Where the devil are my slippers?

I had an epiphany the other night. Many classic musicals have a not-so-hidden subtext about gender roles and power. Consider the three most popular shows by Rodgers & Hammerstein:
“The King and I”: Lower-status woman falls for a higher-status wealthy older man.
“The Sound of Music”: Lower-status woman falls for a higher-status wealthy older man.
“South Pacific”: Lower-status woman falls for a higher-status wealthy older man.

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Of course if you prefer Lerner & Loewe, you could always try the classic “My Fair Lady”, or perhaps “Gigi”: Lower-status woman…

…you get the idea.
Is this a big coincidence, or is the enduring popularity of these films and shows premised on the fact that they endorse the customary sex roles? Are they loved by women and men not in spite of their traditional romantic love arrangements, but because of them?

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None of the heroines in these shows are pushovers. They are all, to varying degrees, “spunky” intelligent women who have plans for their lives quite different than where they end up. And they all are eventually successfully wooed by dominant men.

“My Fair Lady” is a special case. It has the structure of a romance, but for most of the work, the protagonists openly loathe each other. Higgins is possibly cinema’s most charming misogynist: he has no fewer than two songs devoted to explaining how horrible women are:

Why is thinking something women never do?

And why is logic never even tried?

Straightening up their hair is all they ever do.

Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside?

Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through,

she’ll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome,

and then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you…

At the end of it all, the most romantic thing Higgins can think of to say about Eliza is that he’s grown accustomed to her face. (Well gee, thanks for that.). And Eliza’s motivation for returning is more opaque still. She has a shot with the cute if somewhat foppish Freddy Eynsford-Hill (a “beta” male, to use the trendy parlance.) She could have a perfectly nice bourgeois life with him. He adores her. And yet, she returns to the man who has essentially created her new persona. Higgins may be a pompous alpha shit, but he understands the new Eliza better than anyone, because she is him. Albeit in much, much nicer clothes.

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What do you all think?

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18 comments

  1. cabrogal

    I’m no fan of romcoms or mainstream musicals and have seen none of those shows – though naturally I have a passing familiarity with their characters and plots.

    But one thing I can say is that in Thailand ‘The King and I’ is not seen as “lower-status woman falls for a higher-status wealthy older man” but rather as a patronising, colonialist, racist piece of Western propaganda that heaps disrespect upon their most beloved and respected historical monarch.

    They see the governess as the clever, dominant, high status farang who patronises (matronises?) a stupid caricature of their king (who looked nothing like Yul Brynner BTW).

    I believe it is still banned there under lese-majeste laws, so probably very few Thais have even seen it.

  2. cabrogal

    Oh, BTW, I spent a lot of time on ‘Bali Hai’ (Pulau Tioman) in the 80s and 90s and highly recommend it.
    It really is an island paradise.
    And you don’t even have to put up with overblown, treacly song and dance numbers while you’re there, which is fortunate as there is no volcano to throw the singers into.

  3. Sasha

    Certainly TKAI is a romanticised view of their relationship as filtered through a very Western view of male/female relations. I don’t know about colonialist though. I don’t find it disrespectful to the king at all. It shows him as a powerful autocratic monarch with definite views of the status of women and slaves, who comes to change his mind. Maybe I’m too white to read the subtext but I can’t see how that is racist.

    • cabrogal

      I haven’t seen TKAI so its hard for me to comment, but I know that King Mongkut is seen as the epitomy of wisdom by Thais.
      He is credited with modernising Thailand while very ably playing European colonialist powers off against each other (although the French stole Laos and parts of Cambodia from Thailand it is the only SE Asian country that was never colonised – thanks to Mongkut).

      The idea that he would have been ‘modernised’ or ‘enlightened’ by a governess hired to teach his children is an anathema to Thais and that Westerners would make a movie suggesting it is seen as colonialist propaganda. The governess was employed because Mongkut was a moderniser, not visa versa.

      It wasn’t Mongkut but his son Chulalongkorn, whom the governess taught English, who abolished slavery many years after her death. Maybe the governess’ account of preaching against slavery to the Thai court was true but the fact is that Chulalongkorn had contemporary economic and diplomatic reasons for the abolition which he explained in full to his subjects. The idea that she convinced him is pure bullshit.

    • cabrogal

      Oh, and Thai attitudes to women (and slaves) were more progressive than Western ones at the time so its a bit hard to imagine what the governess could have taught him.

  4. cabrogal

    I should emphasise that I am no monarchist, but the Thais have massive respect for the kings of the Rama dynasty – with good reason. They were mostly extraordinarily able rulers – as is the incumbent.

    There was a prophecy made when Rama I was crowned that there would be nine Rama monarchs. The current is the ninth and the crown prince is an arrogant creep who is not very popular in Thailand. Bhumiphol hasn’t got long to live so we will soon learn if the prophecy was true.

  5. cabrogal

    Disclosure: My brother in law is thirty-somethingth in line for the Thai throne, so if there is a bloodbath in Bangkok I could become a member of the Thai royal family ;).

  6. Erudite Knight

    Old movies like that were perfect examples of how it should be. I just saw some old movie while I was passing through a room, the woman was complaining about ‘I don’t know anything about you!’ and the alpha guy just stood there, ‘You know I really want to kiss you right now.’ To which she was so shocked because that is exactly what she wanted.

  7. Sasha

    EK, that might have been South Pacific. Emile DeBecque=Alpha.

    Like I said, there’s a reason these movies and shows are evergreens. I really think that men (and women, though they’ll die before admitting it) are nostalgic for the wooing and roles of days past.

    Now this all begs the question, if my assumption is correct: why are gay men such famous musical theater fans?

    • cabrogal

      Now this all begs the question, if my assumption is correct: why are gay men such famous musical theater fans?

      The corollary question being “If straight men are so nostalgic for the mythologised wooing of the past, why would most of us sooner chew off our own face than sit through an R&H musical?”

  8. sexhysteria

    I think that “My Fair Lady” is primarily a comedy, so the apparent sexism doesn’t bother me. My favorite part is when Eliza’s father asks the Professor for five pounds, and the latter objects that his intentions are perfectly honorable. The dad replies: “I’m sure your intentions toward my daughter are honorable, otherwise I would ask for 10 pounds.”

    Pointing out the average woman’s imperfections should not be considered politically incorrect. Quite the contrary, the first step in improving yourself is to admit you have a problem (e.g. female sexual dysfunction).

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