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.