Essay: Pretty Woman – 1990

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  • Pretty Woman - 1990
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Pretty Woman, a film directed by Garry Marshall, describes a story between a prostitute and a wealthy businessman who fall for each other. Despite the unlikely pairing between the two, Vivian and Edward overcome significant backlash about their quick change in lifestyle. Vivian, a young woman is struggling to make ends meet and has no other choice but to revert to prostitution in order to pay rent. Edward, while on a business trip, meets Vivian for the weekend and quickly falls hard for someone who is not acclimated to his lavish lifestyle. Pierre Bourdieu is a French cultural sociologist who focuses on cultural meanings, traditions, and practices in relation to social structure. Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital and creation of the term habitus digresses from Vivian’s life in relation to how a quick accumulation of money can change someone’s lifestyle and acquired mannerisms. Although Edward and Kit are examples of how someone’s habitus is generational, and normally static throughout life, Vivian proves that a person’s habitus does not have to coincide with the lifestyle someone is born into.
Similar to Marx, Bourdieu believed that capital was a foundational aspect to one’s social status and created a strong base for their position in social order. He believes that the more economic capital that someone has, the more influential they are. The two theorists conceptualize capital differently, for Marx, it was strictly economic, but Bourdieu saw cultural capital in three forms: embodied, institutionalized, and objectified. In relation to the institutionalized form of cultural capital, in Pretty Woman, Edward is a perfect example of someone who is highly respected because he is rich and educated. Edward has close relations with many highly respected people, such as the mayor, with whom he has the capability to invite him to a polo match. Despite Edward’s young age, he asserts himself as above his fellow clients, despite their older age. Bourdieu explains that “by conferring institutional recognition on the cultural capital possessed, the academic qualification makes it possible to compare qualification holders” (51). Through Bourdieu’s theory, Edward and Vivian prove that they can be contrasted based off of their known qualifications and credentials that symbolize their authority. As Edward earned more money, he earned a higher position on the social ladder. Vivian exemplifies someone who is less respected based off her obvious lack of intelligence and her daily clothing. For example, when she enters the Chanel store on Rodeo Drive she receives many looks for her outfit, and is told to shop somewhere else because she does not belong. Through the institutionalized form, Vivian and Edward support his theory that different levels of academic qualifications come with different levels of respect.
Comparatively, the institutionalized state supports Bourdieu’s theory, but his theory of cultural capital in relation to the embodied state departs from Pretty Woman. Bourdieu states that “the accumulation of cultural capital in the form of culture and cultivation, presupposes a process of embodiment, incorporation which implies a labour of inclination and assimilation, cost time” (Bourdieu 47). This indicates that cultural capital is acquired and inherited through generations over time. Vivian veers from Bourdieu’s theory because the way she receives her money does not come from her relatives or lineage. In addition to Bourdieu’s acknowledgement of how capital is inherited over time periods, he believes that receiving the money has a strong influence on a person’s characteristics as they grow older. Over time, these characteristics create the habitus, or the “physical embodiment of cultural capital… the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences” (Routledge).
Bourdieu’s habitus can be described as habits of mind, or ways of thinking about the world, that are characterized by socially-acquired dispositions, beliefs, and tastes that are all linked to social class. Habitus is a static concept and associates individuals with certain groups, ultimately keeping the social structure intact. When one is attached to a certain group it is difficult to leave. Brubaker defines Bourdieu’s term of habitus as “the system of internalized dispositions that mediates between social structures and practical activity, being shaped by the former and regulating the latter” (758). In order to mediate social structure, behaviors and attitudes are influenced by the past and create the future. This helps ensure that those in their specified class remain there. Vivian’s friend Kit is a perfect of example of someone who grew up within her class, and will most likely remain living from “paycheck to paycheck.” The stagnant nature behind Bourdieu’s habitus is understood through Kit and Edwards’s life, as there tastes and beliefs do not change over the course of the movie, but departs from Vivian’s. Vivian’s habitus changes over the course of the movie because her tastes in clothing change from cheap dresses and wigs, to fancy ballgowns and elaborate jewelry. She develops a new found perspective on living lavishly and begins to believe in love.
Habitus also extends to tastes that are related to social class. If one is an elitist, they generally have more expensive tastes. Their food, entertainment, and clothing are generally “high end.” Those who are stuck in the lower realms of society have non-elite tastes; their food, clothing, and entertainment can be attained by anyone. Vivian is a perfect description of how Bourdieu explains habitus because when Vivian is given the means to buy expensive clothing, she needs assistance when buying high end clothing. Since Vivian’s class status is much lower than most, her tastes are not inclined to the elite norms. Vivian’s tastes are similar to those struggling to make ends meet, whereas Edward’s tastes correlate to those who live the same lavish lifestyle, as evident in the brands of cars his friends drive. Habitus is something that appears to be natural instead of developed by one individual, but Bourdieu believes that a habitus is designed around one’s social class. This justifies social inequality because some people will have the opportunity to disposed to the finer things in life. By being apart of a lower social class, Vivian had a lack of knowledge when it came to using utensils. This proves that her disposal to proper eating was absent because she did not grow up in the setting where proper manners were necessary to learn. Small things such as manners can separate social classes.
However, Vivian breaks from Bourdieu’s definition of habitus. Unlike Edward, who was brought up in a mature setting with expensive tastes and could attend events such as polo matches and expensive dinners, Vivian was used to hanging around the streets late at night. Attending an opera was a foreign concept to Vivian, and Edward assumed that she would not understand the emotion behind the story. Although Vivian could not understand Italian, she proved that she could express the same love for an opera, even though she was not brought up with the acquired taste of appreciating an opera. Her tears and expressed intrigue from beginning to end of the opera prove that expensive tastes do not always begin in the social class you are born into. The expectation that Vivian will dislike the opera proves there is a stereotype behind likes and dislikes within social classes, but she validates that people born into a low class can have expensive tastes.
Ultimately, Bourdieu’s perspective on cultural capital helps describe the different lives that Edward and Vivian live. Granted Vivian and Edward are an unlikely pair because of their opposite societal classes, Bourdieu fails to acknowledge that people can form a more similar match by changing their habitus. Vivian departs from Bourdieu’s theory of a static habitus. After learning how to eat properly and changing her old style into a classier look, Vivian proves that she can fit a certain strata, even though she was not born into it. Vivian’s lifestyle is changed after meeting Edward, and her reputation changed with her new relationship.

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