You might not know who Eliza Doolittle is, but surely, you might remember Audrey Hepburn wearing an Edwardian maxi dress with striped bows and statement hat. This is her playing as Eliza Doolittle in an American musical comedy-drama ‘My Fair Lady’ which based on a classic play written by George Bernard Shaw ‘Pygmalion’. Her costume is so iconic that becomes inspirations for fashion and Barbie doll. ‘Pygmalion’ tells about a phonetics professor Henry Higgins made a bet with Pickering to transform a cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle who comes from a lower social class to a lady through the teachings of Henry Higgins. Turns out, she became a sophisticated lady with beauty and intelligence. This play has been adapted into various forms of media, including the iconic American musical comedy-drama ‘My Fair Lady’, in which Audrey Hepburn portrayed Eliza Doolittle (which I mentioned earlier) and teen movie ‘She’s All That’. Beyond her fashionable appearance, Eliza Doolittle represents a role model for self-sufficiency, woman’s emancipation and bridging the gap of social disparity. Eliza Doolittle herself is a role model every girl should aspire to be. This International Women’s Day, I am writing this to explore what we can learn from Eliza Doolittle as a tribute to her excellence.
LIZA: I know. I am not blaming him. It is his way, isn’t it? But it made such a difference to me that you didn’t do it. You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.
Adjusting to upper-class society can be challenging, and it’s natural to feel insecure or forlornly when surrounded by people who constantly remind you of your background. However, Eliza Doolittle is not deterred by her humble origins. She recognizes the limitations of her uneducated upbringing and takes the initiative to improve herself by learning from Professor Henry Higgins. Despite experiencing personal growth after months of study, she is still subjected to Higgins’ negative attitude towards her. Through this experience, Eliza and readers alike learn that being a noble person is not defined by one’s background or attire, but rather by how they treat others with respect and mindfulness.
LIZA: You think I like you to say that. But I haven’t forgot what you said a minute ago; and I won’t be coaxed round as if I was a baby or a puppy. If I can’t have kindness, I’ll have independence.
Eliza Doolittle’s character in ‘Pygmalion’ has inspired many readers and viewers, teaching us the value of claiming emancipation. Henry Higgins provides her room to stay, dress (not just a dress, but expensive dresses that is worn for joining important events), and educations. Just because he facilitated her, doesn’t mean he is allowed to credit himself on her achievements. Eliza Doolittle’s hard-work and mental strength enabled her to pass as a lady at the Embassy Ball. Indeed, Henry Higgins continuously gave her a series of practices to achieve her ladyship. But what if Eliza Doolittle did not come to Henry Higgins but Professor Nepean? While Henry Higgins provided Eliza with the tools to become a lady, it was ultimately her own grit and determination that allowed her to achieve success. Regardless of who taught her, Eliza’s personal qualities and work ethic would have enabled her to succeed. By taking ownership of her accomplishments, Eliza demonstrates that she is not merely a pawn in Henry Higgins’ experiment, but a strong, independent woman capable of achieving her goals on her own merit.
LIZA: [rising determinedly] I’ll let you see whether I’m dependent on you. If you can preach, I can teach. I’ll go and be a teacher.
HIGGINS: What’ll you teach, in heaven’s name?
LIZA: What you taught me. I’ll teach phonetics.
HIGGINS: Ha! Ha! Ha!
LIZA: I’ll offer myself as an assistant to Professor Nepean.
HIGGINS: [rising in a fury] What! That impostor! that humbug! that toadying ignoramus! Teach him my methods! my discoveries! You take one step in his direction and I’ll wring your neck. [He lays hands on her]. Do you hear?
LIZA: [defiantly non-resistant] Wring away. What do I care? I knew you’d strike me some day. [He lets her go, stamping with rage at having forgotten himself, and recoils so hastily that he stumbles back into his seat on the ottoman]. Aha! Now I know how to deal with you. What a fool I was not to think of it before! You can’t take away the knowledge you gave me. You said I had a finer ear than you. And I can be civil and kind to people, which is more than you can. Aha! That’s done you, Henry Higgins, it has. Now I don’t care that [snapping her fingers] for your bullying and your big talk. I’ll advertize it in the papers that your duchess is only a flower girl that you taught, and that she’ll teach anybody to be a duchess just the same in six months for a thousand guineas. Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself.
HIGGINS: [wondering at her] You damned impudent slut, you! But it’s better than snivelling; better than fetching slippers and finding spectacles, isn’t it? [Rising] By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this.
LIZA: Yes: you turn round and make up to me now that I’m not afraid of you, and can do without you
After receiving an education, Eliza Doolittle didn’t revert back to her life as a flower girl. Instead, she used her new skills and experiences to pursue a greater career path as a phonetics teacher, much like Henry Higgins. It’s intriguing to consider what might happen if she were to become an assistant to Professor Nepean. Given her tenacity and work ethic, it’s likely that Eliza would continue to acquire new skills and knowledge, and could even be offered a position as a governess in a royal family. The possibilities for Eliza are endless, and it’s exciting to imagine the new opportunities that her newfound education and confidence could bring her.
THE FLOWER GIRL: I want to be a lady in a flower shop stead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won’t take me unless I can talk more genteel. He said he could teach me. Well, here I am ready to pay him—not asking any favor—and he treats me as if I was dirt.
MRS. PEARCE: How can you be such a foolish ignorant girl as to think you could afford to pay Mr. Higgins?
THE FLOWER GIRL: Why shouldn’t I? I know what lessons cost as well as you do; and I’m ready to pay.
Although it is never explicitly stated how Eliza Doolittle pays for her phonetics lessons with Henry Higgins, it’s clear that the cost of education is likely beyond what a flower girl can afford. Eliza’s impulsive offer to pay for the lessons demonstrates her determination to improve her situation, but it’s fortunate that Henry Higgins is not an opportunistic man who takes advantage of her financial vulnerability. Despite the potential barriers to her education, Eliza persists in her pursuit of knowledge, and Henry Higgins recognizes and respects her eagerness to learn.
Higgins and Pickering, speaking together:
HIGGINS: You know, she has the most extraordinary quickness of ear:
PICKERING: I assure you, my dear Mrs. Higgins, that girl
HIGGINS: just like a parrot. I’ve tried her with every
PICKERING: is a genius. She can play the piano quite beautifully
HIGGINS: possible sort of sound that a human being can
PICKERING: We have taken her to classical concerts and
HIGGINS: Continental dialects, African dialects, Hottentot
PICKERING: halls; and it’s all the same to her: she plays
HIGGINS: clicks, things it took me years to get hold of;
PICKERING: she hears right off when she comes home,
HIGGINS: she picks them up like a shot, right away, as if
PICKERING: Beethoven and Brahms or Lehar and Lionel
HIGGINS: been at it all her life.
PICKERING: though six months ago, she’d never as much
as touched a piano.
Although Eliza Doolittle faces verbal bullying from Henry Higgins, she remains determined to achieve her dream of becoming a lady. She immerses herself in language and music, using her natural talents and perseverance to overcome the challenges thrown her way. While we can only speculate about Eliza’s future, it’s clear that her enthusiasm for learning could lead her to explore a wide range of subjects beyond just language and music. Perhaps she might even develop an interest in studying science, history, or politics. Despite the obstacles she faces, Eliza’s resilience and curiosity hold great promise for her future.
While there are many popular fictional heroines such as Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, Elizabeth Bennet, and Daenerys Targaryen who embody smart, resilient, and brave qualities, the unique qualities of Eliza Doolittle are often overlooked in literature. Her determination to rise above her circumstances and pursue her dreams, despite facing obstacles and discrimination, is a powerful example for young girls to follow. Let’s celebrate International Women’s Day by recognizing and supporting more brilliant women like Eliza Doolittle, who inspire us to overcome challenges and reach for the stars!