Eliza Doolittle, the protagonist of My Fair Lady, is arguably one of my favourite characters of all time. My friends will attest that it takes worryingly little encouragement for me to break into ‘Wouldn’t it be loverly’; I watched the Audrey Hepburn film endlessly as a child and read and loved the book as an adult. Feminism wasn’t super high on my list of priorities as a nine year old, so I didn’t spend much time worrying about the sexual politics of My Fair Lady until I hit the disillusioning realms of womanhood.
Eliza Doolittle is effervescent, multi-layered and feisty. She is also consistently patronised and infantilised by Henry Higgins, her eventual love interest. Honestly, so relatable. In the context in which it was written and first performed, the friction between Higgins and Doolittle would have been seen as nothing more than comedy. But a new Broadway production of My Fair Lady, directed by Bartlett Sher, aims to minimise the misogyny of the play by casting an older actress in the role of Eliza Doolittle, reframing the narrative as that of an empowered, self-possessed woman.
This retrospective approach to creating empowered female characters confuses me, and this is a particularly poignant example of this. Stories like My Fair Lady can still have value despite the misogyny written into them. Not only is it important to evaluate these stories in relation to the context in which they were created, it’s also reductive to argue that anything containing any kind of misogyny should be revamped.
Eliza Doolittle can still be an empowered, strong young woman within a sexist, stifling context. The women I know are living proof of that statement. To think that simply changing the age of Doolittle will counteract the underlying message of the play – women should change in the way that men want them to – is to hugely simplify a nuanced issue. It’s also slightly insulting to young women, and while the age gap issue in Hollywood is important, they are separate, if related, problems. Consistently casting very young women in romantic relationships with much older men tells us that older women are worthless. Casting an older woman in the role of Eliza Doolittle suggests that Doolittle is oppressed because she is young and meek, when really it is just because she’s a woman.
The Daily Mail described this production as the ‘PC’ My Fair Lady for the MeToo generation. Just a little disclaimer, every generation has been the MeToo generation, we’re just the first ones who have had the freedom to speak out. There is far more value in changing our artistic power structures to make sure that stories about women, by women are encouraged to flourish rather than going back in time with a big eraser. As a writer and a young woman, I would feel far more empowered if women and their stories were more accurately represented and if our artistic canon wasn’t so saturated with men.
My Fair Lady already contains an implicit feminist message; if you aren’t careful, if you’re just out there selling violets and having a great time, some man will come along and try and rescue you. And won’t you be lucky, my girl?