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Femininity and Gender Roles Theme Analysis

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Femininity and Gender Roles Theme Icon
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Femininity and Gender Roles Theme Icon

The title of Shaw's play is taken from the myth of Pygmalion. In this story, Pygmalion scorns all the women around him and makes a sculpture of his ideal woman. The sculpture is so beautiful that he falls in love with it and it comes to life. By titling his play after this story, Shaw calls attention to questions of femininity and gender. As Pygmalion sculpts his ideal woman, so Higgins and Pickering mold Eliza into an ideal lady. These two narratives show how unrealistic and even unnatural the expectations that society often has for women are. Pygmalion's perfect woman can only be attained with an artificial construct, a sculpture. Similarly, the ideal noble lady of British society in the world of Shaw's play is a kind of fake, only a role that Eliza must learn to play. Pygmalion can thus be seen as showing how oppressive unrealistic ideals of femininity can be: to attain these ideals, Eliza has to be coached, disciplined, and taught. She has to pretend to be someone other than who she really is.

The play further explores gender roles with its other female characters. As it is set in the early 20th century, before women gained many basic rights and privileges, the play's other female characters—Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins—are largely confined to their respective households. Nonetheless, they both play important roles. Mrs. Pearce ensures the functioning of Higgins' household and reminds him of his own manners. And Mrs. Higgins takes Eliza in when she leaves Higgins and Pickering, and helps resolve things at the play's conclusion. These two characters thus demonstrate how women might still exert some agency within an oppressive Victorian society. But despite any redeeming aspects to women's roles in the world of the play, they ultimately cannot escape the constraints of their sexist world. At the end of the play, Eliza must choose between living with Higgins, living with her father, or marrying Freddy. In any case, her future can only be under the control of a man of some sort. She tells Higgins that she desires independence, but—although she is a strong character—we never see her actually obtain her independence in the play. Eliza is greatly transformed over the course of the play, but it would take even greater transformations of society itself in the 20th century for women like Eliza to have real independence.

Femininity and Gender Roles ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Femininity and Gender Roles appears in each act of Pygmalion. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Femininity and Gender Roles Quotes in Pygmalion

Below you will find the important quotes in Pygmalion related to the theme of Femininity and Gender Roles.
Act 2 Quotes

A young woman! What does she want?
Well, sir, she says you'll be glad to see her when you know what she's come about. She's quite a common girl, sir. Very common indeed.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Mrs. Pearce (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The next day, Henry Higgins shows Colonel Pickering around his linguistic laboratory. As the tour completes, Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' housekeeper, comes to tell him that a "common" young woman is at the door and would like to see him. Immediately, the reader/audience knows that it is Eliza.

This quote is telling of how Higgins' prejudice against "common" people is indicative of all of Victorian society, though it is rather extreme in his case. Mrs. Pearce, though lower class than her employer, is still of a higher class than Eliza, and she, too, looks down upon the "common" girl. This shows a hierarchy of classes where all that one requires to look down upon others is to be at least one social rung above. However, it is also telling that Mrs. Pearce will not refer to her as "lower class," but rather, as "common," suggesting that most of society is of this lower class, and to be uncommon is to be part of a special, unique sector of society. 


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I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance. I find that the moment I let myself make friends with a woman, I become selfish and tyrannical. Women upset everything.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

After Mrs. Pearce takes Eliza away to for a bath and new clothing, Pickering asks Higgins about his relationships with women. In this quote, Higgins replies that he does not like to be friends with women for a variety of misogynistic reasons. Though Victorian society was notoriously sexist, with strict gender roles for men and women, Higgins is particularly rude when it comes to his ideas about women. Here, he complains that women whom he is friends with inevitably become infatuated with him, thus forcing him to become "selfish and tyrannical."

Of course, Higgins' rudeness and generally unpleasant demeanor are nobody's fault except his own. Though Higgins utters this statement to prove that his relationship with Eliza will remain purely pedagogical (that of teacher and student), it further reveals his sexist views and helps to explain why he is rudest, in particular, to a young lower-class woman like Eliza. 

Then might I ask you not to come down to breakfast in your dressing-gown, or at any rate not to use it as a napkin to the extent you do, sir. And if you would be so good as not to eat everything off the same plate, and to remember not to put the porridge saucepan out of your hand on the clean tablecloth, it would be a better example to the girl.

Related Characters: Mrs. Pearce (speaker), Henry Higgins
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

After taking Eliza away to wash up and change, Mrs. Pearce comes back into Higgins' study to ask him to promise not to practice some of his bad habits in Eliza's presence.

Higgins, a "confirmed old bachelor," has lived along with just Mrs. Pearce for years, and as a result, has acquired a number of habits, such as walking around in his pajamas and cursing, that the housekeeper does not believe are suitable for a young woman (particularly one to whom Higgins is supposedly going to give elocution and etiquette lessons). Given Higgins' classist and sexist views, it is ironic that his housekeeper, a woman and a member of a lower class, is reprimanding him for his manners. Here Mrs. Pearce acts as a foil to Higgins' ego--though he talks a big game, he requires Mrs. Pearce's care to live his day-to-day life, and he often acts immaturely, despite his supposedly upper class etiquette. Mrs. Pearce reveals his true habits when no one is looking, thus confirming them as his hypocrisies.

This sentiment is similar to Higgins' hope to pass Eliza off as a noblewoman, not actually make her into a genuine member of the upper class: class is all about how one hopes to be perceived, not how they truly are as a human being. For all of her faults, Eliza is true to herself, whereas Higgins' pretension is almost entirely an act. 

Is this reasonable? Is it fairity to take advantage of a man like this? The girl belongs to me.

Related Characters: Alfred Doolittle (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, storms into Higgins' house, demanding to know where his daughter is. He claims to have not seen her for two months, and accuses Higgins of taking his daughter away from him. However, when Higgins dismisses his claims and says he can take Eliza back, Doolittle is shocked at his passivity. In this quote, he presses on, insisting that Higgins is being entirely unreasonable by keeping Eliza away from him. 

This quote is further evidence of Eliza's situation as a girl who is now to be "kept" by Higgins, and who has previously "belonged" to her father. Both men see her as a kind of property, one to be traded and bartered and used as a kind of commodity. Here, neither Higgins nor Doolittle treat Eliza as an actual human being with feelings. Their lack of empathy for Eliza is indicative of Victorian misogyny, and the treatment of women by men and patriarchal structures in general. Higgins' treatment of Eliza is, sadly, less appalling when the reader sees how her father treats her--she is used to being ordered around by an older man. Though she is between a rock and a hard place in terms of male guardians, at least remaining in Higgins' care will allow her a glimmer of hope for a better life. 

Act 3 Quotes

I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women: some habits lie too deep to be changed. [Rising abruptly and walking about, jingling his money and his keys in his trouser pockets] Besides, they're all idiots.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry visits his mother on a day she is scheduled to entertain other visitors. He asks that she allow Eliza to join in on the visit, to test how she interacts in a group of strangers. Hearing about a girl, Mrs. Higgins suddenly becomes interested, and she asks her son if this young woman is a romantic interest of his. 

In this quote, Higgins immediately dismisses any idea that Eliza is a potential romantic partner. He, according to his mother, never falls in love with anyone under "forty-five," likely because he has an intense disdain for immaturity and naivety. Ironically, he claims that "some habits lie too deep to be changed," although changing habits is exactly at the root of his experiment with Eliza. Higgins believes that he is a singular creature, immune to all of the fallacy of human beings, particularly those that he believes "afflict" women. His prejudices therefore maintain his status as a bachelor. 

You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll.

Related Characters: Mrs. Higgins (speaker), Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

After the guests leave, Mrs. Higgins grills Pickering and her son as to their true intentions for Eliza. When they explain their project and bet, Mrs. Higgins is horrified and points out the fallacies in their experimental design: Eliza is a human, and she will continue to live a life after the project is over. 

In this quote, Mrs. Higgins points out that the two men are acting like children delighting over the intricacies of their "live doll." When children play with a doll, they manipulate its movements and perhaps make up what it says, but they don't actually believe that the doll has a mind of its own. This is how Pickering and Higgins approach Eliza: as a toy for their amusement, without consulting her on her own beliefs and thoughts, because it has never occurred to them that she has any. Their project, though supposedly intended for real-world application, ultimately lives in the world of academia, especially since they have not thought of what to do with Eliza when she succeeds, or doesn't, at the garden party. This lack of foresight is what truly makes their experiment and actions immature. 

Act 5 Quotes

Nonsense! He can't provide for her. He shan't provide for her. She doesn't belong to him. I paid him five pounds for her.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Eliza Doolittle, Alfred Doolittle
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:

After hearing of Doolittle's newfound wealth, Mrs. Higgins suggests that he can now support Eliza. In this quote, Higgins replies that this is nonsense, since he technically "bought" Eliza for five pounds at the beginning of the experiment.

Despite Eliza's protests, and Mrs. Higgins' reprimands, Higgins still believes that Eliza, as an entity, is entirely indebted to his expertise and generosity. He has never worried about what will happen to her because he simply expected her to continue existing alongside him: he never states that he is fond of her, but merely that he has "grown accustomed" to her presence in his life. Like his different phonetics equipments and academic books, Higgins hopes to "collect" Eliza and keep her alongside him, as evidence of his success and brilliance. He continues to fail to comprehend that she is a separate human being with her own wants and desires, and flippantly expects her to truly remain on Wimpole Street because he gave her food and clothing, and paid her father five pounds. Higgins, as Shaw comments, is "incorrigible" and stubbornly believes that what he thinks is pure truth, and will never accept that he is less than the smartest person in the room, despite loud cries towards the contrary. 

She had become attached to you both. She worked very hard for you, Henry! I don't think you quite realize what anything in the nature of brain work means to a girl like that. Well, it seems that when the great day of trial came, and she did this wonderful thing for you without making a single mistake, you two sat there and never said a word to her, but talked together of how glad you were that it was all over and how you had been bored with the whole thing. And then you were surprised because she threw your slippers at you!

Related Characters: Mrs. Higgins (speaker), Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

After storming out of Higgins' house, Eliza goes to Mrs. Higgins to spend the night and relate her woes from Wimpole Street. In this quote, Mrs. Higgins explains to her son all the ways he has failed his protégé. 

Higgins' views of wealth and class meant that he felt that his work on Eliza was very generous, and that it was he who succeeded at the garden party, not her--similar to the way he would have been proud of himself for publishing an academic paper, not for the paper due to its personal achievements. Eliza, however, is a human being, and feels that her own achievements have been completely ignored. Everyone besides Pickering, it appears, sees very clearly how poorly Higgins has treated Eliza, including his own mother. Higgins' disdain for young women meant that though he worked with Eliza, he never truly got to know her, since he didn't feel like she was worth it. Yet when she became angry at him, he felt very hurt, since he had assumed she felt fondly for him and grateful for his "service." Higgins can almost, but not quite, be forgiven for his behavior, since he is completely ignorant of how his actions and words affect others. However, his refusal to believe other people when they tell him he has misbehaved qualifies Shaw's statement that the character he has created is utterly "incorrigible." 

Liza: Freddy loves me: that makes him king enough for me. I don't want him to work: he wasn't brought up to it as I was. 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.

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Henry Higgins (speaker)
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

Eliza and Higgins continue to bicker about their mutual woes regarding their time together, and Eliza argues that she's not so dependent on Higgins as to be stuck with him, and reveals her plan to marry Freddy and teach to support him. Higgins scoffs at the notion, mocking both the idea that Eliza would work at all and the idea that she might have any knowledge that she could teach to others. 

Eliza has at least learned one good thing beyond proper phonetics: she has learned that she deserves better than what she has received from Higgins. To try and make her own way in the world, she decides, is worth the struggle, rather than remaining in the lap of luxury and guarded by a pretentious man who does not respect her intelligence and emotions. Ultimately, Eliza is successful in the experiment beyond Higgins' imagination – she has both presented herself as, and become, a superior moral being than when she first arrived at Wimpole Street. Yet Higgins' own intellectual, moral, and emotional shortcomings (and his own failure to develop them even as Eliza has developed hers) failed to foresee that this transformation would come along with greater goals and expectations for Eliza and the people around her. Thus, Eliza leaves both Higgins and her old life behind her, in the hopes of finding someone who loves and respects her for who she is, inside and out, and to teach others phonetics, though with far more kindness than she received from her own instructor.