My Fair Lady has its problems but I still idolise Eliza Doolittle

I have seen My Fair Lady an alarming number of times but never on stage. The musical is coming to the Coliseum in London and, when this was announced, I learned that Amara Okereke, who is playing Eliza Doolittle, is reported to have watched the film version more than 200 times. Now, it’s not a competition, but I reckon I’m up there with those sorts of numbers.

I’d not seen the film for years, as I did most of my watching in early childhood while I was being looked after by my grandma. Back then, grandmas weren’t armed with the same childcare tools. There was no on-demand kids’ TV, iPads or YouTube so she had to rely on the humble VHS to entertain a preschooler. She narrowed the suitability of her video collection down to a fairly small number of classic musicals. My Fair Lady was a weekly watch.

Other musicals in my gran’s collection included Carousel, Oklahoma! and Oliver! but My Fair Lady was my favourite. I reckon it could be because the female protagonist felt different from others of the era. Eliza is outspoken, noisy and funny, and transforms herself to become princess-like with real poise and beauty.

Eliza is not treated well by the male characters but as a younger person I don’t think the misogyny really registered. A child may not have a nuanced view on Professor Henry Higgins’s treatment of women but is more likely to really enjoy Eliza shouting “COME ON, DOVER! MOVE YOUR BLOOMIN’ ARSE!” Arse is simply a fantastic word for a female protagonist to shout, and that moment in the film is as joyful to me now as it was 30-odd years ago.

On a rewatch as an adult, it’s clear Higgins has contempt for all women, except, maybe, his mother. He is awful to Eliza and not much better to his housekeeper, Mrs Pearce. He sets out to dehumanise Eliza by calling her a “presumptuous insect” or a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe”. His treatment of her is horrendous, but the writer in me can’t help but enjoy his choice of words. It feels like the very definition of a guilty pleasure, to listen to a tirade of sexist insults that includes language such as: “You squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language.” You dislike him for how he treats her but he’s hugely entertaining as a wordsmith, and when he expresses himself through song, thanks to Rex Harrison’s performance you like him even more.

You want Eliza to succeed and to win, but I found myself also wanting Higgins and Colonel Pickering to go off into the sunset holding hands. The song Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? seems to me to emphasise that Pickering might be the perfect partner for Higgins, rather than that Eliza is not right for him, and you want them to live in a world where they could openly explore that.

As for the show’s conclusion, it would be satisfying if Higgins met with a grizzly end, as described in the revenge song Just You Wait. I don’t think modern audiences would want Eliza to end up with any of the male characters. You want a man for her who has the intellect of Higgins but the heart of her younger love interest, Freddy.

Freddy has one of the best numbers – The Street Where You Live – but you can understand why it’s a no from Eliza, because not even a cracking song can save you when you have the personality of a dishcloth. I think the future that modern audiences would want for Eliza would be for her to keep kicking her way through those class barriers and go it alone; she’s ready for it.

My Fair Lady is from an era of musicals that provoke valid discussion as to whether or not they should be revived, mostly because they do not conform to modern standards. I don’t think My Fair Lady quite falls into this category. Yes, it has its problematic bits, but I still think there’s good reason to revive it for years to come, and I look forward to finally seeing it on stage this summer.

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