It was St. Teresa of Avila who said, “If in all things you seek Jesus, doubtless you will find him.”
After reading this piece about the #metoo-inspired hand-wringing accompanying the revivals or debuts of musical theater productions, it occurred to me that if in all things one seeks sexism, oppression and victimization, doubtless one will find it. And in the case of art, one will add to the sense of social exhaustion that is inevitable when every script, every image, every phrase, must be processed through a modern prism in a search for imperfect thoughts or imperfect depictions.
In the case of this particular article, which is really very balanced, it was disappointing to read Julie Andrews call My Fair Lady “very, very sexist.”
Critiques of “My Fair Lady” have focused not only on the show’s final exchange, but on the Pygmalion narrative itself: a man transforming a woman to meet his standards. Some might say it is a setup for a role-playing scenario of a sexual nature, another demonstration of the male to female power dynamic struggle. Not to mention Henry’s bullying tone with Eliza, and her return to him at the end of the show.
“Oh gosh – it is very, very sexist,” Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza on Broadway in 1956, told an interviewer last year. “Young women in particular will and should find it hard.”
Really? I guess it’s all in how you look at it. One could just as easily (and in my opinion more convincingly) argue that My Fair Lady is a fully empowering piece featuring a spirited, ambitious young woman eager to live her life to the full — one whose intention is to employ a man (remember, Eliza’s first thought is to pay Henry Higgins for his services), not in order to be transformed “to meet his standards” but to simply teach her what she needs to know in order to pursue her own dreams and purposes.
Is he bullying? Yes, but that is simply a deep and flawed aspect of Henry Higgins’ own weak character; throughout the play he is irritable, selfish, condescending or bullying to everyone at some point, including his friend Colonel Pickering. Eliza more than holds her own against Higgins’ outsized personality, ultimately transcending him and what he can teach her, while managing to confound and humble him, ultimately expanding his understanding. “Eliza, where are my slippers,” is not a dominant man asking for her subservience; it is a weak man saying “I cannot do without you” in the only face-saving way he can manage.
Eliza, whose character is strong but also compassionate, permits the face-saving, because that is how love travels; it leads with mercy over dominance.
The world is a brutal place, and increasingly — particularly when it comes to social arguments — we seem to prefer to utterly destroy others rather than allowing them to retain a bit of their own dignity. We see it on social media all the time — the merciless goading of others and the need to lord it over someone who has embarrassed himself or herself until they are destroyed, which ultimately only exposes the character weakness of the destroyer.
Eliza does not possess such a weakness of character. She has already told Higgins off and refused to allow him to stake a claim over her triumph. She doesn’t have to return to him at all. She chooses to, but when she does, it’s not with a spiteful taunt, but with a wry invitation that says “I know who you are, and who I am, too.” The play ends with an ambiguity because every living, healthy relationship involves making a choice to stay and to love, every day, even when it’s a challenge.
One needn’t look at My Fair Lady as “very, very, sexist” or “find it hard” unless one really wants to. One could just as easily see it as a story of feminist triumph.
The piece also discusses a new musical production of Pretty Woman and a revival of Carousel and it might be a fun exercise to ponder how perspective can positively or negatively inform one’s perceptions on whether they are offensive or ultimately empowering. I think Scott Rudin is right-on when he says to the Times, “The job of a play or a musical is not to answer a question, it’s to ask a question.”
Our answers are greatly influenced by the horn through which we choose to hear it.