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Compare/contrast the Treatment of Femininity in Pygmalion and Medea

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Historically, the treatment of femininity in literature is wide ranging. Some texts explore the feelings and responsibilities involved with typically feminine traits such as motherhood and in social environments, while others highlight more feminist issues such as the struggle for equality and male oppression. Authors of both sexes have made major contributions to this area in literature but it remains surprising that male writers have been able to perceptively portray women above their previously subordinate positions in society.

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, we see the main character, Eliza Doolittle transformed from an ill-mannered Cockney flower girl into a high society debutante with the help of some elocution lessons provided by Mr Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics and financed by his well-travelled friend, Colonel Pickering. Higgins expects that he can teach Eliza enough in the matters of etiquette to ‘pass (her) off as the Queen of Sheba’ (Shaw, pg 18) and in the space of three months. He believes that he can do this merely by teaching her to speak ‘properly’ but is unaware of her independent nature and is ill prepared for what lies ahead.

In the opening act, when Higgins finds her in Convent Garden, Shaw portrays Eliza as unfeminine and outspoken, if not somewhat rude and this is in sharp contrast to the ladies, Clara Eynsford-Hill and her mother, who are waiting in the rain expectant that Clara’s brother, Freddy, will do his ‘duty’ and provide them with a taxi. They are quite disgusted by Eliza’s attitude and Mrs Eynsford-Hill is obviously horrified to think that her son may know Eliza when she calls him by his name.

Eliza has a good moralistic attitude and this is highlighted when a bystander informs her that a man is taking notes of her conversation with the Colonel, ‘they’ll take away my character’ (Shaw pg13) Eliza exclaims, worried that she has been mistaken for a prostitute. She sees that others tend to have a low opinion of her because of her origins but she is very ambitious, with her dreams of owning a flower shop and sees herself as strong and self-sufficient , so when Higgins announces his address to the Colonel, she takes it upon herself to go to his house and ask whether she can pay him for elocution lessons. She wishes to better herself and tries to mobilise socially to achieve this. When Eliza’s father arrives at the house, Shaw succeeds in showing that women at that time were seen as property, with Doolittle ‘selling’ his daughter to Higgins for a measly five pounds.

Shaw was a feminist and uses Higgins to highlight the chauvinistic qualities that most men possessed at that time. Higgins bullies Eliza into submission and is not shy about doing so in company, calling her a ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ (Shaw pg18), he also humiliates her, ‘A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere’ (Shaw pg18). Higgins strips Eliza of her own identity, providing her with new clothing and destroying her own items but Eliza uses all of this to her advantage and is a good student for the professor .

Later on in the play Eliza confides in Colonel Pickering that she believes that it is the way a woman is treated that makes her feel like a lady and not the way a lady behaves and so, although Higgins has taught her how to sound like a lady, it is the Colonel himself that has made her feel like one because of his treatment of her throughout.

Her determination pushes Eliza further, but the constant intimidation from Higgins creates a great deal of tension culminating with an action that surmises Shaw’s opinion of the oppression of women. During an argument in Act Four, after Eliza hears Higgins explain that he is glad the experiment is over because ‘the whole thing has been a bore’ (Shaw pg75) she throws Higgins’ slippers at him and this reflects Shaw’s defiance of the male expectation that women should look after men, bringing their slippers to them at the end of the day.

Perhaps the most striking part of this supposedly ‘romantic’ text is that the hero and heroine part company at the end. This is because Shaw did not want the traditional ‘Cinderella’ ending to the story as feminists see marriage as a completely patriarchal institution that further dominates women.ь If Eliza had married Higgins, he would probably have expected her to play the part of the doting wife but Eliza has transformed herself from a helpless girl to a very independent woman and does not wish for this kind of life. Her alternative, Freddy, although perhaps a little dim for Eliza, is kind and would not treat her as subordinate .

In Euripides play, the main character has already undergone a transformation but this time she has changed from being Medea, the queen and mother, instead taking on a more masculine and at times,

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