Re-Watching My Fair Lady

I grew up loving Hollywood musicals. I still love the colorful, glorious, joyous, extravagance of them, but I see them with different eyes than I used to. I see the ways that they taught my young girl self to form her identity around life with men at the center. I see and think a lot differently than I did back then, I have more trouble just enjoying musicals, I have to think about them, the messages they reinforce, and the context in which they were made. Today I re-watched My Fair Lady, which could be aptly re titled Misogyny and Gaslighting: The Musical. The nice thing about My Fair Lady is that it is specifically designed to interrogate the power structures between men and women with a small side order of interrogating class structure. The hard part is that it was filmed in 1964, an era when American women couldn’t get bank accounts or credit cards without a man’s permission. So even while the film clearly positions Professor Higgins as an asshole and shows us that Eliza is trapped, even while it gives her a powerful song of declared freedom, all of that is undermined by the closing scene where she returns to him. Higgins doesn’t even turn to look at her, just asks after his slippers while she smiles. The film pulls its punch and reinforces a status quo where men get to be comfortable and women have to put up with it. Women, you can have your independent moment as long as you’re back in the house for slipper delivery.

As a text for discussing systemic misogyny, My Fair Lady is incredibly useful. Particularly since both the 1900’s era classism/misogyny and the 1960’s era misogyny are in there to talk about and discuss. Unfortunately it is one of the beloved movies from my childhood that I can’t share with my children and have them love it as I did. It would be a huge sociological discussion rather than a shared delight. (Though, to be fair, an hours-long sociological discussion with my kids is its own kind of delightful.) We’ll find other things to love together. I wonder how other issues-based musicals like South Pacific hold up. The ones like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are hard for me to even enjoy anymore.

1 thought on “Re-Watching My Fair Lady”

  1. One thing about My Fair Lady that grabs hold of a deeper context is that it’s very heavily based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. It took me some years after I absorbed MFL into my body like sunlight before I read the play. I started hearing Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison and everyone else in my head within moments. Shaw has book-writing credit on the musical for very good reason.

    He also was deeply angry when the actor who originated the part of Higgins on the West End added one bit of stage action that made the audience go berserk. Shaw’s words specifically say that after Doolittle sweeps out in a righteous fury, the door closes and he goes on as if she never left. No concern, no regret, no sadness. The actor paused in his floor-pacing to look at the door, sigh, and then resumed discussing what he needed done to an empty room.

    The epilogue Shaw wrote discussed their lives because presenting the effects of Eliza leaving Higgins’ household and marrying Freddy Eynsford-Hill was not going to work on the stage. Ever the misanthrope, Shaw made it clear he thought Freddy was inadequate for Eliza but that Higgins was a grade-A jackass. The musical went for the easy ending based on that.

    I don’t say this expecting you to change your mind about the ending. If art has only one way to interpret it, it is not art, IMO. And I’m not in love with the musical’s ending. I can see that Eliza could’ve chosen to stay without having fallen for him, though. She really did change from raw material and loud anger to someone with a very sharp mind and cutting wit. Freddy, bless him, was more of a buffoon in that 19th century Victorian fashion of his. Having risen to near-equal status in Higgins’ eyes, the bullying would at least mostly end (he never bullied Pickering) and she could meet him toe-to-toe on anything he threw at her. And Pickering showed her how decent men treat other people. Freddy was turning her into an odalisque without encouragement or consent. It’s the fact they secretly fell in love with each other that makes me dislike that ending enormously.

    And besides, I’m willing to bet that Higgins was written to depict an autistic man as Shaw knew them in “high-functioning” quarters back then, whatever they were called. Doesn’t excuse a thing he did wrong. But he makes a lot more sense when you notice his focus on accents is singularly deep and anything interrupting that flow is worthless or worse. And that he has the social skills of an angry bull with a deep pride in how thoroughly he can ignore convention and still be marginally welcome at many places. Eliza would be singular as the feather-smoother and social lubricant on two feet Henry desperately needs now and then. And frankly, working with a phonetics expert who travels the world to record languages sounds a metric ton better to me than working at a flower shop to support a trifling gadabout. Which is pretty close to what Shaw said she did.

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