Pretty Woman and Yvain


What Bra? Where?

Political Correctness. It's given us the visuallyimpaired, the verticallychallenged, alternate lifestyles, "womyn," and the ethnicity "other". It may go overboard some of the time, but political correctness has chipped away at many of the stereotypes in Western culture. Racial stereotypes were the first target, but gender issues didn't lag far behind. Some of the unpopular stereotypes were obvious: women as the instruments of the devil, the dutiful housewife greeting her husband at the door with a martini and a smile, the words "barefoot and pregnant" in the same sentence at all. Other stereotypes were less obvious - historical roles or literary motifs that now simply had to go: the blameless and witless virgin bride, the demure southern belle, the damsel in distress. Women and womyn alike were sick of being weak and simpering. The damsel in distress was getting her bra burned whether she liked it or not. And thank god for political correctness.

The popular media, nobody's fool, picked up on this trend. Even the fairy tales became enlightened and politically correct. For example, in 1990 the knight in shining armor got a make over with the movie Pretty Woman. Although this movie clearly centers upon the knight-in-shining-armor motif, it makes no secret that the damsel in distress saves her knight just as much as he saves her. In the final scene of the Pretty Woman, Edward says to Vivian, "So what happens after he climbs up and rescues her?" Vivian responds, "She rescues him right back."

This question of who is saving whom is a central theme in Pretty Woman. On the surface, Edward, true to knightly form in his shining Armani suit, undeniably rescues Vivian, who is definitely a distressed damsel. Not only does Edward save Vivian from a life of prostitution and poverty, he ushers her into the highest echelons of money and privilege. What more could you ask of a knight?

At the same time, though, Vivian changes Edward's life in more subtle, but no less profound ways. Early in their relationship, he notes wryly to Vivian, "You and I are such similar creatures, Vivian. We both screw people for money." By the end of their week together, Edward has learned to temper his ruthless business sense with compassion: instead of destroying a company owned by a benevolent old man, Edward chooses instead to become his partner and, as Vivian suggested, "build something." He also discovers how to (literally) walk barefoot in the grass and enjoy life.

In Pretty Woman, the damsel in distress and the knight in shining armor rescue each other. Early tales of the knight in shining armor motif would have never made use of such equality. This parallelism is obviously the fruit of political correctness and the empowerment of women both on and off the silver screen.

Or is it?

One of the quintessential Arthurian knight in shining armor stories is Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) by Chrétien de Troyes. In it, Yvain comes to Laudine's rescue when he marries her and accepts the sacred responsibility to defend her fountain. Additionally, he transforms the impinging presence of King Arthur's forces from foe to friend (line 1613-1615). Although Yvain's armor tarnishes significantly when he forgets to return to his devoted wife after a year's journey, he largely recovers his gallantry with several acts of bravery and skill. But even this story, written nearer to a time when the lefthanded were tortured and killed than when handicapped ramps were required in all public buildings, displays some ambiguity about who is saving whom in the damselknight relationship.

Laudine is far from empowered, but she certainly does her part to help Yvain. If she had not agreed to marry him, it is unclear how he would have ever gotten out of his hiding place in the hostile castle. When Yvain's benefactress of the moment, Lunete, suggests smuggling him out at night, Yvain, bravely or foolishly, refuses to flee so ignobly. He pronounces, "You may rest assured that I shall not ever leave furtively or by stealth: when the people are all gathered outside in the streets, that's when I shall go out, more honorably than by night" (Line 1581-1583). Thus, with the information provided, it seems likely that Yvain would have either gotten himself killed by an angry mob, when leaving the castle, or else have stayed in hiding indefinitely. In addition to this clear perk, Laudine also gives Yvain his much desired proof of victory over her (late) husband, Esclados. "(Yvain) is perturbed to see them burying the corpse when he can get nothing as evidence that he overcame and slew (Esclados) and which he would be able to display openly. If he has no conclusive evidence, then he is utterly shamed" (Line 1340-1343). Once Laudine marries him, though, Yvain has all the proof, and esteem, he needs. It is also noteworthy that by marrying Laudine, Yvain becomes controller of her vast possession of land and resources. Finally, in the end it is only Laudine's integrity that forces her to keep her oath and forgive Yvain for breaking his. If she had not done this, it must be presumed that Yvain would return to the savage delirium that possessed him when he first realized his folly.

Although Laudine is most obviously rescued by Yvain, she does as much or more to help him in the end. Thus, centuries before feminism or political correctness swept Europe and America, the typical knight in shining armor story seems to display a laudable agreement with the aims of those movements. So what is the moral of this story? Perhaps that just because the damsel in distress isn't wearing a bra now, we shouldn't assume that she ever did to begin with.