect woman likes watching movies, and I leave the ones that like going to the opera to men like Edward.
Though this movie made no pretense about being realistic, yet there is one reality too stark to be ignored, and that is disease. Once upon a time, a man in a movie could marry a prostitute, and the audience would accept this without thinking about her having some kind of sexually transmitted disease. For example, we never worried while watching Stagecoach (1939) when the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) decided to marry Dallas (Claire Trevor), who was a whore with a heart of gold. Because venereal disease was something people rarely spoke of, especially in the movies, they rarely thought about it either.
But today, we live in a world where it is impossible to think about sex without also thinking about getting an STD, especially if it is sex with prostitutes. And therefore, it was necessary for this movie to assure the audience that Vivian was in good health. So we are not surprised when Vivian says to Edward, when they first meet, that she is safe: “Look, I use condoms always. I get checked out once a month at the free clinic. Not only am I better in the sack than an amateur, I am probably safer.” Maybe prostitutes normally say that sort of thing to their customers, maybe not. I wouldn’t know. But if it sounds a little forced and artificial, we accept this bit of dialogue as necessary to keep us from thinking about disease when they eventually have sex. The movie could not afford to rest content with this one reference to condoms, however. To drive the point home, Vivian later produces her rainbow assortment of condoms for Edward to pick from.
But still, they are not quite ready for sex. That is, we in the audience are not quite ready for them to have sex. Apparently we need a few more assurances. Therefore, in a subsequent scene, Vivian tells Edward that she does not kiss on the mouth. She says this is for emotional reasons: “Kit’s always saying to me, ‘Don’t get emotional when you turn tricks.’ That’s why no kissing. It’s too personal.” So, later in the movie, when they do start kissing, we know that they are getting emotionally involved. But the real reason for her having this restriction on kissing is so that we know there has been absolutely no exchange of bodily fluids, not even saliva, with any of her past customers.
In a movie about sex, we are not surprised if there is a bathtub scene, especially one in which both the man and the woman are in the tub together. But as there are two bathtub scenes in this movie, we have to wonder if the purpose is more than just erotic, if they are meant to make us think of Vivian as clean. This is not to say that taking a bath would act as a prophylactic against the transmission of disease. This is more about the association of ideas than logic. The cleanliness associated with bathing is supposed to support our belief that Vivian is sexually clean as well.
But the scene that really shows the extent to which this movie wants to assure the audience that she is safe to have sex with is the dental floss scene. Let’s face it. Most people do not floss during a date. I suppose a woman might, because she can carry the floss around in her purse. But even so, there is normally no need to have a scene involving personal hygiene in a movie, unless, of course, personal hygiene is important for some reason. As with the bathing, flossing will do nothing to prevent the transmission of venereal disease, but the movie is trying to suggest to us that any woman who flosses during a date must be so clean she could not possibly have AIDS, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, or crabs.
Still, under normal circumstances, if a woman decided to floss her teeth on a date, she would close the bathroom door, and her date would not dream of just walking in. But if he did interrupt her while flossing, she would simply stop what she was doing to see what he wanted. She would not hide the floss as if it were something shameful or embarrassing, the way Vivian does in this movie when Edward walks in on her. But the purpose of Vivian’s hiding the floss is so that there can be a big dramatic scene and discussion about it, one which cannot escape the attention of the audience, much in the way that her display of condoms for Edward to pick from drove home the point in a way that could not be missed either.
So, with the condoms, the free clinic, a ban on kissing, a couple of baths, and some dental floss, the audience can finally relax and quit worrying about whether Vivian has a disease, even if the opera she and Edward went to see was La Traviata, a story about a courtesan who dies of tuberculosis.