In George Bernard Shaw’s adaptation of Pygmalion, Higgins adopts an egocentric saviour complex, the moment he meets Eliza Doolittle. During their first encounter, Higgins uses her accent as an indicator of her social class, then places her into a box accordingly. He doesn’t bother getting to know her, nor does he accept that she’s a person beneath her accent, profession, and clothes. Throughout the play, Eliza is just Higgins’ creature, his sculpture, his game. He has an objective to save her, and he will reach that goal, regardless of whether or not she wants to be saved. In the myth of this story, Pygmalion falls in love with a statue of his own creation. In the film, Henry views Eliza in a similar manner, because he refuses to look past his own prejudices. He transforms her from a poor flower girl to a lady; from rags to riches. He attributes her rising status to himself, which feeds his ego. Later in the film, once Eliza has proved successful, we can see his pride surface. To him, he created her success; she was nothing without him, but now she’s somebody. This nature, Higgins’ self-proclaimed heroism, is often associated with privilege. We most often see similar mannerisms in people like himself: upper-class, rich, white males. He leads a comfortable, high society lifestyle, and expects that everyone wants that. He views people of lower classes as subservient. Therefore, when he decides to ‘save’ Eliza, to transform her into someone that she isn’t, he thinks he’s doing her the utmost service. Since he fails to listen to and empathize with Eliza, Higgins lacks perspective, and his actions fall short. He may think he’s doing a good thing, but that thought process stems to his naivety and privilege.
In response to Higgins’ aforementioned actions, we can visibly see Eliza’s pain. As Henry ‘modifies’ every detail about Eliza—from her accent to her appearance—he’s telling her that being herself is not good enough. Then, when he finally allows the ‘new and improved’ Eliza to enter society, he instructs her to stick to small talk on two topics: the weather and her health. At social gatherings, she is limited to superficial chitchat, rather than real conversations. She is deprived of authenticity, which essentially tells her that along with her accent and her appearance, her mind is dissatisfactory, too. Finally, in a rare moment of authenticity, Eliza lets her raw emotions surface, showing Higgins and the audience her pain. She had been dragged through this entire process, subject to scrutiny, and still failed to receive a gesture of appreciation from Higgins. Like in A Doll’s House, Eliza is treated as a puppet, with a man serving as the puppet-master! Both Nora and Eliza were forced into inferior, compliant roles, as many women were confined to in relationships. But contrary to most, Nora and Eliza were able to speak up against their mistreatment, which was a luxury that many couldn’t afford. However, when Eliza finally speaks up to Henry, he treats her arguments as invalid and childish, which only increases the pain she feels. Essentially, she is told that she’s inadequate for being herself, but when she changes, she’s still undervalued as a person. It seems impossible for her to truly succeed, to both her standards, and society’s standards.
I was incredibly underwhelmed by the ending of the film. It frustrated me that Eliza ends up going back to Henry, because that negates her prior actions and words! Higgins treats her so poorly, and never once apologizes for his behaviour, yet she still returns to him. He only falls in love with her after he completely changes her, showing her that it’s in fact his adjustments that he loves, not her. When she leaves his house, gaining independence, she shows a great deal of courage and self-respect. Yet moments later, she retracts that boundary-breaking power, and replaces it with a classic ‘happily-ever-after’. This reminded me of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. In this adaptation, we see two endings play out: the traditional one, where Jo ends up in love and married, and the unexpected ending, where Jo ends up independent, single, and accomplished having published her book. This film discusses similar ideas to Pygmalion, regarding the “well-made play”, and endings that will please readers. In these times, endings weren’t desirable if a woman ended up alone. She needed to be married or in a relationship, because how would it be a good ending if she wasn’t? Marriage (or a relationship) was the ultimate conclusion, the best result, the badge of happiness. In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Jo is forced to write her protagonist a ‘happily ever after’ with a man, in order to sell her novel. I wonder if George Bernard Shaw faced the same obligations. I haven’t read the play yet, but I believe the ending is different, leading me to wonder whether this ending was modified for the film audience’s satisfaction. Would the ending be the same if he created the film today, rather than in 1938? How much do societal standards affect the creation of literature? I, personally, would have enjoyed the ending far more if Eliza kept her distance from Higgins. It would have solidified the feminist ideas that she preached earlier. This ending was far too neat and tidy, making it contradictory. Though, in certain ways, this could also humanize Eliza, and show that she prioritizes love above independence (and potentially self-respect, though that’s an entirely different conversation). Unfortunately, this ending tainted certain aspects of the film. However, I’m eager to read the play and analyze the effects of the different endings.