I know what you’re going to say about Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. A snobby British guy in a Sherlock suit tries to “improve” a working woman by teaching her to talk pretty and look bangin’ in necklaces?! Screw you, Henry Higgins! Lean in to the flower business, Eliza! There’s nothing “loverly” about misogynistic woman-shaping narratives! Put My Fair Lady in a folder with all the other movies that “send bad messages,” like Grease and Gone With the Wind!
Screw Henry Higgins, indeed, but please do not underestimate My Fair Lady, a movie that, on Tuesday, celebrates the 50th anniversary of its premiere. And although it may be easy to dismiss the 1964 movie musical as an outdated rom-com from the shady period before feminism got rolling, it’s much more than just a relic of a sexist time. The movie itself isn’t misogynistic– it’s about misogyny.
First, a little history: The 1964 Audrey Hepburn movie version of My Fair Lady is based on the Broadway musical (starring Julie Andrews) with songs written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. The musical was based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion, which was itself based on the part in Ovid’s Metamorphosis when a sculptor named Pygmalion falls in love with his statue of the perfect woman. That part of Metamorphosis was based on every guy who ever thought he could create the girl of his dreams (specifically, Freddie Prinze Jr. in She’s All That, of which Ovid was reportedly a mega-fan).
Even studio execs are always trying to cultivate the perfect girl, and that led to a bit of behind-the-scenes drama when it came to casting Eliza Doolittle. Julie Andrews had played Eliza on Broadway, and had already mastered the character and the vocals, and her stage co-star Rex Harrison was going to play Higgins in the movie. But studio head Jack Warner didn’t think Julie Andrews had the name recognition or glamor to carry a major motion picture. “With all her charm and ability, Julie Andrews was just a Broadway name known primarily to those who saw the play,” Jack Warner wrote in his 1965 autobiography My First Hundred Years in Hollywood. “I knew Audrey Hepburn had never made a financial flop.” But Andrews got the last word — losing the My Fair Lady role allowed her to make Mary Poppins, for which she won a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Actress.
Audrey herself was still pretty good, even if she had to have her songs dubbed by another singer. As TIME wrote after the movie came out in 1964:
From Ancient Greece to Edwardian England to 1960s Hollywood, the narrative remains the same: an overbearing male “genius” who transforms a pliable (read: vulnerable) woman from her meager, inadequate self into his personal ideal of womanhood. But thanks to Lerner and Loewe’s songs, My Fair Lady critiques that narrative as much as it upholds it. Their musical is not about a genius attempting to transform a weak woman. It’s about a strong woman attempting to retain her identity in spite of the controlling machinations of a small-minded man.
Take, for example, the undisguised misogyny in nearly all of Henry Higgins’s songs (spoken, with droll irony, by Rex Harrison). This is from a song near the end, fittingly titled “A Hymn to Him,” in which Higgins asks “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”:
This comes shortly after he says women’s “heads are full of cotton, hay and rags” calls men a “marvelous sex.” That’s not the only song where he drones on about how amazing he is compared to women: in “You Did It,” he takes complete credit for everything Eliza does, and in “I’m an Ordinary Man,” he idealizes his woman-free “bachelor” life.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Lerner and Loewe were themselves misogynistic jerks, and these songs were meant as appreciative bro-anthems. Maybe if they had been alive today, the music videos would have featured naked models on leashes. But more likely, they wrote these songs to humiliate Henry Higgins, to show the audience that he’s a jerk and they know it.
And Eliza Doolittle has plenty of songs that demonstrate she is anything but a statue; after all, the entire musical is written largely from her perspective. By far the best is “Without You,” which is pretty much the Edwardian-showtune version of Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable:”
There’s also “Show Me” (where she tells her loser boyfriend Freddy that actions speak louder than words) and “Just You Wait” (where she fantasizes about leaving Henry Higgins for him to drown in the ocean while she goes to meet the King). Lerner and Loewe could easily have made Eliza into a love-sick ingenue, just by writing a few more songs like “I Could Have Danced All Night” (where she’s crushing on Higgins because they danced for a hot second, remember it’s 1912.) But they didn’t.
Of course, the whole Eliza-is-a-strong-woman argument gets compromised by the ending. Because after all her proclamations that she can “stand on her own,” Eliza comes back to Higgins. And when he asks “where the devil are my slippers?” she brings them to him. It’s an ending with the same ashy taste as the ending of Grease, because it seems incongruous: Eliza has no business being with Higgins, and it’s clear she’s independent-minded enough to know it.
Except, it’s 1912. And Eliza has no family connections, no money and no formal education, which means she has nowhere to go but back to the streets (or away with the insipid and financially dubious Freddy). She isn’t brainwashed or stupid — when given the choice between an emotionally abusive man and destitution, she chose the man. Choosing the man doesn’t make My Fair Lady a sexist movie; it makes it a movie about a sexist time.
Of course, 50 years later, there’s another version of My Fair Lady: Selfie, on ABC, is the newest to take up the Pygmalion mantel, when a male marketing exec “rebrands” a girl who has fouled up her social media presence. Let’s see how they do it without Lerner and Loewe.
Read TIME’s 1964 review of My Fair Lady, here in the archives: Still the Fairest of Them All