Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Opinion/Reflection: On Pygmalion, Gender and Emotional Labour

After weeks of particularly bad chronic pain, I turned to one of my all-time favourite comfort movies, My Fair Lady. However, as much as I love it, I am also very aware that the Pygmalion story is part of deeply embedded sexist societal discourses that seek to control and mould women and their behaviour so that they are desirable to men, both sexually, and as people to be around.

For all that Henry asks Eliza to marry him, their relationship is extremely ambiguous, and I've always wondered if he actually has any romantic interest in her, or if he simply wants to secure her emotional labour. Because women's emotional labour is one of the key things behind these discourses: when a random man tells a woman to smile, what he is actually saying is that she must appear happy and at ease so as not to discomfort him, regardless of what she is actually feeling or her right to bodily autonomy. The most important or salient thing about a woman is how she appears to a man, as Henry so astutely realises: 

So, Eliza must not only do the work of transforming herself into a 'lady', but also take on large amounts of emotional labour for Henry, which goes unrecognised, and this is why Henry is so desperate to get her back when she 'runs away'. He doesn't know where anything is, and nothing is running 'as it should'. It is irrelevant that she occasionally objects to taking on this role, because it doesn't change the latent expectation that she will, and the ending - where she returns and all Henry says is "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?" - implies that she accepts it as necessity. 

There is also the implication that she should be grateful to do this emotional labour, and grateful for her transformation in general, because it represents 'betterment'. In a situation familiar to many a corporate woman, it is Eliza who does all the work, and Henry who gets all the credit. Nobody acknowledges her achievements, or recognises the legitimacy of her anxiety about her future, to the point that she discusses her own death as a means of escape, which is dismissed merely as female hysteria. However, the film does also show sympathy for Eliza's plight, contrasting Pickering and Higgins' casual misogyny and self-congratulation with Higgins' mother, who understands Eliza's grievances and concerns perfectly. But this still perpetuates a gender divide: women are emotionally intelligent, while men are not. This is the very social stereotype that causes women to have to take on emotional labour in the first place.

Naturally, My Fair Lady takes it's cues from its source material, George Bernard Shaw's play PygmalionDespite the fact that Pygmalion was subtitled 'A Romance', Shaw was apparently horrified at the way stage productions, audiences and critics interpreted and amplified a romantic subtext between Eliza and Henry, and wished the emphasis to remain on his satirisation of the themes of class, independence and transformation. To the modern audience, all of these themes evoke Eliza more than Henry, but Henry's independence as a bachelor was also important to Shaw (McGovern 2011). In order to get rid of "any suggestion that the middle-aged bully and the girl of eighteen are lovers" (Berst p. 22, cited in Ross 2000), Shaw added a footnote to the play, in which he elucidated the fate of the characters after the curtain closed (Eliza marries her beau Freddy and opens a shop, all the while remaining friends with Higgins). The post-script also contains much long-winded philosophising, and is an oddd mix of proto-feminism and misogyny, awareness of class and classism. (According to his Wikipedia page, Shaw was a man of many contradicting opinions, including racial equality and intermarriage and eugenics). Shaw writes of Eliza: 
Such transfigurations have been achieved by hundreds of resolutely ambitious young women since Nell Gwynne set them the example by playing queens and fascinating kings in the theatre in which she began by selling oranges. 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 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.
He's working his way up to saying that it should be obvious to the audience, especially women, that Eliza chooses Freddy. After all, he loves her, and is not likely to dominate, bully or beat her. What more can a gal ask for? 

I know very little about Shaw himself, but it strikes me that if he had lived today, he would have been a massive mansplainer, who thinks his work is the best thing since sliced bread, but bad-mouths everything else in the same genre, or using the same archetypes and tropes. Although the name Pygmalion refers to a myth where a sculptor falls in love with his creation and Shaw subtitled the bloody thing 'A Romance', when he wrote this clarifying footnote, he shits massively on romance: 
The rest of the story need not be shown in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of "happy endings" to misfit all stories
He then works up to the inevitable stereotypes that we still see about romance readers and people who value a good HEA: 
[Higgins is] a standing puzzle to the huge number of uncultivated people who have been brought up in tasteless homes by commonplace or disagreeable parents, and to whom, consequently, literature, painting, sculpture, music, and affectionate personal relations come as modes of sex if they come at all. The word passion means nothing else to them; and that Higgins could have a passion for phonetics and idealize his mother instead of Eliza, would seem to them absurd and unnatural.
When I read that, I'm kind of happy that the romance between Eliza and Henry was drawn out against his will, despite my discomfort with it. It's a beautiful comeuppance to someone so holier-than-thou, not to mention the weird Oedipus complex thing going on. 

But Shaw is long dead, an it's his rendering of the Pygmalion myth that remains. There are numerous films, TV shows and books that have put their own slant Shaw's work, from the original 1935 German film adaption to the 1956 original Broadway production of My Fair Lady and modern adaptations like She's All That and Selfie. There's a post of the top 10 at Heroes and Heartbreakers

Many of the contemporary adaptations have feminist leanings, such as Jeannie Lin's My Fair Concubine, which I reviewed recently and absolutely loved. While these make explicit the fact that pre-transformation Eliza is worthy in her own right, the narrative structure still means that the hero will only discover this once he has forced her to undergo the transformation, which sometimes annoys me because it's so emblematic: men want women to change for them, and then women have to do more emotional labour when men don't like the results they asked for. 

No matter how feminist, I think that a Pygmalion tale with a female Eliza and a male Henry will also contain perturbing implications about the social control of the female person. Perhaps the only way to get rid of these is to gender-swap the roles (please someone write me some gender-swapped Pygmalion romance that are less problematic than Judith Ivory's The Proposition) or to make it into a M/M or F/F, like K J Charles' A Fashionable Indulgence. Charles' work shows that the romance between a Pygmalion and his Galatea does not have to, in any way, detract from the original and central themes of class, independence and transformation. In fact, they augment each other beautifully. Shaw was cremated, but if he'd been buried, I'm sure he'd be turning in his grave at that, the old, anti-romance bigot. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...