Pygmalion And Pretty Woman: Two Interpretations Of Ancient Story

The Greek Myth of Pygmalion has been adapted in various texts of diverse times to be relevant to an array of audiences. The English play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and the American movie Pretty Woman, both of which are based on this story, have used different language, forms and values to reach out to audiences from various cultural backgrounds.

Pygmalion’s universal themes make it a good candidate for appropriation. Many issues, including beauty, prejudices and the search to achieve perfection, are relevant to everyone. This makes appropriations applicable to many cultural contexts. Two other contexts have used the concept of creating a beautiful and living woman out of a piece of ivory. This is the transformation of something that was considered a ‘nothing.’ Shaw’s Pygmalion’s ‘nothings’ are poor flower girls of the time, while Pretty Woman’s cultural context is that of a prostitute. One of the universal issues is what society considers acceptable. In Shaw’s era a flowergirl was not allowed to mingle with high society. In Pretty Woman Edward tries as hard as he can to keep Vivien’s status as a prostitute a mystery. These themes, which are interpreted differently in each text and have messages relevant to each culture, form the basis of the links between these three texts.

The play’s appropriation reflects its cultural context. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion took place in 1912 during a period when social barriers dominated and a middle-class was emerging. The upper class looked down their noses at the lower class. Shaw realized that people were judged more on their social class, how much money they had, or even their looks than their actual worth. He also said, “It is impossible for any Englishman to speak without making another Englishman despised”. He believed that the English Language and Alphabet were in dire need reform. It would also help to break down social barriers at the time. Shaw wanted to use his play to help people see the problems that existed in the society he lived in. Pygmalion is a play with a didactic message and avoids romance to keep the focus on its message.

The play uses a variety of speech to convey this message. Pickering is polite to everyone and says, “Excuse me, Higgins. Eliza’s cockney cockney, “Oo ow, eez you son is e? Eliza’s participation in the general conversation of Mrs. Higgin’s visitors is ridiculed as she joins in. The guests are now attentively listening to her and admiring her accent. They think the strange meanings behind the words is just part of a fashion. Freddy tells Eliza “You are so great at the new small-talk!” Shaw mocks Eliza’s class for discussing the “barometrical condition” in detail. Shaw uses humor to draw attention to his comments about the society in which he lived. This society was full of meaningless chatter and based opinions solely on appearance. Shaw used the first swear-word, ‘bloody,’ on the stage. He gained publicity for this, since it was deemed a word that was beyond the bounds. He used humor to communicate his message. This was almost a reaction of shock, since the Daily Sketch reported that when the swearword was first spoken, “the show stopped for an entire minute until the audiences had finished laughing”. The clever language used would only be relevant for the audience in that era and culture. Today, the word ‘bloody” is hardly considered to be a curse-word.

The medium chosen for this text reflects strongly the context of culture in which it was written. He thought that theatre was becoming more important as a “social organ” at the beginning of the 1900s. And drama had to be about conflict, and ideas. He wanted to write plays that were not trivial or meaningless, so he chose this popular form. He thought that plays must make a comment on society. The audience is often uncomfortable when watching his performances. Pygmalion had to reach out to the people in this class, especially those stuck there, to criticize the society.

These texts reflect the values of their time. Good manners and beauty are valued. Eliza, for example, dresses in beautiful gowns and jewels to meet the expectations of society in order to attend an upper class/ambassador garden party. Eliza: “I’m sure I’m a lady in your eyes, because you’ve always treated me like a lady and always will.” and Higgins: “You shouldn’t be cutting off old friends just because you’ve risen up in the world.” are all examples of how people should treat others. It’s called snobbery. This reflects a society that places a high value on the manners of people and their treatment. Alfred Dolittle describes how money often determines status in our society. “Now I have fifty people, and they don’t earn enough to pay for a week of work”.

George Bernard Shaw has adapted Pygmalion for his time, changing the ‘nothingness’ of the story into a flower-girl. He also changed the sculptor from a phonetician. And a Greek Myth was transformed into a play that explains the demise of his culture and values. In the second appropriation, Pygmalion is transformed into Pretty Woman. The statue is now a prostitute. The creator of the film was a successful businessman.

The film’s appropriation, Pretty Woman, reflects strongly the context of its composition. In this case, the director’s primary goal was to create a positive, optimistic story that would leave both hearts and wallets wide open. The text this time must be popular and appealing to the largest audience. This reflects the current culture, as it’s important to have romance, humor, and a happy end to make this popular.

The film’s various language forms also clearly place it in the context of 90s culture. The language used in the film is a reflection of the 90s culture. From Vivien using car jargon to Edward talking business to the hotel concierge being persistently courteous to “Miss Vivien”.

The director chose the film format because he wanted to make a lot of money. Film is a popular medium, particularly Hollywood-style “everyone’s dream” films. This movie is a reflection upon society’s need for order and happiness in their daily lives. The addition of popular songs to the movie enhances its effect and reflects a cultural context.

Money and success are central to the film. The ideal position would be to live a powerful, wealthy life with beautiful women and an amazing car. Those with a good education and a comfortable life use the appropriate behavior in different situations. However, some people like Vivien are treated just as if they were a possession or based on appearances. When she walks into a store, dressed in inappropriate clothing, the clerk tells her “I do not think we have anything for your size”. Even though the world believes that social barriers have been broken, there still exist strong elements of class and snobbery.

Both appropriations made Pygmalion more relevant to the respective cultures by using different forms, language and values. The story of a woman being created is a simple one, but it can be transformed into an attack on English society as well as a Hollywood film that promotes optimism.


  • treyknox

    I am Trey Knox, 26 years old, and I'm a education blogger and teacher. I blog about various subjects in education, and I also teach high school English and writing.