My Fair Lady (1964)—Class Divisions and Our Response

This is the latest post in my 20th Century Film Project. I am watching 100 films, and reporting on what they seem to say about their moment and ours. I have been dispassionate so far in my treatments of the films I have watched. Let me step outside that dispassion just long enough for a simple confession: I loved My Fair Lady, which I saw for the first time as part of this project.

The story takes place in Britain at the beginning of the 1900s. The plot is founded on one character’s exploration of an idea. To demonstrate and validate his assertion that language provides access to class, Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) takes in the Cockney-accented working-class flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and works with her through long days and late nights of instruction to retrain her enunciation and her dialect. His aim is to prove his point to his houseguest, another expert in linguistics, Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who serves as witness to Higgins’ efforts.

Illogically, Higgins has devoted his life to the study of something he despises. His signature song, “Why Can’t the English,” flaunts his prejudiced view that the dialect of his own class is superior. The lyrics of the song highlight the tiny differences that mark us as being in or out of the privileged state that class provides. As Higgins sings at the beginning of the song:

Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter
Condemned by every syllable she ever uttered.

In real life and in contemporary times, the writer J.D. Vance spoke of something similar in his book Hillbilly Elegy. Small choices related to our appearance and actions also speak a language, and this language too can be heavily accented. Vance, whose book is about modern class, about his experience of having grown up poor, describes the impediments to finding a place and thriving within a world governed by social connection and subtle social expectations. He prevailed past this, making it to law school, but he offers this list of the things he still did not know even by the time he got there:

That you needed to wear a suit to a job interview.
That wearing a suit large enough to fit a silverback gorilla was inappropriate.
That a butter knife wasn’t just decorative (after all, anything that requires a butter knife can be done better with a spoon or an index finger).
That pleather and leather were different substances.
That your shoes and belt should match.
That certain cities and states had better job prospects.
That going to a nicer college brought benefits outside of bragging rights.
That finance was an industry that people worked in.

The real-life Vance and the fictional Doolittle have something else in common as well. They both had parents so lost in their own personal challenges that they provided little help to their children. Vance writes sympathetically about his mother’s challenges and the practically life-saving fact for him that his grandparents were available to care for him for at least some of his childhood. In My Fair Lady, the song of Eliza’s father Alfie, “With a Little Bit,” though in some places it is hailed as the comic anthem of a free spirit, is in fact ugly and tragic. It is the anthem of a man repudiating all he is called to, including being a father.

I am making this connection between a seemingly lighthearted movie and the real social ills of today because the movie’s premise is no longer as lighthearted now as it was then. The humor in this movie draws for comedic effect upon the differences and distortions that come of people occupying different classes. When it was released, viewers in the U.S. could afford to laugh at these differences. Our nation, though struggling with the cruelties of other lines of division, was at the high water mark of having overcome class. The post-World-War-Two industrial economy had lifted everyone, professionals and laborers both. But in the more static and slower-growth economy we have had in recent decades, we have rebuilt our class distinctions.

We haven’t realized we were doing so. For the most part, we don’t realize this is what we have done. A piece I recommend from The Atlantic describes the state we have come to: Roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population now inhabits a world of possibility they remain in without realizing how different their experience has become from the rest of the country, nor how difficult it is for the rest of the country to obtain access to it.

How did this come about? As it happens, My Fair Lady provides a clue. As a contrast to Eliza’s father, we also meet Higgins’ mother. Higgins is awkward in the social set of his wealthy parents, yet a member of their class nevertheless, and this is crucial. Their wealth and standing, and the platform these things provided, goes a long way toward explaining why he was able to establish a life founded on academic pursuit and live out a life devoted to ideas.

The same phenomenon is in effect today. Children born within a higher realm of economic access and possibility—that is, children born to economically thriving parents—receive instruction from those parents (quite naturally) in how to continue to thrive, how to remain within this realm and this class. Those children get an education equipping them to pursue a lucrative career, they benefit from guidance and introductions relevant to that career, and they will likely marry someone for whom all of this has also been true, further anchoring themselves into that realm of possibility by essentially doubling their income and connections.

Nothing is wrong with any of this as it applies to those fortunate children, but again, we once had the tailwind of a rapidly growing economy to lift many people who came of age without these things. Now, after a couple of generations with this wind no longer blowing strong enough to churn the economic strata, the divisions between classes have become self-reinforcing.

J.D. Vance says he found his way in part because of the Marine Corps. The military is an institution that, by its nature, has to disregard class distinctions and even break down the divisions. The resultant mixing brings economically isolated individuals into contact with potential guides and mentors who possess economic and social skills as well as personal life skills. The Marine Corps in particular is devoted to ensuring these skills are taught, proceeding by assuming “maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks,” Vance says. The Marines taught him how to fight, but they also taught him how to handle a savings account, how to see a doctor when sick, and how to shop for a car.

Thus, the remedy for class pursued by Higgins in My Fair Lady, as pompously as it is presented in the character of this professor, is essentially the right one. That is, we ought to reach across class lines. We ought to recognize class differences for what they are: accidental effects over which neither party had control. Higgins saw this. His mother and her set did not; they wished to continue in the delusion of regarding their privilege as a consequence of their superior caliber, talent, and value as special human beings.

Higgins’ aims were selfish. He wished to elevate Doolittle just to prove a point, and he was near to discarding her once his point was made. Only the discovery of how much he had come to value her and how tenderly he regarded her stopped him from this. I said I came to love this film. The movie’s final scene is part of the reason why: It offers relief but no closure. Our imagination is recruited into the speculation of what comes next for these two people, and there is a platonic course that is just as believable and just as lovely as the hope they might be married. So this movie is, of course, romantic—but now let’s pull away that layer of the story to find the message that is gilded by this layer, the point this lighthearted film makes that also happens to resonate with the point of Vance’s serious work. That point is, in part, that little things can keep people from what they want. Little areas of ignorance that ought to be insignificant can keep people from what they need. What if Higgins hadn’t begun from selfishness? What if he could have begun with the high regard for another he found only in the end? And what if each of us who knows something about how to thrive, how to get along in this world, could show that same high regard? This knowledge we possess is actually a gift, and one we would do well to share.

Higgins is condescending, singing, “Why can’t the English teach their children to speak?” But he’s not wrong. One could rightly make an aspirational challenge out of the same line. Why can’t the Americans teach their children to prosper? Why can’t the blessed teach men and women to thrive?