Pygmalion versus Reality Television

         Is twenty-first century reality television being based on an early twentieth century play? It seems as if producers and writers of reality television shows are taking the main plot of George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion, filmed in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and giving it their own personal twist to capitalize off the hottest fad in America right now.

         The main plot of Pygmalion is based on two men, Professor Higgins (Leslie Howard) and Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland), who are taking on the project of turning an ordinary Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) off the street into a fabulous woman whom they can pass off as rich and sophisticated. They are teaching her how to speak properly, dress and groom properly, and how to socialize with the rich. All this is to prove they can pass her off as a duchess before the Queen of Transylvania.

         The main plot of reality television shows is basically along the same lines. Shows like ABC's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, MTV's Becoming, or TLC's A Makeover Story all have plots where the chosen person is completely made-over, either to look better or resemble a certain person he or she admires. Although the chosen one may not learn how to speak properly as Eliza did, there is a multitude of creative substitutions.

         Queer Eye for the Straight Guy only does makeovers on men, but it is the same type of situation as Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering changing Eliza's whole demeanor. They teach the men how to dress, wear their hair, redecorate their bachelor pad, and even how to cook, thus trying to pass them off to their respective girlfriends, fiancées, etc. as "perfect men." Eliza was taught by Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins how to dress properly and while they were teaching her they promised that "the streets will be strewn with the bodies of men shooting themselves for your sake..." The goal of the five gay men on the show is to make the man irresistible to women, just as Eliza was supposed to be irresistible to men.

         Becoming gives the participants the chance to be made-over to look like their favorite rock or pop star. They also learn how to dance and lip-synch, and even make a music video. All this is done to try and pass them off as the stars in the respective videos. The audience should not be able to tell that it is not Brittany Spears or Justin Timberlake dancing and singing in the video. Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins teach Eliza how to speak just like a proper English woman by using phonetics and a great deal of speech practice. Their methods are very similar to the MTV crew teaching their participant to sing or lip-synch like the singer they are "becoming" by watching their previous videos and listening to their singing style over and over again.

         A Makeover Story has the goal of turning run-down, tired, and out-of-style people into hip and upbeat moms, friends, or students. Many of the makeover artists on this show want to change the styles of the chosen people so much that their friends and family will hardly recognize them. They are dressing them differently and styling and coloring their hair differently. In the end, there is always a party, and the makeover is presented. Everyone interviewed says that the persons who were made-over did not look the same. Once again, the persons are passed off as someone whom they are not. Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins had Mrs. Pearce order new and fashionable clothes for Eliza and demanded that her old clothes be burned. The actions of these two strongly resemble the actions of the designers on the show. There was also a final party in the play just like in the television show. The purpose of it was to pass Eliza off as someone she was not.

         There is a common goal inherent among all these shows that is ironically the same goal Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering have when taking on Eliza as their project. They wanted to pass her off as someone she really was not, and these three shows want to do the same thing with their "projects." I wonder how many of these writers and producers had to read Pygmalion in college? It seems as though the plot has certainly stayed in their minds.

Paige LeFan

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