Year 11 Preliminary Extension English Assessment Task – Pygmalion (George Bernard Shaw) and Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall)
To what extent have contextual attitudes and values regarding gender and class been maintained or altered in the two texts you have studied?
Both Pygmalion, composed by George Bernard Shaw and Pretty Woman, directed by Garry Marshall effectively critique the gender and class disparities of their time, suggesting that these discrepancies were merely social constructs. Through obscure and indirect methods such as the use of humour, irony, character development and transformations, Shaw and Marshall address the issues of gender and class inequality in a milder way, thus skilfully avoiding conflicting opinions with the audience and the general public. Although the two texts belong to different time periods and genres, they are similar in their storyline and unprovocative methods of presenting what used to be a highly controversial idea. In the play Pygmalion, Shaw uses irony to question the society’s views on gender inequality through the characterisation of Eliza, as an independent and intelligent young woman, capable of much more than was deemed appropriate for her sex.
Shaw’s philosophy of equality which ridicules the social construct of gender discrepancies is expressed through Eliza’s disgust at having to marry a prosperous man, announcing that “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.” This is an example of irony which Shaw uses to target the notion of noble girls aiming to marry a rich man, rendering them dependent upon somebody else. While Eliza was able to provide for herself as a flower girl, no matter how little her income, she was better than the rich man’s wife who is reliant on her husband’s income.
In the beginning of the play, Ms and Mrs Eynsford Hill ask Freddy to find a cab for them, suggesting that the man is the one who provides for and protects the woman as befitting for the gender roles of their time, whereas Eliza is different – she finds her own cab to go to Higgins’s house and also pays for her tuition with her own income. Hence it is evident that through the use of irony, Shaw subtly critiques the gender disparities of his time, and using the abilities his female protagonist, he shows his audience that allocated gender roles are simply social constructs, created and preserved by the traditions of society.
Through the use of character development, Marshall takes a similar approach in Pretty Woman to critique the issues of gender inequality in comparison to Pygmalion, and though the times during which they were produced were different, both texts alluded to the fact that gender disparities were but social constructs. Alike in Pygmalion, the female gender is expected to act within certain definitions of ‘gentle and submissive’, but both Vivian and Eliza are strong and independent, and do not meet up to society’s expectations. Unlike Pygmalion however, Vivian is a real prostitute whereas Eliza is a flower girl accused of being a prostitute. Although Vivian’s profession is degrading of her gender, her being a prostitute without a pimp gives her power in her relationships, as expressed through her saying “I say who, I say when” and her act of negotiating the price of her time with Edward. In contrast to Pygmalion’s ending, Vivian does develop a romantic relationship with Edward whilst Eliza remains independent of Higgins. This again may be degrading of Vivian and her gender as it appears to make Vivian financially dependent upon her male partner, though this notion is disproved when Vivian tells Edward that she will “rescue him right back”, teaching him life’s morals while he provides for her.
This characterisation of Vivian as the ‘damsel in distress’ displays Marshall’s philosophy of the princess who is rescued from the tower, rescuing the prince “right back”, allowing the issue of gender inequality to be questioned in the film. While Pretty Woman may be much more subtle than Pygmalion, it is shown through the characterisation of Vivian that Marshall not only frowns upon gender inequality in his time, but also identifies gender disparities as a social construct, similar to Shaw in his philosophy. George Bernard Shaw also uses humour to address the social constructs on class differences and depict through the interactions between Higgins and Eliza the futility of the class structure of his time. This is illustrated through Higgins’s confidence in being able to turn Eliza whom he calls a “squashed cabbage leaf” and an “incarnate insult to the English language” into a “duchess” or “the Queen of Sheba”.
These insults are examples of the humour that is used in the play to present the issues of class disparities to the audience. Using Higgins’s pompous bet with Pickering to portray the fact that even a flower girl can be passed off as royalty, Shaw implies that given the right education, anyone can become ‘noble’ or ‘high-class’. This notion is further supported with the use of humour when Eliza attends the ball and is thought to be a “fraud” and a “Hungarian princess” thus allowing Higgins to win his bet. Shaw also promotes his beliefs through his character, Higgins when he argues that teaching the human being another way of speech is like “filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul”. Hence, George Bernard Shaw’s intention of using humour and character interaction to question society’s view on class disparities becomes clear as he successfully identifies the class structures of his time as nothing but social constructs.
In Pygmalion as well as Pretty Woman, there are clear class distinctions in the society, and through the concept of a ‘transformation’, Director Garry Marshall encourages the idea that one does not have to be born noble to be noble. For instance, the treatment that Vivian receives during both her visits to the boutique on Rodeo Drive differs greatly from one another simply because of the change in Vivian’s attire. In response to Vivian’s transformation, her friend Kit tells her that she “cleans up real nice” while Vivian replies “it’s easy to clean up when you got money”, suggesting that perhaps one’s class is based purely on appearance and with the right education and money, anyone can be ‘high-class’. The process of Vivian’s transformation is more physical rather than intellectual in contrast to Pygmalion’s Eliza who undergoes months of speech training to make her appearance in the ball, however, the same notion of ‘anyone can be high-class’ is supported.
Near the end of Vivian’s stay with Edward, he offers to set her up in an apartment so he can continue visiting her, however she refuses and tells him she once “would have said yes”, but the time she has spent with him led her to step out of her mindset as a prostitute as she becomes a noble lady. Through the concept of transformation, Marshall challenges the widely accepted view on class disparities and like Shaw, expresses through their work the futility of the class structure of their time. George Bernard Shaw and Director Garry Marshall shared their viewpoint on both gender and class disparities, believing them to be mere social constructs, questioning the norms of their time in their respective texts – Pygmalion and Pretty Woman.
Through the use of humour, irony, character development and the concept of ‘transformation’, both composers successfully address the issues of gender and class with their characteristic subtlety. Although Pygmalion and Pretty Woman have many differences including their genre and the time period in which they were composed, they are ultimately similar in the way they critique gender and class disparities using mild and unprovocative methods which allow their philosophies to be communicated to a wider audience.
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