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Female Metamorphosis in ‘Poor Things’, ‘Pretty Woman’, and Other Films Inspired By George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’

by Oana-Maria Moldovan and Emily Duff

When looking for love, most of us have a ‘checklist’ of ideals; an idea of the type of traits we’re looking for. 

But, have you ever tried to actually create your perfect partner? I mean it in the peculiar, Frankenstein-esque manner similar to the recent Emma Stone release, Poor Things. 

Some individuals, particularly men, have ventured into this territory, giving rise to an entire artistic genre in the last few centuries.

This premise of unsettling transformation narratives derive originally a Greek myth that came from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses, written during the Roman era. 

The myth revolves around a sculptor named Pygmalion who lived on the island of Cyprus. He was known as a talented and gifted artist but had a deep aversion to the flaws and imperfections he perceived in real women.

Pygmalion decided to craft a sculpture of his ideal woman. The result was Galatea, a statue of breathtaking beauty. Pygmalion was so enchanted by his creation that he found himself falling deeply in love with the statue. 

He prayed to the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, during the festival of Venus (Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart) and asked for a wife who would resemble his ivory invention.

Aphrodite, moved by Pygmalion’s sincere love and devotion, granted his wish. When Pygmalion returned to his home, he found that the statue had come to life and transformed into a living woman. This woman was Galatea, now a real and flesh-and-blood embodiment of Pygmalion’s idealized beauty.

In 1913, the story of Pygmalion became a play of the same name by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. 

His tale, following the mythical figures story, follows Professor Henry Higgins who undertakes the task of altering an unrefined flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a sophisticated lady capable of navigating high society.

Bernard Shaw’s timeless play has since served as a rich source of inspiration for various artistic endeavours across literature, theater, and, for the last two centuries, cinema.

In fact, the first cinema interpretation of this myth was My Fair Lady in 1964. The musical delves into the rigid class distinctions of early 20th-century England, emphasising how one’s language and manners can shape perceptions of social status. Although coming over 50 years later, the movie is actually very close and accurate to the source material.

While Audrey Hepburn was the first to play the role of Eliza Doolittle, she wasn’t the last. Others who shared the role include RomCom sweetheart, Julia Roberts. 

Right at the beginning of the period where classic literature became films, mainly in the form of RomComs, came Pretty Women, directed by Garry Marshall in 1990.

In the glittering landscape of Hollywood, Pretty Woman emerged as a cinematic ode to love, metamorphosis, and societal defiance. Or did it?

Drawing inspiration from George Bernard Shaw’s infamous play, Pygmalion, the ‘90s classic presents a modern twist on the age-old theme of metamorphosis. 

While the setting may have been modern, the views about women were still just as bad.

At the heart of Pretty Woman is Vivian Ward, brilliantly portrayed by Julia Roberts. A denizen of Hollywood Boulevard’s gritty streets, Vivian’s journey mirrors that of Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle – in a way. 

Beverly Hills becomes the backdrop for a tale that challenges class norms. Vivian, a vivacious and street-smart sex worker, finds herself entangled with Edward Lewis, a wealthy businessman portrayed by Richard Gere.

The film’s romantic dynamics draw parallels to the evolving relationship between Higgins and Eliza: the creator and its creation.

A false feeling of empowerment takes center stage in this Hollywood fairy tale. Vivian’s transformation seems to go beyond refined manners; the filmmakers want us to almost believe that she gains financial independence and self-confidence, shattering societal expectations. But it’s not that simple.

Vivian, at the end of the movie, is still dependent on someone to take care of her financially. The film’s conclusion sees Vivian thinking she now knows her strength, marking a departure from the ambiguity of Bernard Shaw’s writings.

In the bustling streets of Hollywood Boulevard and the opulent stores of Rodeo Drive, Pretty Woman unfolds as a modern and misogynistic myth where we, the audience, are expected to believe love triumphs over societal norms.

It’s undeniable that Pretty Woman is a funny escape from reality. But whilst the genre targets women, it’s made more for the male gaze than anything else. 

As men still grappled with woman being independent, a vast change from 1950s expectations, Pretty Woman seems focused on the idea that if you get yourself a woman in need of money and housing, you can just alter her into your ideal partner.

A few years later, based in the landscape of high school dynamics, She’s All That was produced as a modern rendition of Bernard Shaw’s text. 

This 1999 teen romantic comedy, directed by Robert Iscove, weaves a contemporary narrative around themes of changing one’s appearance, social expectations, and the unexpected twists of love.

In the middle of She’s All That is Laney Boggs, portrayed by Rachael Leigh Cook. Much like Eliza Doolittle, and Vivian Ward, Laney begins as a socially awkward art student, setting the stage for her make-over journey, some heartbreaks, a douchebag pretend boyfriend, and idiotic classmates.

The setting shifts from Edwardian England to teenage classrooms, where Zack Siler, played by Freddie Prinze Jr., undertakes the challenge of turning Laney into a prom queen for a bet he made with his friends. 

The narrative wants – and fails – to challenge social hierarchies and the preconceived notions of popularity, mirroring the class struggles in Bernard Shaw’s play.

Romantic dynamics take center stage as Laney navigates the complexities of a, although fake, high school romance, where Zack and Laney’s relationship becomes a focal point.

False empowerment, a theme integral to Bernard Shaw’s exploration, finds a place once again in She’s All That.

Laney’s transformation is bad. There is no other complicated word to describe it. Hence where we get the cliché of taking the glasses of a girl to make her look pretty.

Like many other artistic girls in movies that came before her (Allison Reynolds from The Breakfast Club and Andie Walsh from Pretty in Pink), Laney is also expected to change her “strange” appearance to seem more fit – or beautiful – for society. And, as the film will tell you, all that will also help her in her artistic career.

It’s a funny enough movie when we don’t actually have to think of what it means, that is – as much as it can be – quite accurate to its play counterpart.

Interestingly enough, not all adaptations of Bernard Shaw’s work portrayed the idea of changing one’s self as a misogynistic act.

Amid a sea of problematic interpretations, there are glimmers of hope. The 1987 – yes, even before Pretty Woman – movie Can’t Buy Me Love directed by Steve Rash, and its 2003 remake Love Don’t Cost a Thing directed by Troy Beyer are not so well-known films that took the original text, reversed the genders of the characters and did something else entirely.

Both movies end with the couples realising that they never needed to change something about themselves to be worthy of love. 

More so, the creators (the two female leads) learn that it was wrong to even want to alter the creations (the male leads). This is a fine example of how we can use modern understanding of relationships and mortality to take classic literature and change the things that are problematic in it.

Another well-done interpretation – and this is a favourite of mine – is the 2001 film The Princess Diaries

Mia Thermopolis is the films protagonist, played by Anne Hathaway, who undergoes a transformative journey from an awkward teenager to a poised young lady after finding out she is a princess. 

Her grandma takes the role of more of a mentor than a creator, helping Mia become who she was destined to be by teaching her not only how to curl her hair but also how to be nice, compassionate, and gentle.

The best part? Mia never needed to change anything about her for the boy to like her, he was fond of her even before she took her glasses off.

While there are too many movies like this to count them – I did, they are over a dozen – we’ll dive into one of the newest ones. 

The 2015 movie The Duff, based on a book with the same name by Kody Keplinger, and directed by Ari Sandel. At first glance, it seems like the story will go just as we were used to: the pretty girl who dresses ugly changes at the whim of a strong and wealthy man in order to become his ideal type.

However, when the audiences find out that that is not how this tale will go, it becomes a total, somewhat cringey, blast. 

Bianca, played by Mae Whitman, the main focus of the film, just like Mia Thermopolis did before her, finds out that she doesn’t actually want the guy she was supposed to change for. 

And yes, she does end up with the jock that “created” her look, but she would have, without him, anyway. The makeover process of this film was just a reason for the two main characters to spend time together, and she picks out the her outfit. 

Finally comes the most recent screen adaptation, Poor Things, based on of the 1992 text of the same name by Alasdair Gray. Starring Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, a pregnant woman who committed suicide only for Godwin Baxter, unsubtly called “God” by Bella, to find her and reanimate her with her baby’s brain in place of her own, the story draws inspiration from different genres across literature. 

While there are many ways of interpreting Gray’s text, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film takes a self-proclaimed feminist approach, altering the ending and highlighting Baxter’s journey to self discovery and maintaining sexual liberation in a culture that looks down on it. 

As a recent release, we’ll avoid any spoilers, but the fantasy come black comedy movie is certainly worth a watch, causing many debates and discussions online from questions of the “sexy baby” trope to modern understandings of sexual liberation in an age of OnlyFans. 

When considering Bernard Shaw’s impact in the story, travel and bodily experimentation are the focus rather than the control of men. 

As Pretty Woman sees Vivan change as a result of Edward and My Fair Lady shows Eliza develop due to Henry, Bella’s changes in Poor Things, while influenced by men, come at both her own whim and an amalgamation of different men’s perspectives and experiences. 

Most notably, sex plays a key role in shaping Baxter’s self-discovery and ‘metamorphosis’ from a child to a woman, with the scientists aware of her rapid rate of development, visually represented by her extremely long and ever growing hair. 

Although arguing the movie is a feminist take on Bernard Shaw’s work, by having sex at the forefront, although a choice made only by Baxter, does Poor Things try to argue that sexual freedom is a key focus on liberation or is it simply portraying the sexualisation of feminism? 

While there’s no linear understanding of any adaptation, from children’s tales like The Princess Diaries to explicit films like Poor Things, through the evolving tapestry of romance on the big screen, it becomes evident that the power to redefine narratives lies in the hands of creators. 

By challenging outdated tropes and offering alternative perspectives, filmmakers can contribute to a cinematic landscape that celebrates authenticity, individuality, and true empowerment, steering away from the unsettling shadows of Pygmalion’s legacy.

Edited by Emily Duff

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