Eliza: The Misunderstood Victim

     After watching the 1964 film My Fair Lady, which was directed by George Cukor and is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion, one may be left with a sense of dismay or disbelief. Eliza's (Audrey Hepburn) returning to Higgins (Rex Harrison) in the end seems to completely undermine the sense of independence and strong will that is a vital part of who she is. I have found one reason that might explain why, after the terrible way she was treated, she went back to Higgins. He was very abusive, which, consequently tore down her self-esteem and made her more dependent on him. As strange as some of the following forms of abuse may sound to some people, they are all known characteristics of an abusive relationship; they can help one understand why Eliza did return to Higgins.

     One of the most basic and psychologically damaging forms of abuse is deprivation. When Eliza starts her lessons, Higgins employs these tactics to get her to do what he wants: sleep deprivation, food deprivation, and withholding affection. By controlling basically every moment of her life; he mentally and physically exhausts her until she learns how to pronounce vowels and "h's" like a "lady." He uses his control over her life to get her to do what he wants, with no real regard for her mental or physical state.

     Another tactic that Higgins utilizes to assure his control of Eliza is the threat of physical abuse. When he first decides to accept Colonel Pickering's (Wilfred Hyde-White) bet, he warns Eliza of the consequences for not doing what she is told, such as not studying as diligently as he expects. He tells her that she will sleep with the beetles, be "walloped" by Mrs. Pearce (Mona Washburn) and that, if she does not succeed in fooling the King after six months of studying, she will have her head cut off. He treats her more like a child than a grown women. While she does want to be a "lady," her dream has turned into a nightmare--she fears what will happen if she does not live up to Higgins' standards.

     From the moment Eliza met Higgins he made derogatory comments about who she is and where she comes from; he even tells her she has no right to live due to her heritage and Cockney accent. Phrases such as "squashed cabbage leaf" and "ungrateful gutter snipe" are so easily uttered by Higgins without any concern for Eliza as a human being. This damages her self-esteem and leads her to want his approval to the point that, at times, she forgets who she really is inside. His over-exaggeration of the way that women act and react in various situations has a negative psychological effect on Eliza. Her father had, at times, referred to her as a burden and a possession. Ironically, Higgins is guilty of making similar remarks. It had been ingrained in her mind that women are second-class citizens; to the point that she began to truly doubt her self-worth.

     Eliza's return to Higgins is not as mysterious as it may appear at first. She is used to the way Higgins treats her; she may even believe it is normal for an upper-class woman to be treated this way by a man. While she does yearn for kindness, the truth is, her father also treated her this way; to some extent, she is used to it. This does not mean she likes being abused. The truth is, like many women who end up feeling trapped in an abusive relationship, her self-esteem was being crushed by a magnitude of cruelty mixed with just enough moments of kindness to keep her devastated and confused. So when one thinks about Eliza Doolittle and the happy Hollywood-ending of her returning to Higgins, do not blame Eliza; she is merely the victim searching for compassion, affection and her lost dignity.

Lisa Manners

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