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Representation of Women Through Its Narrative Within Films Pretty Woman (1990) and Erin Brockovich (2000)

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Within my essay, I shall be discussing the representation of women through its narrative within my two chosen films Pretty Woman (1990) and Erin Brockovich (2000). Not only will I be examining how the main characters (both played by Julia Roberts) Vivian in Pretty Woman and Erin are represented within them but also the supporting stars such as Kit (Vivian’s prostitute best friend) and Theresa Dallavale (A lawyer). In addition, I will explore the representation of women as the inferior sex in the films. This representation often depends on culture, education, age, and other aspects. Nonetheless, with all this in consideration, this is my exploration of how Pretty Women and Erin Brockovich represent women in the narrative.

The film Erin Brockovich (2000) is based on a true story. In the film, Erin is an unemployed single mum twice divorced searching for employment after losing her personal injury lawsuit. She seeks the help of her lawyer Ed Masry to give her a job. However, no one takes her seriously in her line of work with her provocative clothes and foul-mouthed behavior. Attitudes change when Erin starts to investigate a suspicious real estate case with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, where they have been covering up pollution which has caused overwhelming illness among residents. The film takes a typical narrative of a five-act structure.

Pretty Woman (1990) follows the story of prostitute Vivian and how she meets wealthy businessman Edward, the unlikely pair fall in love. Edward hires Vivian to stay with him for the week and the two get closer. They learn that there are many obstacles for them to overcome if they want to be together; they fill the gap between the two-different social hierarchy. It’s a modern Cinderella. As in Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman has the same basic narrative structure.

Throughout the films both Erin and Vivian are represented as strong women. They both have powerful identities. Yet, many would argue that Vivian is represented as a helpless woman whilst Erin is shown as an independent, determined hard working and long suffering heroine who saves the day.

At the start of the film, Erin is portrayed as the underdog, a typical role for women in traditional novels and melodramas.

‘?he audience is introduced to Brockovich as a struggling, single mother gamely but unsuccessfully interviewing for a job. Shortly afterward, she is physically wounded when her car is hit by another car. Thus, within the first five minutes of the film, Brockovich is portrayed as a victim,’ (Roth 2004: p54)

This attitude is changed when we get to know Erin and start to empathize with her as the narrative unfolds. Her story is framed in a way to create pity and we sympathize with her. While at times she seems offensive, the viewer still wants her to succeed in her quest.

Erin’s provocative clothing upsets many of her colleagues. They refuse to involve her, are hostile towards her and approach her in a cruel, disrespectful way. They judge Erin by her short skirts and low cut tops; they assume she is incapable of doing her job. She does not take upon the stereotypical business clothing but looks like she could be a prostitute and in many ways dresses like Vivian in Pretty Woman. Looking at the reading I Just want to be a decent citizen by Elaine Roth she claims: ‘The film portrays Brockovich’s female co-workers as busybodies who object to her unprofessional clothing’. (Roth 2004: p57)

An implication of this is that possibly women can be very critical of each other and not supportive just from the way they dress; if you don’t conform to the protocol then you are not in the clique. This narrative represents her business co-worker women in a negative light due to their behavior towards her. This can be seen in the scene when Erin is excluded from lunch as she is “Not one of the girls”.

Not only do Erin’s work colleagues dismiss her but so does Theresa Dallavale, the new woman lawyer helping on the Hinkley case. The film mocks Dallavalle for being a callous woman who is unable to empathize with the Hinkley residents, contrasting with Erin who culturally and economically understands them. Dallavalle’s clothing separates her from the Hinkley citizens. Her suit and tie represent the power which frightens the residents. Not only does her clothing disconnect her but her privilege class status, this leaves her unable to exemplify the bond of downtrodden sympathy; this contrasts with Erin’s educational background (Forbes and Smith, 2007). In the scene where Theresa criticizes Erin’s research for having holes in it, this could represent to people that Theresa is someone who has loyalty to the working masculine domain.

‘With her body and her dress, she declares symbolic allegiance to the professional, white, male world along with her lack of intention to subvert that arena with alternative “female values.’ Bordo (2003: p208)

Throughout the film, Erin rejects proclaiming such an alliance. Erin’s clothing helps her sympathize with these people, many of them trust her as they feel she’s not a ‘real lawyer’. Erin uses her status as a single mum to try and bond with these people, even carrying her child on her hip as she tries to gain the confidence of the plaintiffs. In addition, to this, she uses her body to her strengths by manipulating and charming the male gaze to gain information related to the case.

‘Brockovich’s connection with the people of Hinkley is based on emotional connections as well as social class, while Dallavale remains a well-educated, upper-middle-class outsider.’ (Roth 2004: p57)

The audience’s perception is to hate the stereotypical businesswoman and to side, with Erin; the film represents these women as alienating and irritating. The narrative is biased towards Erin and that we should reject these working-class women.

‘The film encourages its viewers to dismiss and dislike this working woman, who is portrayed as unmaternal, asexual, and humorless.’ (Roth 2004: p57)

In contrast to this all the men around, (judges, lawyers, and doctors) are dressed formally and respected. There is a clear difference in the way men are represented in the films.

Within Pretty Woman this judgment of class and clothing can be observed too. Many judge Vivian to be a rude, dirty, and easy slut. However, she embodies traits that are not usually associated with a hooker lifestyle as she challenges the stereotypical prostitute, Anderson backs up my proposal by stating

‘Vivian has avoided most of the evils inherent in her business-disease, drugs, pimps, and physical abuse…she doesn’t arouse the pathos usually involved with such a seemingly unfortunate position’ (Anderson, 2001: p65)

Despite her beliefs, many judge her by her appearance. This is perceived in the scene when she is trying to buy some new clothes to transform into a princess. In this scene, the conversation and performance play a significant role in representing society’s view of Vivian as a prostitute; the women instantly judge what kind of person she is. They are very hostile towards her, “I don’t think we have anything for you; you are obviously in the wrong place”. The sales assistant makes it clear that Vivian is not wanted and asks her to leave. They judge her as lower class and believe they are better than her. The narrative represents woman very poorly in this scene; for both Vivian and the sales clerk, the film represents working women in a negative way. The sales assistants are framed as cruel upper-class women who are exerting their social.

‘Although some possibility for emphatic cooperation is permitted between women of less favored class, women are depicted as only too willing to trample upon each other as they claw their way higher up the social ladder.’ (Greenberg, 1991)

Supporting Greenberg’s statement within the shopping scene the narrative represents women against women. Instead of supporting one another they decide to bring each other down to better themselves. Again, we see this woman against women when she returns to the store to mock the sales clerk. No matter how triumphant and thrilling this moment is to see Vivian get her revenge on the snobby sales assistant, the narrative is signifying it’s okay for women to go against one another and to break that sisterhood bond we hold.

Through the film, it glamorizes hookers and represents Vivian as an intelligent brave woman who knows her self-worth. We see the film represent other prostitutes in a negative way, for example, her best friend Kit. The narrative represents Kit as a bad person as she is the one who leads Vivian down this dark path. She is oblivious to the effects of prostitution. She is portrayed as less attractive, hardened and unwise slut, thus showing Vivian in a better light. The kit is shown as a hard woman who doesn’t have any self-esteem. There are many symbols within the film that display Kit’s reluctances to fully accept prostitute status and life. Anderson backs up my view with the mention of Winne the Pooh. A symbol of Kit being a little girl at heart.

‘Conspicuous incompatibility found in the image of the ‘bad’ prostitute Kit de Luca, is not only content with her career, but indulges in drug use, sleeping with a Pooh bear, indicating that her ‘little’ girl character is still battling out with her hardened streetwalker side. Contrary images like this one run throughout the film.’ (Anderson, 2001: p69)

Vivian and Kit have a sisterhood, they look out for one another. It is seen in the often-said dialogue “Take Care of You”. This is a sign of protectiveness between them. These simple words characterize Kit as a caring person otherwise represented as a carefree woman who spends rent money on drugs. However, within the reading A Modern Cinderella, Kelly disagrees with this act of kindness and still sees Kit as a heartless person. ‘Kit still doesn’t seem to be a very good friend. She steers Vivian into prostitution urges her to deny her feelings, … Vivian is loving, but Kit is irresponsible and uncaring in her behavior.’ (Kelly, 1994: p92)

I would agree with Kit not being the greatest friend as she leads Vivian into prostitution as stated by Kelly but disagrees with the accusation of her not caring or the idea of sisterhood. As we see Kit worry when Vivian is in trouble and that she supports Vivian to run away with Edward as she will finally be able to leave her hooker lifestyle behind her. In addition to this, we can see genuine affection between the two characters when they go their separate ways. The film does represent sisterhood between the two characters. We see signs of care and love and that they both look out for one another. The narrative changes for Kit and she is represented in a better light at the end of the film. The approach Vivian has towards Kit is always to support her self-esteem and inspires her to follow her dreams, this same respect encroaches for the viewer to have. Kit finally gains this respect from the viewer when she makes a positive decision at the end of the film and decides to trade a life on the streets for beauty school. Although both films attempt to show women’s power this is always shadowed by the men. Within both films men have superior positions than the women, Karol Kelly claims in A Modern Cinderella ‘In Pretty Woman the male sex is ranked higher in wealth, occupation, and status then the female sex’ (Kelly, 1994: p89)

I agree with Kelly’s notion and can also see the patriarchal dominations within the film. The plot represents Vivian as a vulnerable and weak individual in contrast to her counterpart the macho men. In the narrative, it is very often where men are seen to come to her rescue. There are numerous times when we see this; for example, we see this in the scene when Vivian has trouble shopping for some fancy clothes as I previously mentioned. Barney the hotel manager comes to Vivian’s rescue by transforming her into a princess, he helps her purchase an appropriate dress and teaches her table etiquette for an exclusive dinner date. Many would say that he symbolizes characteristics of her fairy godmother as in the film Cinderella, as seen in many traditional melodramas women have help from a male character.

‘She has to be rescued by Barney Thompson, the hotel manager, or by Edward and his credit card. In addition, Edward saves Vivian from being raped by Phil, his lawyer. She is also helped by Mr. Morse, the elevator man, and the hotel chauffeur.’ (Kelly, 1994: p90)

Kelly has presented many of the situations where Vivian has required saving and how she too feels Vivian be a victim. Throughout the narrative, she is represented as a helpless damsel in distress and that can be clearly seen in the narrative of those scenes listed above. Another aspect of how women are represented weaker to the male is through their position in the narrative; not one female in the film has a position of authority.

‘Edward is a businessman working with male executives, lawyers, bankers, and senators. Of course, his telephone operator is female. Vivian provides female services for men… The hotel and store managers are men; the sales clerks are women.’ (Kelly, 1994: p89) This embodies what the women are intended to work for the men who are superior and more valued. Even to this day women normally have lower paying jobs than the dominant male (Iftkhar, 2011).

Whilst looking at the representation of woman in the Erin Brockovich, there are many points within the film that are stereotypical showing woman as the underdog and dominated in a patriarchal society, the lawyer, the doctor and the judge are all played by men in this film. Women are the underdog however it is the: strength, courage, and determination of a woman to help another weak vulnerable woman in Donna Jenson (a plaintiff). From the start, the narrative frames men better than the women; higher positions and more powerful. This is represented by Erin’s car accident. The audience knows that the white male doctor is in the wrong but because of his position, authority and gender the judge rules with him. Therefore, it is clearly shown that females are represented as being weaker no matter their level of social class.

‘This quick sequence also reveals the class division central to the film’s narrative, as well as the film’s goal to align itself with disenfranchised people. The car accident in the film’s second scene quickly establishes the film’s position that the rich damage the bodies of the poor’. (Roth, 2004: p54) Ed Masry, Kurt Potter, the doctor and the judge all these men have dominant influence likewise in Pretty

Woman where men had more power. However, the narrative changes for Erin. She proves all these males wrong by winning the Hinckley case and even gaining higher ranking than most men. Unfortunately, this narrative does not change for Vivian. For many, she will always be represented as weaker than the man. This is demonstrated in the ending scene when Vivian gives up her hopes and dreams of becoming a better person for the love she has for Edward. Elizabeth Scala states that many feminists were disappointed with this ending as this scene is represented as Vivian offering herself over to the man. Once she climbs out her window to meet Edward, all her own beliefs visions and potential she once had, go out the window also. ‘This is the feminist rescue of the rich… Edward asks “so, what happened after he climbed up the tower and rescued her?” to which Vivian confidently replies, “She rescues him right back.” Though the intent of this narrative has been recognized by its critical viewers, it has hardly been accepted by them.’ (Scala, 1999: p38)

As we have seen in both films that the representation of women isn’t great, it shows that women must prove themselves before they gain this respect. Why should the women have to prove this in the narrative but not the men? Women are symbolized inferior to the dominant male, we see a slight change of representation through the years of the films with Erin gaining more respect from her work colleagues compared to Vivian. As films grow through the years we see women are represented as more powerful, authoritative and stronger, however, they are still shadowed by the men…but for how much longer?

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Representation of Women Through Its Narrative Within Films Pretty Woman (1990) and Erin Brockovich (2000). (2018, October 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from
“Representation of Women Through Its Narrative Within Films Pretty Woman (1990) and Erin Brockovich (2000).” GradesFixer, 22 Oct. 2018,
Representation of Women Through Its Narrative Within Films Pretty Woman (1990) and Erin Brockovich (2000). [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 May 2022].
Representation of Women Through Its Narrative Within Films Pretty Woman (1990) and Erin Brockovich (2000) [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Oct 22 [cited 2022 May 22]. Available from:
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