Unshelved: The Power of Speech in Pygmalion

Unshelved: The Power of Speech in Pygmalion

By:
06/15/2018

So I clearly had a lot of thoughts about Pygmalion. In another article, I wrote about whether I consider Eliza Doolittle to be a feminist role model. But now I want to talk about the politicization of speech and the imposition of behavioral constraints in this novel.

Speech plays an essential role in Pygmalion. Eliza, the main female protagonist, has aspirations of working in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street corner, but she can’t get a job like that unless she can talk more properly. She speaks with a heavy accent that supposedly reflects her lack of education.

Higgins directly insults Eliza’s way of speaking, marveling at its strange coarseness. By doing so, he brings attention to the social and economic barriers imposed by a lack of education. He directly states that, by talking in her uneducated way, she won’t get anywhere in life. Because he can talk “properly,” he believes he has something to offer her, something to teach her.

While he unabashedly draws attention to this problem, his “solution” is not to condemn and work against the systems that privilege one mode of speaking over another. Instead, he teaches Eliza how to be proper, using her as a tool to prove his own skills in linguistics. He exists within the academic establishment, a leader in his field, so he does have the power to influence the way society views different speech patterns. But rather than doing that, he chooses to highlight his own capabilities through Eliza.  

Higgins was very tempted by the challenge of training Eliza: “‘It’s irresistible,’ he said. ‘She’s so low and dirty,’” showing an uncomfortable and obvious exotification of Eliza because of her lower-class status. Higgins almost gets off on the imperial idea of exercising total power over her, conquering and recreating her in his own “proper” image.

Even Higgins’ mother remarks, “You certainly do like to play with your living doll.” Higgins responds, “I’m hardly playing, Mother. This is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. It is extremely interesting to take a human being and change her into a whole new person by creating new speech for her.”

Throughout the book, Higgins imposes behavioral conventions upon her such as using a handkerchief instead of her sleeve to wipe her face. He is also successful in moulding her speech patterns into “proper” English, teaching her how to dress and behave respectably.

But all the while, Higgins has his own bad and inappropriate habits. His maid makes a point of telling him not to swear around Eliza, not to eat breakfast in his robe while Eliza lives in his house, and not to wipe his fingers on his sleeves. So he’s by no means a perfect role model either. His own mother doesn’t want him at her parties because he offends all the guests. He causes social spectacles frequently with his rude outbursts, clumsiness, and inappropriately blunt comments.

So why does he teach Eliza how to behave if he doesn’t even ascribe to his society’s behavioral conventions? He clearly places no personal value on them, so what gives him the right to impose them on her?

When Eliza has her transformative makeover, which really constitutes just an aggressive bath, her descent down the staircase into Higgins’s living room is reminiscent of the famous scene in She’s All That (1999). Or, I guess, the She’s All That scene is reminiscent of this one. She’s now a beautiful and dainty girl, transformed by the power of soap.

As a result of Higgins’ lessons, Eliza makes a great impression on high society, beautiful, distinct, and charming. She has achieved social approval through Higgins’ machinations, now speaking with perfect tone and pronunciation.

But then, she’s left in the in-between, too fancy to fit back into her old neighborhood, but without the income correspondent with her new manners.

When asked what Eliza is supposed to do after the experiment is over, Higgins expresses multiple times that he doesn’t really care or that she’ll figure it out, prompting Pickering to ask, “Does it occur to you that she has feelings?” But he still replies that her future is not his concern.

“If only I could go back to my flower basket and my old life. Why did I let you take my independence from me?” exclaims Eliza.

Here, the novel confronts an interesting dynamic present in modern society: the influence of education on social acceptance.

It’s commonly known that, completely unfair as it is, if you use slang you’re often taken less seriously, particularly in academic settings. Educationism describes the implicit bias of educated people against the less educated, which often corresponds to income.

According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, higher educated people show education-based bias, holding more negative attitudes toward less educated people than highly educated people. Also, less educated people are seen as more blameworthy for their situation than both the poor and the working class. This has led to less educated people holding negative views about their own education levels.

And speech is often, fairly or unfairly, connected to education level. So-called improper speech often produces severe judgments against people. For example, during the George Zimmerman trial, witness Rachel Jeantel was heavily criticized for the way she spoke on the stand. On talk shows and social media, people condemned her slurred speech and poor grammar. A juror even told Anderson Cooper that “Jeantel wasn’t a credible witness in part because of the way she spoke.” This demonstrates a concrete ramification of bias against people for their modes of speaking.

In American society, people who don’t subscribe exactly to “Standard American English,” instead using words like “ain’t” or double negatives, face shaming and condemnation. We also often infantilize immigrants with accents, believing them to be less intelligent simply because of the way they speak, despite the fact that English may be their second language. As such, immigrants with accents face ridicule, hostility, or exclusion, sometimes resorting to speech lessons to reduce this bias. And even further, this speech-related bias can be racist as well, with bias only expressed against Asian or Latin American immigrants, while French or Italian accents are romanticized.

While the bias against Eliza in Pygmalion is not racially motivated, it definitely demonstrates education bias. And more strikingly, it’s not clear where George Bernard Shaw falls on all of this. Does he think it’s ridiculous that Eliza should have to be taught to conform to be accepted in high society? Or, contrastingly, because of the success he ascribes to it, does he advocate for the benefits of “proper” speech and mannerisms? I think a clearer point needed to be made on his part, especially on an issue with such far-reaching societal consequences. I know his book isn’t an opinion piece, but children’s books transmit essential information to highly susceptible minds. We need to think more carefully about what messages we convey to children and how we convey them.

Image Credits: Sienna Brancato

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Sienna Brancato


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