Texts reflect the context of the time in which they are composed as well as the culture their respective society possess. This is evident in Pygmalion, a play by George Bernard Shaw and its appropriation She’s All that, a film directed by Robert Iscove. In these two texts, the same Pygmalion myth is approached from two different viewpoints to reflect distinctly the context of the time in which each was written. Shaw, through the use of a wide range of dramatic techniques such as language, form, and setting, is able to appropriate the Pygmalion myth to reflect the values and cultural beliefs possessed by society in Victorian England. Similarly, Iscove uses cinematic techniques such as setting, dialogue and costume to appropriate the myth to reflect the casual values and cultural beliefs possessed by 20th century American society. After analysing the two texts, we are able to understand how values have been changed or maintained.
Pygmalion derives its name from the famous story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Pygmalion, disgusted by the loose and shameful lives of the women of his era, decides to create a beautiful statue more perfect than any living woman, named Galatea. Pygmalion goes to the temple of the goddess Venus and prays that she give him a lover like his statue; Venus is touched by his love and brings Galatea to life. Pygmalion and Galatea marry.
Shaw creates his own version of the Pygmalion myth by translating this allegory to reflect society in Victorian England. In doing so, he exposes the inadequacy of myth and of romance in several ways. For one, he deliberately twists the myth so that the play does not conclude as euphorically or conveniently, hanging instead in unusual ambiguity. Throughout the play, Shaw portrays the characters belabored by the trivial details of life like napkins and neckties, and of how one is going to find a taxi on a rainy night. These details keep the story grounded and decidedly less romantic. Society in Victorian England would not have agreed with the fairytale ideals that the Pygmalion myth implies, and so, Shaw reflects this discrepancy by questioning the values portrayed in the original myth.
Robert Iscove, however, tries to reflect the values of modern day society by producing a light hearted and slapstick version of the myth. This is done by
setting the play in an American high school in the early 21st century, and showing relationships between teenagers instead of adults. The ideas of love and marriage have been appropriated into high school ‘flings’ and dating. This in itself produces a lighter version of the myth as the relationships shown are not as serious. To be popular and ‘cool’, teenagers must wear the right clothes, and be seen with the right people at all times. Good grades and moral values have little to do with social acceptance. This is a huge contrast to what was shown in Pygmalion, and therefore helps the reader to understand that values have been changed due to technological advancements, media influence on adolescents and the feminist movement.
One of the issues discussed in both texts is one of socioeconomic division, and this is shown through means of language (Pygmalion) and costume (She’s All that).
Shaw believed that English spelling did not have much reasonable relationships to its pronunciation. This difficulty helps to perpetuate the low dialects which immediately identify the speakers as either humble ones or ones of poor education. Such dialects are an important factor in the division of people into social classes.
“Every time an Englishman opens his mouth, some other Englishman despises him.” – Preface.
This is shown in the first scene of the play, as Eliza (a poor flower seller) is immediately judged about her social class as soon as she speaks.
THE NOTE TAKER “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere – no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon…” (Pygmalion p. 27)
THE NOTE TAKER “You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days…” (Pygmalion p.27)
It is also evident that social class determines whom a person will date or consider marrying, and may only marry someone who is in the same social class as them.
In She’s All That, Iscove uses contrasting images of costume and setting to show the social class division and various stereotypical groups present in 21st century society. Social division is portrayed in a jocular and humorous way as it is set in an American high school instead of the ‘real world’. As the movie is based on adolescents, social status is not determined by the amount of education or values a person possesses, but instead on their fashion sense or audaciousness. E.g. Laney Boggs is an intelligent, artistic and rational girl who is seen as being at the bottom of the social ladder due to her paint splattered overalls and baggy shirts, whereas Taylor, who is one of the most popular girls in high school, has only achieved this status due to her sexy appearance and brazen behavior.
After comparing the two texts, it was evident that values regarding social class have dramatically changed. During the early 1900’s, language, etiquette, birth/family and wealth were what decided where a person fitted into the social ladder, whereas two hundred years later, this is no longer the case. Society in the early 21st century believed that appearances, character and social connections are what take you ‘to the top’.
The two texts also explore the meaning of the ideal woman. In Pygmalion, Henry Higgins picks up Eliza Doolittle to teach her phonetics and thereby `make her into a lady.’ This shows what his idea of a real lady must be. Higgins convinces Eliza to let him transform her into a proper aristocratic lady who speaks proper English, so that she is able to fit in with the upper class. Eliza’s growth involves increasing self-realization, an evolution from a lower to a higher state of being, and an important quality that is sometimes not innately there and must be developed. Pygmalion spent great time and effort in creating his ideal woman. This gives hope to society, especially the lower classes, that one can change and succeed if they just try hard enough. Eliza Doolittle would not have questioned her morals and boundaries set by society for a girl of no means. Hence the constant recitation of “I am a good girl, I am!”
Robert Iscove also transforms the main character, Laney so that she is able to fit into a higher social class in high school and become the ideal woman, yet this is done simply by applying makeup and wearing revealing clothes and being seen to socialize with the right crowd. Iscove purposely shows a quick makeover to illustrate that late 20th century society believed that the ideal woman was not necessarily one of etiquette and intelligence, but simply one which looked good, knew the right people and was bold enough to challenge her boundaries.
From the aforementioned it is clear that both texts reflect the time frame in which they were composed and provide insight into the way values have been maintained and changed. Both Bernard Shaw’s, Pygmalion and its modern appropriation by Robert Iscove, She’s All That convey the context and culture in which they were written and explore ideas of social division, the denotation of the ideal woman and debate the relevance of the Pygmalion myth in their respective societies.
Courtney from Study Moose
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