A Comparison of Pygmalion and Pretty Woman

Topics: Pretty Woman

A comparison between George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and its 1990 film appropriation Pretty Woman by George Marshall reveals distinct differences between the texts’ approaches to the social structures of class and gender. While Shaw’s 1913 play is a critique of the highly divided class system and the shortcomings of the patriarchal framework in his society, the film appropriation offers validation of such notions, presenting a highly favorable outcome when such values are endorsed in combination with the capitalist perspective of 1980s America.

Therefore, despite the similarities in the storyline and contextual values, the film disregards and re-establishes all that Shaw seeks to change in Pygmalion.

The essential critiques that Shaw provides regarding the class system in Victorian England are that of the superficial markers of class and the ironic undesirability of the upper classes. Through characterization and irony, Shaw’s socialist perspective is enforced – opposing the shallow methods with which his society used to define a class. Higgins acknowledges the importance of superficial determinants in social mobility, remarking that “to change…by creating a new speech…it’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class”.

Higgins is also wary however that “the great secret…is having the same manner for all human souls…as if…there are no third-class carriages” – voicing Shaw’s belief of treating all as equals, regardless of one’s supposed ‘class’. Shaw’s second critique of the class system is the expected conformation to the associated morals and behaviors when one transcends class barriers.

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Feeling trapped between the “Skilly of the workhouse and the Char Bydis of the middle class”, Eliza’s father, Doolittle, laments the dilemmatic situation he finds himself in, following an encounter with a large sum of money that accordingly raises his status. About the Greek myth, he is reproachful of the values that accompany the Victorian middle class – frugality, strong work ethic, and responsibility. However, he is also unable to leave the middle class and its obligations, as a return to the life of the working class is not any more desirable. Pygmalion is reflective of Shaw’s contempt for the trivial determinants of class, and the burdens of class restrictions.

Whilst Pygmalion argues that the social construct of the class is inaccurate in indicating one’s worth, Pretty Woman presents the view that wealth and status can provide numerous advantages in life, encouraging and endorsing the highly capitalist and consumerist attitude of the 1980s America. Exceptions given to Edward Lewis are notably due to his expansive wealth and willingness to spend much money. At the mention of his intention to spend a ‘profane’ and ‘obscene’ amount of money in a clothing store results in an immediate response from the store assistants. Fundamentally, the message perpetuated by the film is that money can buy anything. Additionally, the film implies that one should have an insatiable need for the ‘best’ – regardless of other factors. Despite Edward’s fear of heights, his desire to live in the penthouse and occupy the highest opera seats – thus, obtaining the best that money can buy – overrules any other doubts. Where Pygmalion denounces and criticizes the classist nature of society, Pretty Woman depicts positive outcomes to grand displays of wealth.

In concurrence with the rising Suffragette movement in the early 20th century, the attitudes toward women portrayed in Pygmalion recognize females as their individuals.

The utilization of strong female characters throughout, in conjunction with the unconventional ending subverts the patriarchal norms of her society – one in which her father was able to sell her for five pounds and remark on suffering: “better her than you, because you’re a man, and she’s only a woman”. The objectification of Eliza by male characters as a “pebble on the beach” and a “live doll” is reflective of the highly patriarchal Victorian society which – an attitude met with disapproval by the central female characters Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins. The unintentional nature of such objectification furthers Shaw’s case that such norms have been ingrained into our society, hoping to change the perspectives of a complacent culture. Admonishing Higgins and his partner for their negligence in considering Eliza’s future, the men are labeled as “two infinitely stupid male creatures” and as having “no more sense than two children”, proving to the audience the ability of women to be vocal against men. The most notable sign of Shaw’s support for feminism is in his choice to subvert the ‘fairy-tale ending’ which is the expected outcome for the majority of romantic texts.

Following her transformation into the upper class, Eliza questions “What am I fit for…what’s to become of me?”. The series of Higgins’ responses that follow all culminate in her selling herself in marriage. In denying the audience of the traditional ending of the heroine’s wedding to her ‘rescuer’, Shaw allows for the storyline to take shape according to Eliza’s own choices, resulting in the formation of a relationship where she is the dominant presence. This depiction of females as self-thinking and able to be satisfied without a ma,n is, however, not carried into the text’s film appropriation.

The view that Pretty Woman paints regarding the empowerment and conviction of females is considerably differing in nature – the driving force of this text is the male’s desire for pleasure. Instead, Pretty Woman implies that women are empowered only through validation from men and are weak-minded in their resolve. The use of the conventional ‘fairy-tale ending’ only serves to exemplify the patriarchal myth that the sole female desire is to achieve a comfortable life through a man, implying that women require ‘rescuing’ to achieve this. Lingering shots are employed to emphasize their reactions of Edward to Vivian’s physical changes in appearance. Likewise, in the Rodeo Drive shopping montage, Edward’s face is constantly referred to as Vivian looks to him for his approval of each outfit.

In both instances, the film perpetuates the idea that women are only satisfied with themselves following validation from a male. The film also reinforces the notion that women are easy’ creatures to manipulate. When Vivian decides to leave Edward as no one had ever made her feel as ‘cheap’, he says niceties such as “I didn’t mean it… I don’t want you to go”, expecting her to return – which she does. This interaction dismisses all that Pygmalion seeks to reconstruct – showing a woman easily softened by a man’s alluring words, submissive to his desires. Vivian’s insistence on the ‘fairy-tale’ – “I want more” – is suggestive of women only able to achieve happiness following their devotion to their ‘savior’. The independent and self-motivated characterization of females established in Pygmalion is lost to the audience of Pretty Woman.

Though the texts differ in context, the social values of class and patriarchy remain consistent across both the play and the film. Where one seeks to deconstruct the social norms of the time, the other ultimately reinforces and shows support for the restrictive nature of wealth, status, and gender. Pygmalion is reflective of the political environment of the time – showing rapport for the feminist movement and displaying Shaw’s socialist view – challenging preconceived ideas, proposing instead the futility of class division and the narrow-minded view on women. Pretty Woman contrastingly paints the pursuit of wealth predominant in 1980s America in a romantic light, dismissing the flaws in our society indicated by the play. Despite the disparity in messages conveyed, the comparison between the satirical play and the romantic comedy nevertheless provokes discussion amongst the audience to evaluate the impact of social norms on their subsequent behavior.

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A Comparison of Pygmalion and Pretty Woman. (2022, Aug 15). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/a-comparison-of-pygmalion-and-pretty-woman/

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