Changing Gender Roles and the Pygmalion Motif – Shaw’s "Pygmalion" and the Musical "My Fair Lady" in their contexts

Bachelor Thesis, 2007

51 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Victorian Society
2.1. Industrialisation
2.2. Women and Feminism in England in the 18th and 19th Century

3. George Bernard Shaw
3.1. Parallels between his Biography and Pygmalion in Respect to Women
3.2. Shaw’s Philosophy Concerning Gender Roles and its Impact on Pygmalion

4. Feminist Realisation in Pygmalion
4.1. Eliza’s Inner Change
4.2. The Relation between Higgins and Eliza
4.3. Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce
4.4. Higgins’ Development
4.5. The Theme of Prostitution and Slavery
4.6. The Importance of Clara Eynsford-Hill

5. My Fair Lady
5.1. The Development from the Play to the Musical-Film
5.2. The Role of Women in the 1950’s and 1960’s
5.3. The Audience of My Fair Lady
5.4. Differences between the Musical and Pygmalion
5.4.1. Intention
5.4.2. Genre Changes
5.4.3. The Theme of Love and Cinderella
5.4.4. Eliza’s Development in My Fair Lady
5.4.5. Higgins’ Character in My Fair Lady

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography
7.1. Literary Sources
7.2. Internet Sources

8. Appendix
8.1. Wouldn’t it be Loverly?
8.2. I'm an Ordinary Man
8.3. I Could Have Danced All Night
8.4. I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face
8.5. Without You
8.6. Just You Wait
8.7. Show Me
8.8. The Rain in Spain

1. Introduction

Pygmalion is one of the most famous comedies of all times. Its mythological background is fascinating as the topic is still up to date. This is why it has influenced many artists to use the story for their works. Besides Ovid’s version in his Metamorphoses that very closely sticks to the original of Greek mythology and G. B. Shaw’s one that, although he changes the frame and the plot of Pygmalion, he still holds on to the idea of the original story, there is for example Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s melodrama Pygmalion (1770), Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s poem Pygmalion (1767) and Franz von Suppé’s operetta Die Schöne Galathee (1865).

The mythological background, though, is not the only reason why the story of Pygmalion has attracted that many artists and is that popular. It is the diversity of its themes and actions.

There is for example a love story, a criticism of society, many different characters that are interesting in each way, changes in individual personalities and so on.

By this range of different subject matters the play was open to everybody in Victorian society, no matter which class he or she belonged to. As class distinctions, and with it different privileges and snobbism, were much more distinctive in that era than today, it was a welcome change, especially for the lower classes.

The story of Pygmalion actually derives from Greek mythology. However, Ovid did use up the subject matter in his Metamorphoses and it is his version which will be used in the following paper.

Pygmalion, a Cypriot sculptor, had renounced all women because of bad experience with them. Furthermore he thought them to be bad influence for himself and therefore concentrated on his work. Unconsciously, out of ivory he forms the body of a woman, who is so beautiful that he treats her more and more like a real person and finally falls in love with her. The day Venus was celebrated, Pygmalion begs her that his future wife be like the statue he created, because he does not dare to articulate his real wish. Venus, however, feels what his secret wish is and turns the statue into a real person. When Pygmalion comes home and turns towards the statue to kiss and embrace her, like he did before, she slowly turns into a living person. They marry and nine months later their son Paphos is being born.

The main point in this story in regard to the topic of the paper is Pygmalion creating a perfect woman who becomes real, which means that he has formed his own wife after his fancy.

This theme is also present in G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion, although the story is slightly different.

It deals with a linguistics professor who wants to turn a flower girl into a lady simply by teaching her how to speak properly, i.e. right pronunciation and the practice of small talk.

In a way he also forms a woman after his ideas and taste. This point of shaping a woman is present in both, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion.

However, the most important difference between them is the woman’s behaviour. While in mythology Galatea is only a passive character, in Shaw’s Pygmalion Eliza is active from the beginning on and influences the play’s stream and action. She takes her destiny into her own hands and one could speak of an emancipated woman. As emancipation was a major topic and drastically developed during the Victorian era, one could argue whether the description of women in literature actually reflects society’s attitude towards them in the era in which this literature was written.

For this reason I will elaborate the role of women in Victorian society in general and in Pygmalion in specific.[1] Furthermore I would like to compare the play Pygmalion, which was staged for the first time in 1913, to the musical My fair lady which was released in 1956. The difference in time promises a difference in the reception of the story and it is probable that the changes in society between 1913 and 1956 are reflected in those two versions.Especially the role of women changed in those years.

Therefore the focus of my thesis will be these transforming ideas concerning women in the Victorian age and the 1950’s by means of Pygmalion and My fair lady.

I will start with analyzing Pygmalion, which takes place in the Victorian era. Therefore background information about this era is necessary, as especially its certain image of women is reflected in the play. It is also G. B. Shaw’s own attitude towards gender roles that I will work out in this paper. It influences the story and plot of Pygmalion and might also be influenced by his own biography.

In the next part I will examine Pygmalion concerning feminist approaches by means of certain parts and topics in the play. As mentioned above, gender roles changed during history and these changes can also be seen in literature and other media. When it comes to the musical My fair lady I will give a short overview of the women’s role in the 1950’s. After that I will focus on this image, its realisation in My fair lady.

The main point of this thesis will be to show and prove by means of gender roles that both works fit the society and its values in which they were written and that therefore these roles changed in literature and other media through history.

2. Victorian Society

2.1. Industrialisation

During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th century England gained political and economical power. Under the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) it ruled great parts of America, Africa and Asia and was the richest country in the world. However, this property was divided in an unjust way. The majority of England’s population lived in poverty and was dependent on charities like for instance the Salvation Army[2]. Industrialisation, urbanisation and the railway revolutionised society and changed the life of every single person. Traditional professions were not needed anymore and alternative factory jobs were underpaid.

There were great discrepancies between rich and poor which were manifested in differences in payment, language, education and culture.

Nevertheless, people were still in favour of progress. The underclass believed in implementation of their interests, because democratic institutions and a parliament were established and freedom of press was arranged. Furthermore, did the economic boom between 1845 and 1865 destroy any doubts about the changes, and the growing middleclass, the most present one in those days whose values shape this era, experienced drastic improvements of living conditions.

One important change is the elementary education for all classes, even for women.

Queen Victoria therefore stands for modernism and break-up. However, she still holds on to tradition and convention. Although women for the first time try to fight for their rights under her reign, she is still convinced of her believes that the women’s goals are immoral and redundant.

2.2. Women and Feminism in England in the 18th and 19th Century

The feminist movement, though, started even earlier than the Victorian era, during the French Revolution as an effect of social revolutions.

In England, the first feminist movement appeared in the 18th century, because women were dissatisfied with their situation. They earned less than men and the money they got they had to hand over to their husbands, which made them dependent on them, their education was worse than that of men and all in all there was no equal treatment at all (“”).

As the Industrial Revolution also started in this age and with it the living conditions drastically changed for the worse, not only women depended on an extra income but whole families. It was at that time when women started to fight for political, economical and social equalisation because they earned far less than men. Until then, economically as well as socially, marriage was the safest solution for a woman (Watkins 55). As the men’s image was that of the main bread-earners in the family they therefore even strengthened their authority as the host (Becker-Schmidt 42).

However, at the beginning it was mainly women from the middle or upper classes and the nobility who fought for their rights as they wanted to free themselves from the conservative and traditional image of women (“”). Until then they were supposed to give birth to children, raise them and be there for their husbands.[3]

In order to be more independent, to fulfil their need for self-actualisation and to make a start concerning their want of changes in the conservative thinking, they worked as teachers or headmistresses (“newcriterion”).

A very small number of women found a job in the new factories of the mill-towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. On the one hand they were more independent than their counterparts back home; on the other hand they drastically realized the differences in the wages and working hours between men and women (Watkins 54). This awakening was another catalyst for the feminist movement.

A kind of breakthrough was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 that provoked the feminist movement once more not to give up and further on fight for their rights. She argued that a woman “is brought up to be the toy of a man, his rattle and must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason he chooses to be amused.” (“nytimes”).

The first official indication that also men were understanding and reasonable concerning women’s rights, was John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. He said that the image of women was totally obsolete (“”). This old image of women also builds on the misunderstanding that gender, instead of a person’s personality, is reflected in the individual woman as a characteristic (Knapp 231).

A very important step towards equality was the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which said that women were allowed to keep presents from their parents, which actually had to be passed over to their husbands. From now on they were allowed to have their own property which gave them a little bit of independence (“”).

A well-known part of the feminist movement are the suffragettes. The word actually derives from the Latin word suffragium, which means voting right. The suffragettes were women who fought for this right. They founded 500 Comitees which incorporated in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. At first they tried to achieve their aim with peaceful methods, like for example letters to politicians or meetings. However, they soon realized that this method was not effective and therefore applied more radical methods, like hunger strikes or disturbing official events.

The right to vote for women, however, was not implemented until 1918. From then on women from the age of 30 on were allowed to vote. In 1928 women finally were allowed to vote when they turned 21, which made their voting rights equal to men’s.

Shaw very much supported the suffragettes and even wrote letters or held speeches in favour of them, in which he attacked the government and said that women should not give up but “shoot, kick, maim, destroy” (Hartley 4) until they won.

However, he did not only support the suffragettes but also the whole feminist-movement. Society at the beginning of the 20th century sees women only as means to an end, namely to please the husband. This fact, though, “to treat a person as a means instead of an end is to deny that person’s right to live.” (Shaw, Essays 58).

In his opinion a woman therefore always tries to rebel if the circumstances allow her to. This is what happens in Pygmalion: Eliza gets the chance to rebel and to become free and she grabs that opportunity. Shaw also had manifold relations to the English feminist movement and as an avowed “Fabian Feminist” (Weintraub, title) favoured the image of the new woman that breaks up old gender roles (Pöschl 126). In 1950, Mary Leigh, who founded the Emily Wilding Davison Club, even spread her flag at Shaw's funeral and shouted that he had been a good friend to the suffragettes (“newstatesman”).

3. George Bernard Shaw

First of all it has to be mentioned that it is always difficult and precarious to compare the author’s biography to his work and draw conclusions about similarities and influences. Still though, in Pygmalion there exist an exorbitant number of similarities to Shaw’s own life.

In knowing and understanding his biography, his attitude towards gender roles becomes clear, which is reflected in the play. It is not only social circumstances that form a play but also a pinch of the author’s own life. Also did Shaw not only reflect what was going on in society but had his own opinion and style.

Even Eric Bentley once said that Pygmalion“is a personal play” (Bloom vii), which made Shaw its true hero and also in Garebian’s opinion it is based “partially on the playwright’s personal experience” (10) and “emotionally […] derives from Shaw’s attachment to Mrs. Pat Campbell, the actress of his passionate favour.” (12).

For this reason I have pointed out the similarities between Shaw’s biography and the play, concentrating on women and gender role in order to stick to the topic of this thesis.

3.1. Parallels between his Biography and Pygmalion in Respect to Women

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 as the son of a prosperous and respectable family. However, the insolvency of his father’s corn-business led to financial problems and the father’s alcoholism made his relatives withdraw from the family.

Shaw’s mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw[4], was disappointed by her husband and as a result concentrated her attention on her two daughters and left her son alone. He grew up in an atmosphere of “emotional coldness” (Andrecht 5) and had to live and learn on his own when his mother and his two sisters went to London and left him in Dublin. Nevertheless, he was capable of handling his loneliness and said of himself: “Fortunately I have a heart of stone; else my relations would have broken it long ago.” (“newcriterion”).

This statement clearly resembles Higgins’ behaviour. Higgins, too, seems to have a heart of stone. He is not capable of showing feelings and treats everyone else like they were equipped in the same way: “Eliza: So you are a motorbus: all bounce and go, and no consideration for anyone.” (Shaw, Pygmalion 242).

Earlier on in act two, Higgins answers Pickering’s question whether Eliza had feelings that they should care about with: “Oh no, I don’t think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about.” (Shaw, Pygmalion 180).

At the age of 20 Shaw followed his mother to London where he tried to work as a journalist, author and critic of music. In the mid-eighties he began to interfere in politics, first at Hyde Park Corner, debating clubs and later on in the Fabian Society[5], a forerunner of the Labour Party, where he was one of the main leaders and even wrote its constitution. He received his socialist attitude after reading Marx’s Das Kapital and even said about himself that “Marx made a man of me.” (Berst 5), which resembles Higgins’ statement at the end when he says: “By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you.” (Shaw, Pygmalion 248).

In London he dabbled in theatre critic and playwriting but was not successful as a writer until 1904 when the Court Theatre in London established his reputation as a dramatist.

In those years many different plays were performed and he was always very eager, disciplined and personally directed the plays. Furthermore, he wanted his actors to improve steadily and therefore often sent letters to them with directions and instructions for improvements. This teacher-like behaviour was very typical for Shaw and of course for Higgins as well.

In many of Shaw’s plays the main theme is an elderly mentor trying to educate a young woman. There is for example Caesar who wants to turn Cleopatra into a queen, Major Barbara who, with her spiritual nature, is able to “make war on war” (Wall v) and of course Pygmalion, in which a poor uneducated flower girl with a cockney accent is turned into a lady by a phonetics professor who teaches her how to speak properly.

One could argue that a reason for this recurring theme might be his own personality as a born educator who liked the idea of teaching young women. He was always looking for ambitious actresses that could be trained in a way that their performance would match his imaginations.

He himself was a “Pygmalion to Many Players” (Wall, title); not only to actors and actresses but also to the reader and watcher of his plays. Shaw was not an advocate of the l’art-pour-l’art at all; in his opinion art should rather have a purpose and be instructive.[6]

About Pygmalion he said that “it is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else.” (Shaw, Pygmalion 154).

He was convinced that he “would not lift a finger to produce a work of art if I thought there was nothing more than that in it.” (“newcriterion”). For this reason all of his plays, novels and essays are political statements with a clear message.

The liking of teaching might also result from his own experience. He was entirely self-taught as he was being left alone at the age of 17[7]. It might have been that he did not want to make the same mistake his parents did and wanted to share his knowledge to make it easier for his students.

Also, although he had a “heart of stone”, it was hard to accept the fact that he was scorned by his family and that his mother never gave him the acknowledgement he deserved. For this reason he was encouraged to become an approved and famous person. This was his type of revenge. The approval he never received from his mother had to be gained in another way.

However, there are even more analogies. One very important aspect is the adoration of Higgins’ mother. He puts his mother above everything else and she influences his image of women so dramatically that he compares every woman with his mother and takes her as a benchmark: “Oh, I cant be bothered with young women. My idea of a lovable woman is something as like you as possible.” (Shaw, Pygmalion 201).

Also G. B. Shaw did adore and love his mother. Unfortunately she did not give him any kind of approval. Still though, he admired her, especially for her independence and strength. She had the courage to leave her husband and to set off with Vandeleur Lee, a music-teacher. Here parallels to Pygmalion can be observed, too. Eliza has the courage to leave her old life behind and start something new with calling on Higgins, not a music-teacher but a teacher of phonetics.

Like Shaw’s mother later on left Vandeleur Lee, because he was only concerned about his appearance and his status, Eliza leaves Higgins’ home for the same reasons: because he was only interested in his career and did not value Eliza as a person but only as a means to an end.

However, the likeness of the play and Shaw’s biography goes even further and when Shaw’s mother decided to leave Vandeleur Lee she takes with her the knowledge she has gained from him. In order to reach perfection in singing he was teaching her voice training. She took this knowledge with her when she left him so as to earn money and be economically independent.

The same is true for Eliza, as she is a very good student and can remember everything Higgins teaches her. Therefore she threatens him of using this knowledge in order to work as a phonetic-teacher herself.

Both men have a certain ability that they are proud of, that makes them superior to their women and makes them act patronising. Still though, both men are hoisted with their own petard, as it is exactly the one thing they are good at that both women use against them.

When it comes to Vandeleur Lee, there are also similarities between Shaw’s biography and the play. One could say that the whole relationship between Vandeleur Lee and Shaw’s mother might somehow also be represented in the play. In fact, Shaw always insisted that their relationship was only professional, because his own legitimacy depended on it (Holroyd, Pygmalion xvii) and because of his jealousy concerning Vandeleur Lee. He, in contrast to Shaw himself, always had Elisabeth Shaw’s respect and approval. Shaw did not have any influence on their relationship, but the only thing he could do was to let it appear in another light in the play, namely by letting it appear only professional and leaving out the romance.

As one can see, there are many similarities between Shaw’s biography and his play.

Especially when it comes to women, Shaw did include his attitude towards them in Pygmalion. His relation and its repercussions in the play will be explained in detail in the following paragraph.

3.2. Shaw’s Philosophy Concerning Gender Roles and its Impact on Pygmalion

G. B. Shaw’s attitude towards women and gender role in general can be explained with several stations in his biography. As I mentioned above, he had an unusual relationship with his mother that influenced his view on women in general.

Not being appreciated and loved by his own mother led to his odd attitude towards women. The affairs he experienced before and during his marriage included much more talking than love-making. He recreated triangles that resembled the one of his parents and Vandeleur Lee, but nevertheless lead a chaste life as his interests hardly ever were sexually. There was for example Ellen Terry, whom he wanted to entice from her husband for professional reasons.

There was always the professional idea in the foreground instead of a romantic attitude towards women, like Higgins’ attitude towards Eliza:

“Eliza: One would think you was my father.

Higgins: If I decide to teach you, I’ll be worse than two fathers to you.”

(Shaw, Pygmalion 176, f.)

G. B. Shaw idealized women and created the “stereotype, Woman-the-Huntress” (Holroyd, Shaw 112). He was comfortable in the role of the innocent man who is escaping the women’s grasp. He portrays love and sexuality as something negative and is proud of fleeing it. He constructs Higgins, a man who is also able to get away from women and the idea of romantic love. By doing this and putting Higgins’ ability as something positive, he glorifies his own personality at the same time: “I wont stop for you … I can do without anybody. I have … my own spark of divine fire. … I care for life, for humanity; and you are a part of it that has come my way and been built into my house. What more can you or anyone ask?”

(Shaw, Pygmalion 242, f.).

It is obvious that Shaw was either afraid or rejected by sexual love; although he seemed to like the game of making oneself interesting. He used to talk about his attractiveness to women and then at the same time warned them against this attractiveness. However, he only wanted to start this game, but as soon as a woman was interested he retrieved: “Everyone who becomes the object of [sexual] infatuation shrinks from it instinctively. Love loses its charm when it is not free: … it becomes valueless and even abhorrent, like the caresses of a maniac.” (“newcriterion”). Only once did he let himself fall into passion and started an affair with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. However, after an unhappy ending he was convinced that romance is not necessary and that “the quantity of Love that an ordinary person can stand without serious damage is about 10 minutes in 50 years.” (“newcriterion”).

There is a clear similarity between Shaw and Higgins and also other characters of his plays, like for example Dick Dudgeon from The Devil’s Disciple. This character is also able to act in an ethical and moral accepted way simply by using his intellect rather than by using emotion like other people do it from time to time.

When it comes to the treatment of women, Shaw had ideas that were revolutionary and ahead of his time. Together with the actor-playwright Harley Granville Barker and the theatre manager J. E. Vedrenne he revolutionised English theatre at the Court Theatre between 1904 and 1907. Apart from giving more power to the playwright and encouraging contemporary playwrights, the most important point in this case is that it promoted the economic independence of women. Shaw did not see them as beautiful and powerless creatures but rather as huntresses, i.e. “superwomen” with various abilities that are therefore superior to others (Holroyd, Pygmalion viii).

However, these ideas and beliefs did not come from out of nowhere but are based on his experience in his adolescence and again the relationship with his mother.

Lucinda Elisabeth Shaw was dissatisfied in her marriage with her alcoholic and irresponsible husband. Unfortunately she projected these traits onto her son and despised not only him but all men, except one: the musician George Vandeleur Lee. She sang for him and the children spent almost their entire time at his place. Later on, when he left for London, she followed him, took her two daughters with her and left her son, the youngest of all her children, alone in Dublin with his father. This being left behind let Shaw doubt his own legitimacy and he was even wondering whether he was named after his father George Carr Shaw or after George Vandeleur Lee (Holroyd, Pygmalion xiv).[8]


[1] In my thesis I will use the original version of Pygmalion from 1913. Shaw changed this version in 1941 for the film. However, I will only take into account the original version as the differences between this one and the musical are more evident.

[2] The Salvation Army is an integral part of the Christian Church, although distinctive in government and practice. The Army’s doctrine follows the mainstream of Christian belief and its articles of faith emphasise God’s saving purposes. Its objects are ‘the advancement of the Christian religion… of education, the relief of poverty, and other charitable objects beneficial to society or the community of mankind as a whole.’

(Salvation Army Act 1980).

From the beginning on its aims were to live after high moral standards, to accord women equal opportunities and social betterment of the poor (“salvationarmy”).

[3] This image, however, for the first time developed in the industrial era. Before then, work was mainly done on the farm or on fields which were close to the home. Men and women therefore shared their work and were equal parts of the family. Only when men started to work in the industry, away from the home, someone had to stay at home to look after the children. As factory work mainly was done by men, because physical strength was needed, women were the ones who stayed at home. This was the first time when the idea of the male breadwinner and the female housewife came up.

[4] Notice the resemblance of the names Elisabeth and Eliza.

[5] The Fabian Society was a civic-socialist society whose aim was England’s evolutionary development into a social welfare state and general changes of the existing social circumstances, i.e. also the status of women.

[6] Shaw’s idea of art, a subcategory of culture, as a medium for education goes back to the antique idea of culture. The purpose of culture in those days was to educate people, to teach them moral standards and ethical thinking. For this reason it was subsidised very highly from the state. It was an investment into future generations that with their better education would promote and advantage society and the country in various ways.

[7] This is almost the same age as Eliza’s when she was left alone.

[8] Later on in order to avoid the name George he created the anonymous personality G.B.S.

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Changing Gender Roles and the Pygmalion Motif – Shaw’s "Pygmalion" and the Musical "My Fair Lady" in their contexts
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Catharina Kern (Author), 2007, Changing Gender Roles and the Pygmalion Motif – Shaw’s "Pygmalion" and the Musical "My Fair Lady" in their contexts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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