Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Edwardian Women’s Struggle: The Arrogant Male Gaze under Pygmalion

By Xinuo Liang

Due to the fact that Edwardian women lacked any right to full citizenship, there was a desire to change this legal disadvantage – by striving for the freedom of suffrage, marriage, property and occupations (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193). However, most Edwardian women were imprisoned under the male gaze and involuntarily became the ideal wife who did everything that the ideal husband wished (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193). George Bernard Shaw sympathised with women’s suffering, and stated that “Woman, if she dares face the fact that she is being so treated, must either loathe herself or she must rebel” (Shaw, 1932, pp.36-37); and Pygmalion is one of his most famous feminist plays which expresses his claim. 

While Pygmalion is famous as Shaw’s play, most people know itfrom the 1964 film adaptation My Fair Lady. But My Fair Lady as the adaption of Pygmalion seriously violated Shaw’s original intention of this play, which had been created for the feminist revolution. Hollywood distorted Eliza’s character from independence to dependence. Because in Shaw’s design, a new woman should not be limited by marriage (Holroyd, 1979, pp.17-32).

The relationship between Eliza and Professor Higgins can only be described as “enemies”. From the moment they met, Eliza was constantly under Professor Higgins’s male gaze; however, she attempted to break free from Higgins’ bondage and become a truly independent woman (Pygmalion Overview) by saying: “Then I shall not see you again, professor, goodbye” (Shaw, 2013, p.75).  Eliza’s leaving was not impulsive or caused by her anger; instead, it was the inevitable result of Eliza’s rising independent consciousness. The ending of Eliza’s leaving was inspired by A Doll’s House, in which the heroine Nora chooses to break away from the image of the ideal wife and away from marriage and the responsibilities imposed upon her female identity. Shaw criticized the marriage system as being unfair to women (Shaw, 1931d, p.32), and argued that women’s independence must be away from the bondage of marriage.

On the road to independence, Eliza must first give up everything that Professor Higgins gave her – the fancy clothes, the fine jewellery and the cosy home. Leaving is the inevitable end for a new woman who was educated. For Professor Higgins, Eliza is merely the fruit of his linguistic education, a mindless object, an exhibit of his superior education that he shows off to the socialites and an exhibition of the professor’s superior educational “skills”. There is no doubt that Higgins’ teaching is successful. He helped a lower-class girl become a skilful and educated woman; on the other hand, Higgins wanted to train Eliza to be an elegant ‘duchess’, which means he trained Eliza in the image of the ideal woman. During his training, Eliza becomes gradually aware that she is a human who has the same intelligence as Higgins. As a result, his education was a failure to himself because it created an independent new woman who does not need to rely on anybody, which does not fit with his expectations.

Pygmalion is a legendary figure from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses who falls in love with his exquisite sculptures. Shaw used Pygmalion’s original story as a model and attempted to discuss the tensive relationship between ‘sculptor’ and ‘sculpture’ of Professor Higgins and Eliza. Eliza undoubtedly occupies a significant place in Higgins’ heart. However, his feelings for Eliza are not a sort of love, but a complex of his linguistic career. Under his gaze, Eliza was never equal to him. From the moment they first met, Professor Higgins was extremely rude and impolite towards Eliza, and even surprised when discussing Eliza with Colonel Pickering by saying “Nonsense! He cannot provide for her. He shall not provide for her. She does not belong to him. I paid him five pounds for her. Doolittle, either you’re an honest man or rogue” (Shaw, 2013, p.62). Higgins completely and financially dominates Eliza, and she has no choice but to obey and rely on Higgins if she wants to continue her privileged middle-class life.

Figure 1: ‘Pygmalion’ 1913 performing copy, UK, 1913-15. Courtesy of The Society of Authors.

Higgins was living in the middle-class with an ideology of separate spheres (Harrison, 1978, p.59). His thoughts about gender had already been disciplined like other men in the Edwardian period, with contempt for women – arrogantly disparaging their potential for independent living, believing that women are naturally of a lower social status than men and that naturally powerful men should rule them. However, when Eliza mastered the educational skills of linguistics, she had acquired a skill that would allow her to live as an independent woman in defiance of patriarchal domination. As a dramatic figure of the independent woman of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, Eliza breaks through the separate spheres and attends the public affairs that were previously reserved for men. Eliza is a mirror that reflects the Edwardian woman’s desire to be recognized by the public. In this aspect, Edwardian feminists promoted political equality through various movements, such as the movements of “Suffragettes”, “Cat and Mouse Act” and “Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act”.

Figure 2: The Smoking room of a ladies’ club, UK, 1910s. Phil May, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Shaw gives Eliza the courage to resist the patriarchal system, but he also recognizes that men of the time had a neglectful attitude towards the “independent woman” (Holroyd, 1979, pp.17-32). The “independent woman”, like the “male”, was a woman in terms of “biological sex” who had been socially alienated into the male “social sex” (Morgenroth and Ryan, 2018, pp.1-9). Edwardian men obstructed women’s fight for their rights and freedom because they thought women were not deserving of economic and intellectual equality with men (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193).

In Pygmalion, Shaw uses the case of a Cinderella story to satirize that under the arrogant male gaze, when a woman’s identity awakens, they can draw the same nourishment from daily life. The nature of culture under patriarchy is occluded by Shaw, and economics still determines an individual’s social position. The social class difference pushed Edwardian women to break through the regulation of gender norms. However, it is difficult for individuals to understand reality authentically: most of those who are dominated are often left to accept the ideological shroud, to take reality for granted and to unconsciously accept the values of their dominators, leading to a distorted understanding of their state of being (Hartsock, 1987, pp.187-206). In the process of women achieving epistemological equality, political and economic inequalities change from hidden to exposed (Gilligan, 1982, p.126). Darwinists in Edwardian society mistakenly believed that social order and social hierarchies are naturally fixed (Richards, 2017. p.53). The cultural roots of masculine power alienated gender relations.

The difficulty and the lack of widespread acceptance of women’s political rights are because behind it lies the opposition between the dominant and dominated classes of the patriarchal order of society (Oppenheim, 1994. p.90). These classification criteria are cultural, biological, and artificial, constructed by groups following their particular power relations (Books, 2021. pp.323-346). Likewise, culture is an artificial system of constructs. The independence Eliza aspires to is a rebellion against the male gaze of the “perfect female paradigm”.

Pygmalion is an insight into the confusion of women’s struggle for an independent identity in Edwardian England. As Eliza leaves Professor Higgins – who protects her but restricts her – in order to reinvent herself, she becomes an icon of women’s struggle for independence at the time. Like Eliza, independent women leave their families, and although life becomes more of a struggle, they at least gain freedom.


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