My Fair Lady

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Most people are probably familiar with the musical My Fair Lady, but just in case, it tells the story of Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from a poor flower girl to an educated lady. It also happens to have a remarkably strong female character. Despite the idea that the play revolves around Henry Higgins “making her a lady”, she doesn’t change all that much because she doesn’t need to. She starts the film as a strong-willed girl who is quite intelligent and wants a better life. Eliza doesn’t have any problems with herself, she is more than willing to give up a large portion of what little money she has to try and improve her life. It’s her determination and willingness to work that helps convince Higgins to take her on as a student.

Higgins spends the first half of the movie bullying her about her lessons, but she’s clearly more than match for him. The changes that happen to her are all essentially superficial: her clothes, her manners, and obviously her speech. The movie plays with these themes of class divisions and what they mean- as Eliza says, the only difference between a flower girl and duchess is how she is treated. Her strength is never shown in a negative light- it’s because she isn’t like the other, more demure girls that Freddy falls in love with her.

In fact it’s when she’s internalized the ideas of “proper” behavior and politeness too far that things go wrong. After Higgins wins his bet to pass Eliza off as a duchess at the Embassy ball, everyone is so busy congratulating him for his success that no one thinks to applaud Eliza for all the hard work she’s done for the last six months. She remains quiet at the time, but later blows up and tells him off before packing up and leaving. The next morning Higgins is falling apart and goes in search of his mother, where he finds Eliza. Mrs. Higgins is another extremely strong woman and she’s sided with Eliza, even pointing out that she wouldn’t have thrown slippers at Higgins for such treatment, she’d have thrown the fire irons.  Eliza explains to Higgins that she does not need him, the world does not revolve around him, and she can do very well without him, thank you. He finally realizes that she’s a tower of strength and says that he likes her like this. But she meant it when she said that she didn’t need him, and leaves. She does go back, but it’s her own choice and it’s strongly implied that he’s finally realized that she is her own person and they are on equal footing now.

Both the musical and non-musical film versions alter the ending of George Bernard Shaw’s original Pygmalion slightly. In the original play Eliza and Higgins end up as friends, but she does not go back to Wimpole street. Audiences insisted on believing that Higgins and Eliza wound up married, which annoyed Shaw so much that he included an epilogue in later editions that firmly stated that Eliza did marry Freddy, just as she told Higgins she would. I’m including it since it’s similar to a discussion that I’ve seen around here a few times, about why shows feel the need to have their male and female leads end up together:

Nevertheless, people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it. This is unbearable, not only because her little drama, if acted on with such a thoughtless assumption, must be spoiled, but because the true sequel is patent to anyone with a sense of human nature in general, and of feminine instinct in particular.

I know that when I first saw the film, even with the modified ending, I never assumed Eliza had married Higgins. It would never have worked, since as Shaw says elsewhere in the epilogue she would have always come in second to Higgins’s work. Shaw’s explanation for Eliza choosing Freddy makes her own strength even more obvious:

Almost immediately after Eliza proclaims her considered determination not to marry Higgins, she mentions the fact that the young Mr. Frederick Eynsford Hill is pouring out his love daily for her through the post. Now Freddy is young, practically twenty years younger than Higgins: he is a gentleman (or, as Eliza would qualify him, a toff), and speaks like one. He is nicely dressed, he is treated by the Colonel as an equal, loves her unaffectedly, and is not her master, nor ever likely to dominate her in spite of his advantage of social standing. Eliza has no use for the foolish romantic tradition that women love to be mastered.

Now that’s a happy ending.

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    I’ve never seen My Fair Lady; musicals rarely do it for me. So I didn’t know a great deal of this.

    After Higgins wins his bet to pass Eliza off as a duchess at the Embassy ball, everyone is so busy congratulating him for his success that no one thinks to applaud Eliza for all the hard work she’s done for the last six months.

    Is she also angry at being the object of a bet, or was she a willing participant in it?

    Audiences insisted on believing that Higgins and Eliza wound up married, which annoyed Shaw so much that he included an epilogue in later editions that firmly stated that Eliza did marry Freddy, just as she told Higgins she would.

    Ha! Now I want to read/see Shaw’s play.

    I’m including it since it’s similar to a discussion that I’ve seen around here a few times, about why shows feel the need to have their male and female leads end up together.

    I had a thought about OTP lately, which is that with a “natural tendency” towards a particular couple, they don’t need to earn each other – they’re just entitled – which also means they don’t have to act and develop, so much as be waiting prizes for each other. Or more likely, her being a prize for him, a reward for all the hard work he put into her.

    And it’s awfully easy to make being a prize sound tempting – just from what the word sounds like, something that’s prized – but “prized” is a verb, making the prize another object, a noun.

    Eliza sounds like she’s defined by her verbs.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Nick, I think your remarks about OTP are right. The leading man and lady are automatically meant to be – no reason to waste time explaining why! And the prize issue is often a factor, too.

    I’ve never seen the movie, either. From Maggie’s description, it sounds to me like Shaw intended it to be a story about how a woman was fine as she was and a man was arrogant for assuming he could better her. If she marries him, that would muddy the message.

    What I debated frequently in film school was: did the audience want this pairing because the audience is stupid, or is the audience so used to seeing the lead m/f pairings that they just need to be shown how much more interesting stories can be? Since the 80’s, the film industry has been extremely low-risk, refusing to try anything new. I’ll never forget the shockwaves that occurred around town when “The Usual Suspects” blew away expectations and Hollywood was forced to realize: “OMG, you can make a movie with no sympathetic characters at all?”*

    Yes, assholes. Even the most pedestrian movie-goer is more savvy than you think.

    *I’m not putting words in their mouths there. That was exactly what people kept saying.

  3. says

    I love me some My Fair Lady! It was my favorite musical as a child, and I can recite it and sing all the songs. You know, it’s funny that you write about this because it always struck me as “wrong” that Eliza and Higgins got together in the end. I thought, “Well, she goes back, so they must have eventually, right? How else could she live there?” Then I thought, “There’s no reason for it, though. The only reason I expected it at all is because that’s the way it happens in every other movie/book. But why? Maybe… they don’t?” The idea never seemed right to me. First of all, there was never anything romantic about their relationship. Second, he was too old for her. So I ended up forming a private opinion that they did not end up together.

    Funny that I never went further and concluded that she married Freddy, though. Personally I have always thought she marries neither of them!

  4. thisisendless says

    He wrote that in 1916? Wow. There were male feminists even in 1916 aside from Stuart Mill (who was some years before but you catch my drift.) Nice.

  5. MaggieCat says

    SunlessNick:

    Is she also angry at being the object of a bet, or was she a willing participant in it?

    Eliza was aware of it, and fine with it. The deal was that she do the work, Colonel Pickering would pay for all the expenses, and Higgins would make her a lady.

    Text of Pygmalion is available here, including the brief introduction about linguistics and the epilogue that Shaw always called a sequel. (Of course I find this after I’m done with the excerpts…) It’s really very interesting, detailing Eliza’s and Freddy’s life together, how he ended up becoming useful instead of decorative, and about Freddy’s sister Clara (who’s shamefully left out of MFL).

    BetaCandy:

    From Maggie’s description, it sounds to me like Shaw intended it to be a story about how a woman was fine as she was and a man was arrogant for assuming he could better her. If she marries him, that would muddy the message.

    Higgins is very arrogant, and antisocial, and misanthropic, and no one ever tries to ignore his faults, which I love. They’ll tolerate them because they like him, but they all know he’s a pain in the ass. Even before Eliza’s transformation has taken place (nothing really more than getting her some new/clean clothes) people like her. He came to depend on her to run his life, but she did not need him.

    Sarah:

    You know, it’s funny that you write about this because it always struck me as “wrong” that Eliza and Higgins got together in the end. I thought, “Well, she goes back, so they must have eventually, right? How else could she live there?” Then I thought, “There’s no reason for it, though. The only reason I expected it at all is because that’s the way it happens in every other movie/book. But why? Maybe… they don’t?”

    Hee, I’ve had the entire score memorized since I was like 7 (and how my musical loathing mother loved that, heh) and later working on a production of it is what first drew me to costume design (I had so much fun making the Ascot hats, but daaaamn that change before “Show Me” almost killed us all) so it has a special place in my heart.

    At the time I didn’t think she married Freddy, since he’s a little more boring in the musical than the play, but I never thought it made sense for Eliza and Higgins to end up together. I assumed she went back to stay there until she could start her flower shop, or marry someone interesting, or just become the third old bachelor like Higgins suggested (heh). It had become her home by then. But maybe that’s the bonus of seeing it at an age before I’d been indoctrinated into the idea that the hero always gets the girl. Rather interesting that the Edwardian playwright is saying “Yes, men and women can be friends in a purely platonic way” when writers today seem to think that it’s impossible.

    thisisendless:

    He wrote that in 1916? Wow. There were male feminists even in 1916 aside from Stuart Mill (who was some years before but you catch my drift.) Nice.

    Actually it’s a smidge earlier than that- the play was written/premiered in 1913, published in 1916. Seriously, almost a hundred years later and writers are going backwards in their ideas of perceived relationships? Shaw was a social reformer, and Major Barbara has some interesting things in it as well.

  6. scarlett says

    Seriously, almost a hundred years later and writers are going backwards in their ideas of perceived relationships?

    A hundred years? Go back fifteen a watch DeGrassi! I can’t believe how much ground we;ve lost to the Victoiran era :(

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