Intertextualism in G.B Shaw's Pygmalion and Pretty Woman, directed by Gary Marshall

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Pygmalion by G.B Shaw and Pretty Woman directed by Gary Marshall both follow the transformation of a working class female protagonist into a leading lady. Through the presentation of appearance, manners, social hierarchy, class structures, treatment, friendship and judgment it is clear that despite differences in their construction, these ideas are common to both the play and film.

When Higgins declares he can transform common flower-girl Eliza Doolittle into a duchess in a matter of months, it is understandable that he is taken lightly. However, true to his word, Eliza arrives at the Embassy Ball and astounds everyone with her beauty and articulate speech. According to language expert Nepommuck, she is “Hungarian. And of royal blood.” (Act III, pg. 71). This shows that purely by changing Eliza’s outward appearance and voice, she can be perceived as a completely different person. The idea that it is possible to change a human being on the inside through superficial qualities is contradicted and appearance is recognised as being a shallow basis on which to judge others.

This is comparable to Pretty Woman, where Vivian is changed outwardly, and her personality blossoms rather than dies.

Appearance is possibly the most obviously and effectively employed symbolic code in the film Pretty Woman. When we first meet Vivian she is wearing very little, it is low cut and revealing, which contrasts dramatically, to the point of her becoming another person at the close of the film, when she wears elegantly cut suits and dresses. This is evidenced when Edward does not recognise her when she is wearing a black cocktail dress, in readiness for their dinner. This shows that while she is changing on the surface, her statement on meeting Edward, “You’re late” shows that although she is undergoing a transformation, her true self is still there, and unchangeable for all his money.

Therefore, it is clear that in both texts’ appearance is a fundamental aspect in the creation of themes and characters.

Colonel Pickering is a true gentleman and it is from him that Eliza is able to learn manners. When it is decided that Eliza is to live at Wimpole Street, Mrs Pearce stresses the importance of a good role model for Eliza, “Mr Higgins: will you please be very particular what you say before the girl?” (Act II. Pg 39.). It is clear that Higgins cannot be such a person and so opens the position to Pickering. Following Eliza’s decision to leave, she thanks him, saying “You calling me Miss Doolittle… that was the start of self-respect for me” (Act IV. pg. 95). The manners of Pickering therefore have a significant impact on Eliza and her transformation into a lady, as it is his treatment that truly completes her metamorphosis.

Vivian has a rough start to life and finds herself working as a prostitute to support not only herself, but friend Kit. In this profession, she is unlikely to encounter kindness or commendable manners. When Vivian ‘meets’ Edward he realises and acknowledges what she does but does not hasten to judge her and treats her with courtesy, as an independent woman. Edward’s good manners guide not only the night but forthcoming week. Vivian realises that she deserves to have people treat her with consideration and this epitomizes her emancipation from her class and occupation. This parallels Pygmalion, where manners give the female protagonist the confidence to be independent and demand her right to get what she wants.

In 1900s London, class definitions were very influential on people’s lives. At the commencement of our interactions with Eliza she is fully a part of the working or lower class. However, thanks to phonetics experts Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, Eliza is reshaped to become one of the upper class, “I’ll take her anywhere and pass her off as anything” (Act II. Pg. 29). In this way Eliza enters the bet which comes to change her life, for the first time she is seen and treated as a lady of the upper class. This reiterates the divide between classes, which makes it near impossible for her to return to her old life. Correspondingly, Vivian knows she cannot return to prostitution, as after experiencing a better way of life, her dreams and aspirations are at the fore.

The early 90s, though nearly a century later, show similar social class structures. Vivian is one of the working lower class and Edward asks Vivian to spend the week with him and she is abruptly drawn into his class, by the week’s close she is a lady inside and out. Vivian experiences the lavish lifestyle Edward takes for granted, is amazed by the grandeur of the hotel and its furnishings. This new understanding of a totally different life has placed her in a difficult situation, as she cannot now accept the offered apartment, acceptable a mere week ago. The week has changed her and she rejects the proposal, as it makes her feel like a prostitute. This is comparable to Eliza’s refusal to marry Pickering or be adopted by Higgins.

Hypocrisy is easily found within the upper echelons of society, the wealthy few that make up the upper class. Higgins is one of these authoritative figures and though holds great contempt for the upper class, makes full use of the position. He calls Eliza names throughout, and proffers empty threats, which she takes very literally, “…You shall be dragged round the room three times by the hair of your head.” (Act II. Pg. 52). Higgins is unconcerned and largely unaware of the distress he causes by such statements, and continuously she is made to endure it. He is so focussed on himself and his personal enjoyment that he does not feel the need to worry about the reception of his behaviour. This is common to many in influence, as respect is guaranteed despite any possible misdemeanours.

Although in a far less obtrusive way, Edward shows characteristics of his class. He prides himself on professionalism, and believes that by giving Vivian an apartment, he is helping her and treating her as an equal. Instead, by doing this he is treating her as an inferior and for her profession, “I never treated you like a prostitute… You just did.” (Pretty Woman). This continues from the notion that people in the upper class can behave contrary to society standards and not be thought any lesser for it. Edward’s high position and higher bank balance only reinforce that powerful people do not need to worry about their behaviour, as it will be of little consequence. In this way Higgins and Edward are very similar, as they treat people antagonistically and yet do not realise, as none dare to speak up.

The wealthy upper class is associated with intelligence, a perception no doubt pushed for by the class. Oftentimes, it is true enough, nevertheless there are always exceptions to the rules and in Pygmalion, it takes the form of Clara Eynsford Hill. Clara is one of two remaining children desperately clinging onto their remaining shreds of gentility, a conformist and a fool. She willingly accepts any new ways of thinking, believing it will elevate her social standing, “[…It’s] quite right. People will think we never go anywhere or see anybody if you are so old-fashioned.” (Act III. Pg. 64.). This provides no space for doubt; Clara is so set on keeping up to date with styles that she will believe anything told to her. Hence, while the upper class is generally intelligent as a whole, it is clear that this is not always the case, particularly in reference to sheep or followers, of which this class is particularly fond.

As a businessperson, Edward’s friends are within his circle of success. When this success is deemed to be in danger, lawyer Philip Stuckey decides to take things into his own hands, without thought of consequences or friendships destroyed. He proceeds in trying to assault Vivian in the penthouse, before Edward rushes in to stop him. This shows a lack of intelligence on Phil’s part as he behaves extremely irrationally, when faced with the prospect of losing money, but not overall profit. This inability to think clearly shows that one’s position in the class hierarchy does not determine how intelligent they are. Though exceedingly different in all other ways, both Phil and Clara are blinded by their desires and this drives them to behave without thought and to show a lack of intelligence.

Alfred Doolittle confesses to being one of the undeserving poor. He lives on the money he talks away from the wealthy. After their first meeting, Higgins contacts a rich American who wills a substantial sum to Doolittle, forcing him to become middle class. This shows that money is of little consequence to Doolittle, “Done to me! Ruined me. Destroyed my happiness. Tied me up and delivered me into the hands of middle class morality.” (Act V. Pg. 88.). Also, money is the key element in social hierarchy. Those endowed with wealth are at the top and the rest make up the bottom. The situation is akin to that Vivian finds herself in, able to make a fresh start in the same society, but as another person.

Despite Vivian’s high charge rate, she is still underprivileged. Life is hard and money tight. When she returns to the Blue Banana for the last time to say goodbye to Kit, she remarks how easy it is to change when money is plentiful. “It’s easy to get clean when you have money.” (Pretty Woman). This indicates that it is very difficult to improve your life without substantial funding. Money is something relished by the upper class, and not easily given up. The difference in social classes is all the more emphasized by this, as most in the lower class are never given the opportunity to live their dreams.

Although there are crucial differences in conventions and construction, Pygmalion the play and Pretty Woman the film display similar ideas. Predominantly recurrent are the parallels in characterisation, Eliza and Vivian, Higgins and Edward, Pickering and Barney, even the eager young elevator operator can be seen to be devoted Freddy. Each text made a statement to society of its time and both can be seen to encourage feminism and sexual equality.

Shaw, G.B. 'Pygmalion - A Romance in five Acts'Marshall, Gary. 'Pretty Woman'