TIME magazine recently ran a tribute to My Fair Lady commemorating the 50th anniversary of the classic—yet still relevant—film.
“Although it may be easy to dismiss the 1964 movie musical as an outdated rom-com from the shady period before feminism got rolling,” wrote Charlotte Alter, “it’s much more than just a relic of a sexist time. The movie itself isn’t misogynistic—it’s about misogyny.”
This is exactly what I’ve always thought about the film, which has long been one of my favorites. But the piece went on to suggest that Eliza Dolittle, played by Audrey Hepburn, ultimately surrendered her strong personality to return to her love interest after having walked out on him during an argument:
Of course, the whole Eliza-is-a-strong-woman argument gets compromised by the ending. Because after all her proclamations that she can “stand on her own,” Eliza comes back to Higgins. And when he asks ‘where the devil are my slippers?’ she brings them to him. It’s an ending with the same ashy taste as the ending of Grease, because it seems incongruous: Eliza has no business being with Higgins, and it’s clear she’s independent-minded enough to know it.
That characterization doesn’t jibe at all with the tough, determined character who’s been a heroine of mine since I was 11 years old. Not only does Alter remember the ending incorrectly (Eliza does not, in fact, bring the slippers), but she excuses Eliza’s choice on the grounds that “Eliza has no family connections, no money and no formal education, which means she has nowhere to go but back to the streets.” Eliza doesn’t need that kind of condescension or pity.
My Fair Lady comes out of a rich history, based on Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which in turn was based on a Greek play about a sculptor who creates a statue of his ideal woman. Shaw turned this into a modern story (and satire of class prejudices) about a woman-hating English professor, Henry Higgins, who turns a poor Cockney flower-seller named Eliza Doolittle into a polished, articulate lady. Then Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe added some gorgeous songs and brought out the romantic angle. The result became a smash hit Broadway musical, and after that a smash hit movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1964.
My mom fell in love with this movie as a young woman, and years later, introduced it to me. She bought me a copy on Beta—this was a while ago!—and it took only one viewing to get me thoroughly hooked. I watched and rewatched that Beta tape until I knew whole scenes and songs by heart. (Given some of Higgins’s wordy, tongue-twisting numbers, that was way harder than it sounds.)
I loved the music and the witty script and the beautiful costumes and sets... all those books and flowers. But I was particularly enchanted by Hepburn’s Eliza. She starts out scrappy and dirty, but even after she gets cleaned up and learns some manners, her fiery spirit never truly leaves her. Though she eventually falls hard for her tutor, that spirit gives her the strength to stand up and challenge his arrogance as no woman—no person—has ever done before.
Of course Higgins is a problematic character; the mere fact that Rex Harrison managed to give him some charm and likability earned him his Oscar for Best Actor, since he’s unashamedly sexist for most of the movie. And that means he’s easy prey for those who believe that people who say uncivil things to or about women should not appear in media at all.
There are quite a few members of that school of thought these days. Take for example a recent Tumblr post that went viral, in which a Doctor Who viewer complained that the Doctor’s “fat shaming” treatment of his companion Clara on that show upset her young cousin.
I can understand the desire to protect children from such feelings, but characters who are “not nice” are part of our engagement with pop culture and entertainment. As an 11 year old, watching Higgins was empowering, not shaming, because he had a woman in his life who—despite his sexist behavior—refused to be cowed, who gave as good as she got.
Isn’t it healthier to see something like that than to make unrealistic movies and shows where nobody ever says an unkind word to a woman? Doesn’t it prepare girls better for the real world, where there are so many unkind words? It did for me. I saw in that film what my mother wanted me to see, what she had always tried to teach me. When I was a shy, sometimes insecure child, Eliza was a role model for me, someone who demonstrated that life’s blows can make you stronger instead of knocking you down.
Though Eliza endured rough treatment all her life, she still knows exactly what she will and will not stand for. What many people forget about the movie is that she references having been abused (sadly common among her class during that era). “I don’t care how you treat me,” she tells Higgins in a climactic scene, after he’s taken all the credit for her triumph in society. “I don’t mind your swearing at me. I shouldn’t mind a black eye; I’ve had one before this. But I won’t be passed over!”
What she really wants is to be treated as an equal. She does not fully commit to returning to Higgins until she senses that something in him has shifted and that he’s finally able to do this—that she can have a relationship with him on her terms.
Despite the argument in TIME, Eliza openly opposes the idea of marrying for money. For one thing, as Alter neglects to mention, it’s frequently mentioned that she has a good prospect of supporting herself as a shopgirl. Additionally, earlier in the film, when Higgins suggests that his mother might be able to find her a suitable husband, she objects that it would be selling herself. She is not, after all, like Sandy in Grease, who completely makes herself over with one goal in mind: to please a man.
Nor is she much like the heroine of ABC’s Selfie, a 2014 series that was supposed to be a tech-savvy update of My Fair Lady. Canceled after a few episodes, the show was amusing and sometimes even sweet, but its version of Eliza was insecure, addicted to social media, and obsessed with what others thought of her. She hired a teacher not to help her speak better, but to give her whole image a makeover.
By contrast, My Fair Lady’s Eliza, despite her outer transformation, is always unquestionably herself, true to her values, and her strength comes from her self-respect. And her strength makes a difference not just to her, but to Higgins.
I don’t want to argue that one person can singlehandedly change another; that way danger lies. But it does seem safe to say that a woman like Eliza who stands up for herself may help inspire others to new ways of thinking. Higgins doesn’t start to change until he is forced to recognize Eliza as a mature individual worthy of respect, not a puppet whose strings he can manipulate.
It’s poetic justice, really: The misogynist gets his comeuppance by doing the one thing he swore he would never do, falling in love with a woman. And honestly, it’s a lot more fun to see that than it would have been to see him, say, sent off to sensitivity training.
The movie leaves one with a sense of hope that, when a woman holds on to her sense of self and refuses “to be trampled on and talked down,” as Eliza puts it, almost anything is possible. In the age of selfies, airbrushing, and constant pressure to conform to the world’s aesthetic and sexual standards, it’s a message that’s more relevant—and more refreshing—than ever.