You know that moment when you find out that a love story you’ve loved all your life has gone out of fashion?
Okay, maybe you don’t know that moment. But I do. I grew up loving My Fair Lady, which my mom introduced to me when I was 11. It has always been one of her favorite movies, and it quickly became one of mine as well. I’ve written elsewhere (here and here) about all the things I love about it: everything from the music to the performances to the costumes to the sets to all those wonderful words. And, of course, the relationship between Henry Higgins, the woman-hating English professor, and Eliza Doolittle, the fiery student who may be his social inferior, but who manages to teach him a few things about true equality.
In recent years, though, I’ve learned that not everyone sees it that way. It turns out that a lot of people are completely unwilling to engage with Higgins’s character at all. They approach him with the mindset that he’s sexist, so that’s it, he’s unredeemable, no hope for him, game over. Never mind that he experiences considerable character development over the course of the movie. Never mind that the actors, Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, have great chemistry, and that their characters clearly come to care deeply about each other. To endorse My Fair Lady, they believe, is to endorse sexism.
Of course Higgins is sexist. He’s sexist in a broad, over-the-top way that’s clearly meant to be laughed at, not emulated. He’s the kind of character who’s begging for his comeuppance—and he gets it, and it makes him grow and change and, yes, even learn to love a woman. But sometimes I wonder if we even understand concepts like growth and change anymore. We’ve come a long way in leveling the playing field between men and women, and that’s great, but sometimes it seems like we automatically expect everyone around us, real or fictional, to come out of the womb with a full and mature understanding of these issues.
But that doesn’t seem to happen very often. Let’s face it: Nobody’s perfect. So a great love story is necessarily going to involve two flawed people. And sometimes the best ones involve those flawed people helping each other overcome their flaws, or improve their lot.
So when we deride movies like My Fair Lady (“Higgins is sexist!”) or classic fairy tales (“Too many men rescuing women!”) or other stories that don’t fit our vision of how the world needs to be, maybe we’re missing something. I’m not saying we should be okay with really bad behavior—I will definitely not be seeing Fifty Shades of Gray, for instance. But we can be okay with humanness. We can enjoy the love stories that may not display proper 21st-century ideals for men and women at all times, but that still show us men and women who have room to learn, and change, and start to recognize their own folly.
Maybe, after all, those are the best ones.