Treatment of Femininity in Pygmalion and Medea

12 December 2016

In this essay I will be comparing and contrasting the way in which two different authors portray femininity in their respective dramatic texts. The two works I am using are Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw and Medea by Euripides. I will be looking at how the way men and women are portrayed can affect the way we interpret the texts, and showing that femininity isn’t necessarily a trait restricted just to women. I believe that femininity reflects expected female behaviour. There are certain traits which are believed to be typically male or female.

Male traits tend to be more physical such as the fact that they are dominant, stronger whereas female traits are much softer, more emotional. In ancient Athenian society such things as ‘bravery in battle’ and ‘general competitive excellence in a public arena’(1) were considered masculine whereas women were relegated to ‘looking after the household and bringing up their children’(2). However, femininity has changed as times have changed. It reflects the acceptable social behaviour of the period. As women were seen as more equal to men, the restrictions on them lessened.

Treatment of Femininity in Pygmalion and Medea Essay Example

So by the time Pygmalion was written in 1912 it was acceptable for women to support themselves: something that was unheard of in Medea’s time. When Pygmalion was written the woman’s movement was well underway and women were starting to demand rights and become more independent. It was no longer assumed that women would marry just to be looked after. Men no longer automatically took the controlling role. Eliza is a prime example of this as although she is not very well off she is self sufficient as a flower-girl. Medea on the other hand is set at a time when women were completely submissive to their husbands.

Once married all of their property automatically became their husband’s. Medea has no legal political rights; not only because she is a women but also because she is an outsider. Medea’s reference to women being ‘weak and timid in most matters’ (3) (line 260) reflects the general view of women by society. The way the two pieces are written and acted are also completely different. Medea would have been played by an all male cast to a predominantly, if not exclusively male audience, whereas Pygmalion was acted by both men and women.

In Medea actors would have worn female masks, which lack emotion and cover up facial expressions. Right from the beginning the play takes on an unrealistic air as women and men wouldn’t have been able to debate in public as Medea and Jason did. Theatrical space is very important. It was traditional in ancient Athenian time for women to occupy inside space, however due to the physical arrangement of the theatre; this would have meant that Medea preformed the whole play from behind the Skene. Bringing Medea outside made for better viewing and meant that she was able to ‘compete(s) on equal terms with her male opponents’(4) .

Both Eliza and Medea display a number of what would be considered masculine traits. Right from the beginning we learn that Medea has a very forceful personality and is a very strong character. She points out to Jason that she ‘saved his life’ (5)(line 475) and helped him get where he is by making sacrifices herself. Although Jason disagrees with her he doesn’t take the credit himself, instead he credits the Gods. We can also look at Eliza in the same way. Although she is lower class she also comes across as strong and wilful and capable of looking after and supporting herself rather than needing a man to do it.

Eliza shows her stereotypically female side because she is fairly emotional and prone to outbreaks of crying. Medea uses her femininity to her advantage. She is very strong and forceful when dealing with Jason; however she assumes the submissive position of kneeling down when talking to Creon and cries to appeal to his sensitive side. She also turns on the charm with Aegeus and portrays herself as the suffering victim to ensure his help once she has had her revenge. Both Eliza and Medea are treated as property by the dominant men in their lives.

Eliza’s father is happy to sell her to Higgins just to get her off his hands and Jason is quite happy to cast Medea aside when he finds a new wife. Both men however believe they are acting in the women’s best interest. Jason because he believes it will secure his family’s future and Mr Doolittle because he can’t afford to look after his daughter and thinks she will be better of with Higgins. Medea and Eliza are both put in vulnerable positions, Medea because if Jason leaves her she will be an outsider and neither her nor her sons will have any rights.

Eliza is left in a difficult position because before Higgins decided to turn her in to a lady she had a job and could support herself, now however she is unable to get a job and needs to rely on someone else to look after her. This concern is reflected throughout the play by various characters and even by Eliza herself when she asks ‘why did you take my independence from me? ’(6) (Act 5, pg 101) Higgins comes across as bossy and a bully. He is extremely good at his job and believes that affords him the right to treat people as badly as he does.

He almost doesn’t see Eliza as a woman but rather as a project so he isn’t worried about treating her ‘like a lady’ as long as she can behave like one when necessary. He doesn’t have any pre-conceptions on how women should be and is almost dismissive of those that marry just to be looked after. He even goes as far as saying that he thinks ‘a woman fetching a man’s slippers is a disgusting sight’ (Act 5, pg 100) (7). This re-emphasises Shaw’s belief and support of the women’s movement of the time. Shaw is eager to show that femininity isn’t necessarily a subservient thing.

All of the main male characters in both plays display in part feminine characteristics, which both Medea and Eliza use to their advantage. When speaking to Creon Medea acts submissively by kneeling when speaking to him and appealing to his emotional side. Creon himself even admits that his ‘soft heart has often betrayed [him] (line 348-9)(8) , something which would be seen as a very feminine trait and definitely not something a King should admit to, as he should be all powerful and domineering. Compared to other women in the play Medea is by far the strongest.

Although the Nurse also uses outdoor space she is scared of Medea and what she is capable of. The Chorus, which is made up of Corinthian women, plays a very prominent, important part in the play; however they are not strong enough to challenge Medea directly. They are in agreement that Jason’s behaviour is wrong but they don’t agree with the way Medea is going about seeking revenge. In Pygmalion Shaw uses Mrs Higgins to reinforce the theme of strong independent women. Mrs Higgins is clearly a woman of means and under no illusions about her son and his shortfalls.

She is definitely the more dominant of the two characters and is more than happy to put Higgins in his place. She refers to him as a ‘silly boy’ which immediately shatters the illusion of him being masculine and dominant. Mrs Pearce, although of a different social class is also a fairly strong character and more than a match for Higgins. We see this in the way that she confronts him over his treatment of Eliza telling him that he ‘must be reasonable’ and he ‘cant walk over everybody’ (Act 2, pg 30) (9) Both plays end with the women leaving the men in their lives, enforcing the message that the females are the dominant characters.

Shaw was a ‘self-proclaimed feminist’ and keen to portray Eliza as independent, hence the reason his play doesn’t end with Eliza conforming to type by marrying Higgins. The authors also use language as a way of differentiating between men and women. While Medea is in the private space her language is very emotive, full of anger and she can be heard ‘sobbing and wailing’ (line 202)(10) but as soon as she comes outside into the male domain her language automatically becomes more controlled and calm. Shaw also uses language to show a rougher more masculine side to Eliza when she says she wants to ‘smash’ Higgins face (Act 4, pg 76) (11).

Medea uses very masculine language especially when talking about destroying her enemies. As Margaret Williamson(12) points out it gives Medea a ‘heroic dignity’ and further heightens the difference between her public and private voice. Eliza gets her own back on Higgins by denouncing his work in turning her into a lady. She credits Pickering for this knowing that it would get to Higgins. In contrast Medea uses Jason’s children to hurt him, which is much more drastic and spiteful. To sum up there are a number of ways that the authors of these plays portray femininity, such as the use of distinct language and submissive gestures.

Both of the plays are centred around extremely competent women which shows how femininity can definitely be used to an advantage. The fact that the men in each of the plays also display feminine traits also shows that femininity itself is not strictly about women.

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