Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why ask, “Why Do Women Try To Change Men”? by Anthony McCarthy

Would you forgive an uncle for bragging? Without coaching, my twelve-year-old niece was outraged last year when she saw the movie of My Fair Lady. She hated the ending when Eliza went back to Henry Higgins in the end of it and found the big baby’s slippers for him. It is the inherent sexism in the assumption that Eliza Doolittle would submit to his tyranny that outrages her, being informed that it was a distortion of Shaw’s original is just confirmation that the Hollywood treatment of the ending was all wrong.

Marianne Jacobbi makes a similar mistake in her short piece which asks today “Why do girlfriends and wives keep trying to change their men”?

In the movies, love changes people for the good all the time. After Henry Higgins gave his pupil Eliza Doolittle an extreme makeover, she morphed into a fair lady and they fell in love. Imagine how it might have played out had there been a sequel, My Fair Gentleman.

Love Higgins? Who couldn't take Eliza at her word when she says she doesn’t love Higgins after he proposed to adopt her and marry her off to Pickering. More to the point there is this:

LIZA. Freddy's not a fool. And if he's weak and poor and wants
me, may be he'd make me happier than my betters that bully me and
don't want me.

HIGGINS. Can he MAKE anything of you? That's the point.

LIZA. Perhaps I could make something of him. But I never thought
of us making anything of one another; and you never think of
anything else. I only want to be natural.

And shortly after that:

HIGGINS [wondering at her] You damned impudent slut, you! But
it's better than snivelling; better than fetching slippers and
finding spectacles, isn't it? [Rising] By George, Eliza, I said
I'd make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this.

LIZA. Yes: you turn round and make up to me now that I'm not
afraid of you, and can do without you.

HIGGINS. Of course I do, you little fool. Five minutes ago you
were like a millstone round my neck. Now you're a tower of
strength: a consort battleship. You and I and Pickering will be
three old bachelors together instead of only two men and a silly

It’s too bad that Jacobbi doesn’t have the time to go into it farther because she has some mildly interesting observations to make on the subject, though she really began with the wrong question. Considering her use of the film distortion of Pygmalion* she should have asked why people try to change other peoples’ behavior. Going into the eternal stereotype of women nagging men should be an occasion for more interesting exploration than she can fit into the tiny last page of this Sunday magazine treatment. And you can begin by asking why men who nag are eternally let off the hook.

Higgins proposal that they be “three old bachelors together” is interesting for two reasons. One is his inability to see the liberated Eliza as a woman, the second is his idea that their menage a trois will produce independence. Given the way he condescends to Pickering it’s hardly going to be a marriage of equals. And the idea contains an almost universally accepted lie. Any man who is honest would tell you that even someone who isn’t married or as much as a bachelor as Higgens can hardly escape men who nag, pressure, bully, browbeat and actually beat on other men to try to change them. And I am certain that some men do worse to women to enforce change in their lives. And I know many women who just don’t try to change anyone’s behavior, either because they know, perhaps from experience, it’s likely to be futile or because they won’t demean themselves by doing it.

So what do you make of the eternal issue of “nagging women”? And, considering how much nagging men put up with from other men, why it’s only an issue when women do it?

* If she would do herself the favor of forgetting Hollywood and Broadway and going to Project Gutenberg to read the original along with the long post script Shaw added explaining the further history of Eliza, Higgins, Freddy, Pickering and, Clara (Freddy’s sister, as one is apt to forget). Of course Eliza didn’t fall in love with Higgins. Who could? She married the more pliable Freddy. Shaw goes into a lot of detail about how the marriage and the subsequent poverty and move into “trade” changed both of the young couple. The picture of the struggles and compromises they are forced to accept are a lot more interesting than the play. It’s a lot more interesting than the movie and musical “romantic” ending. Though it really shows that Shaw had a real mean streak in him. I don’t think he could have written Higgins without it.

Though it’s his treatment of the liberation of Clara from first the conventions of upper middle-class conventions, then the ridicule of her new crowd that are really interesting. Maybe it’s because she’s not saddled with the responsibility of a husband like Freddy.