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The Commodification of Women in Rom-Coms

Maia Baker ’19, Opinion Columnist

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The glitzy clothes and inflated love story in Pretty Woman work to conceal the economic reality of its plot, which the movie itself attempts to elide in favor of the love narrative central to the romance. The rampant capitalist interests make the story seem “modern,” hyping up consumerism, sharky business practices, and economic privilege to suggest a capitalist reformation in a pretense of equality between Edward and Vivian: the romance narrative and its alluring logics obscure the capitalist reality of commodification, which is not incidental but fundamental to the story. The single factor that enables Edward and Vivian to have a story together is his wealth, which underlies the entirety of the film: Edward isn’t financially stable or successfully middle-class; he is insanely wealthy, with a vastness of wealth that makes the viewer believe in the love story. There are no love stories about middle-class men falling in love with prostitutes. There is also no cultural desire to believe in a story about a prostitute and a “normal” man with “normal” wealth: only the possession of fabulous wealth allows viewers’ suspension of disbelief and affective support for the love-relationship. The capitalist fantasy of conspicuous and enormous wealth both enables the love narrative and is concealed by it: the capitalist fantasy narrative of wealth depends on the romance fantasy of true love.The economics of the romance narrative emphasize a particularly insidious cultural pattern. Gayle Rubin has theorized that the commodification of women whereby they become human capital is not incidental but fundamental to the sex/gender system characterized by patriarchal control. Society structures itself in large part around marriage, “a most basic form of gift exchange, in which it is women who are the most precious of gifts” (Rubin 173).

In Rubin’s analysis, women do not signify as themselves, that is, as people, but as commodities, transactable goods – more than an object, but not as much as a subject. And this commodification, not objectification, characterizes the romantic comedy as much as it did the medieval romance: women function as men’s symbolic access to social success through economic structures which women can never enter. The paradigm for the contemporary romantic comedy has still relegated women to relatively unsuccessful or marginalized economic roles; the heroine’s job is typically represented as unfulfilling, whether or not it’s financially successful, and most romantic comedies conclude with women having lost their jobs. Sometimes in search of social mobility or “serious” work, sometimes as a plot device enabling the final coupling of hero and heroine, women in romantic comedies overwhelmingly lose their jobs in favor of something “better” (even when unrealized by the end of the film) or change the terms of their economic roles to accommodate the achievement of their self-becoming. In Bridesmaids, Annie works in a jewelry store after her bakery closed, but by the end of the movie she has lost her clerk job and while it’s implied that she will start a new baking business, that is neither depicted nor assured in the film. In Leap Year, Anna has presumably given up her much-derided job as an apartment stager when she leaves her life in Boston, but the movie ends without a hint as to her financial future. In How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days, Andie not only loses her job as a New York journalist but gives up her interview at a job in Washington, D.C., to stay in New York with Matthew McConaughey. In The Proposal, Margaret loses her high-powered editor job when she outstays her visa. She gets the visa, but not the job, back when she gets with Ryan Reynolds. 

The loss of the woman’s job at the end of a romantic comedy is almost as predictable as the ultimate romantic coupling. And in Pretty Woman, in addition to her commodified state as accomplice to but not sharer in Edward’s economic success, Vivian leaves sex work to attend college. Job loss and its typically uninterrogated or ignored role in the plot of romantic comedies underscores the fact that women’s role as love objects in the love-narrative wholly eclipses and erases their economic, autonomous roles. Pretty Woman, like other romance narratives before and since, echoes and re-inscribes the cultural treatment of women as commodified objects in a male-dominated economy. 

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1 Comment

One Response to “The Commodification of Women in Rom-Coms”

  1. Andy on March 5th, 2019 9:04 am

    Nobody:
    *author watches Rom-Com*
    Author: The rampant capitalist interests make the story seem “modern,” hyping up consumerism, sharky business practices, and economic privilege to suggest a capitalist reformation in a pretense of equality between Edward and Vivian: the romance narrative and its alluring logics obscure the capitalist reality of commodification, which is not incidental but fundamental to the story

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The Commodification of Women in Rom-Coms