♫Just you wait, 'enry 'iggins, just you wait.
You'll be sorry, but your tears'll be too late!♫
I recently rewatched My Fair Lady and I discovered that, while overall I like the story, I don't like the ending. More specifically, I don't like Henry Higgins. I don't like his character arc, or rather, lack thereof.
Eliza Doolittle is a London "flower girl" who sells flowers at Covent Garden. Henry Higgins is a scholar of phonetics. He meets her one day and boasts that he could change her accent so that anyone would think her a fine lady. And Eliza, wanting to better herself, insists on taking up the supposed offer. Throughout the story, Higgins and another phonetician, Colonel Pickering, refine street urchin Eliza into a fine lady.
They are successful with Eliza. She not only refines her accent, she refines her manners, and her appearance. People even think her to be a Hungarian princess. Yet, through the story, Henry Higgins treats Eliza, as a friend of mine put it, like a science experiment. He even states once that she doesn't have feelings. Higgins's mother knows what sort of man her son is. She knows he has no manners. Eliza herself is well aware of that fact. But even with such treatment, she manages to fall in love with him (totally beyond my comprehension).
When finally Eliza can't take it anymore, she runs away and goes to his mother. Higgins tracks her down, they fight, and she comes back. I wouldn't have an issue with such an ending if Higgins had changed his ways and decided to treat Eliza like the lady she is. But what are his final words? "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?"
Why must Eliza change, but Henry Higgins can go on treating her like she isn't even a person?
Annie Get Your Gun has a similar ending, though not nearly as extreme. Frank Butler is the star sharpshooter of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and is rather egotistical about it. When Annie Oakley beat him in a shooting competition, when she performed an impressive stunt in a show, when she won medals from foreign royals, he was nothing but jealous. Finally, she purposely lost a competition to him (it wasn't her idea, but when she figured out what was going on, she went along with it), and his bruised ego was saved. She worked to transform herself into a lady for him, but he got to keep his selfish, egotistical ways.
Why must Annie refine herself and get over any attitude she might have had, but Frank can keep his selfish pride?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Eliza and Annie didn't have any work to do on themselves, they did, but why do Henry and Frank get off with no character arc? Why couldn't they become gentlemen? Adam Pontipee in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers realized after he had a daughter himself that he couldn't go around treating people inconsiderately. He tried to get his brothers to return the girls he got them to kidnap.
Maybe it's just me, but if characters have work to do in their lives, I want them to do it. I don't want them to get a pass for their bad behavior while other characters submit themselves to being treated poorly.
I like Jace Ilvaran of Ilyon Chronicles who protects Kyrin, who isn't jealous of her special abilities, who treats her like a lady.
I like Bardon of DragonKeeper Chronicles who is a chivalrous gentleman, who is very careful and protective of his wife, who treats Kale like a lady.
I like Teddy Kent of the Emily of New Moon books who is shy, but kind, supportive of Emily's endeavors, who never intentionally hurt her. The whole misery in Emily's Quest was simply a misunderstanding due to his shyness and his mother's issues. Not because Teddy could ever be a jerk.
I like Reuben Eaglechaser of The Rizkaland Legends who may be slightly ridiculous at times, but is always there for Petra when she needs him, who will always protect her, who respects her boundaries even when he doesn't want to because he loves and respects her.
I don't want male characters to be wimps. I don't want their girls to walk all over them. I don't want them to be hiding in the background while the girls do everything there is to be done. But I don't want them to be perpetual jerks either. Give me Jace over Henry Higgins any day. I'd much rather read about Teddy Kent than Frank Butler. I prefer the gentlemen. I prefer the men who let the ladies go first, who will protect the girls around, carry heavy things for them, and, well, treat them like ladies. It doesn't make the men weak and effeminate to be gentlemen any more than it makes the women wimpy cardboard cutouts to let them do it.
So writers, don't be afraid to make your male characters gentlemen. If they have character flaws, don't condone them. Nobody really likes a Henry Higgins. But lots of girls love a sweet protector like Jace. Write about gentlemen.
Tune in next week to find out how girl characters can be strong without being feminists.
Other posts you might enjoy: