Are some people taking seriously the lyrics of a comic song written nearly 70 years ago? That’s the way it looks.
A song commonly known as Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?, written for the 1956 stage musical My Fair Lady, has acquired knee-jerk responses. The lyrics are now perceived by some as misogynistic. Irritated by his protégée Eliza Doolittle, Professor Higgins confides in his chum Colonel Pickering that, whereas “men are so pleasant, so easy to please”, women are “maddening and infuriating hags.” I’m obliged to point out that the song was conceived, and is still accepted by the majority, as a joke. It has not become so contentious that it had to be cut from the recent New York revival (due at the London Coliseum this summer).
The truth is that the actual title of the song is Hymn to Him. Alan Jay Lerner’s clever words make it pretty clear that pompous boor Higgins has no idea what he’s talking about. “I love how no one gets the joke that Henry Higgins is meant to be a self-absorbed idiot here,” writes ‘Satelliteride’ in the comments under the song on YouTube. “All the irritating qualities he describes are his own, and Henry is completely lacking all the good qualities he mentions.”
‘ecoMama Admin’ is more direct: “Henry Huggins [sic] is the quintessential narcissistic prick.”
By the time the film version of My Fair Lady arrived in 1964 the seeds of women’s liberation were sprouting. The movement, which flowered in the late-1960s, was a logical development in the concept of feminism, developed in the 19th century. Originally women wanted what we all now agree are basic rights, notably the right to vote. Much later women made similarly reasonable demands, notably that if a woman is doing the same job as a man, she should be paid the same money.
At all times, however, female and male feminists appeared only to want gender equality. I don’t remember anyone echoing Professor Higgins’s wish that women’s characters should actually resemble men’s. Why would they? Why would anyone support the misconceptions of an idiot?
Surprise, surprise. For many years I have been aware that some women, often with men’s connivance, do appear to want to imitate not just men’s behaviour but some of their stupidest behaviour. They seem to want to be quintessential narcissistic pricks.
When writing about gender issues I often quote my regular employer, the comedian Julian Clary, who said, “All the problems in the world are caused by heterosexual men.” This was an off-the-cuff remark made on a TV show, and, if he’d known I was going to quote him, probably he’d ask that I re-phrase the comment as “most of the problems.” Nevertheless, his intent is sound. Men can be just awful. No woman in her right mind would want to be like a man.
I first realised that something was going terribly wrong with this thesis in the 1970s when the first female bodybuilders appeared. There’s nothing wrong in principle in enhancing male bodily attributes. We don’t really need Desmond Morris to remind us that, in order to give their offspring a boost, women often prefer men who appear fit and healthy. Aware of their duty, men have been obsessed with the Ancient Greek ideal of male attractiveness since at least the Renaissance if not before. The ‘strong man’, typified by Eugen Sandow, has been a sideshow attraction since the 19th century.
But then some men took it too far. My understanding – correct me if I’m wrong – is that the present-day style of male bodybuilding developed in San Quentin jail among prisoners with too much time on their hands. They were not turning their bodies into brick shithouses to impress women, they were implicitly telling other men, “Don’t mess with me.” One thing led to another and before too much longer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chemically-enhanced muscles were something to aspire to.
In 1985 I was bewildered by the film Pumping Iron II: The Women. This is a documentary about bodybuilding competitions for women. The stand-out contestant in the film is the Amazonian Bev Francis, who I described as “the most extraordinary female specimen ever to have appeared on screen.” She looked like a pumped-up bloke. Her avowed intent was “to develop muscles and still look like a woman.” I countered that “since she moves, talks and dresses like a man, and has the face of a Petticoat Lane barrow-boy, I would submit that she has failed.” Subsequently, almost certainly because of what I wrote, she modified her physique.
Is female bodybuilding “a force to reckon with or a fad of the Eighties?” I asked in Films and Filming in 1985. It was no fad. In 2022 it’s ongoing. Er…why? Why would women want to imitate male insecurity?
Exaggerated male strength is also at the root of the next phenomenon I encountered. Again I ask to be corrected. But my perception is that comic book superheroes first appeared in the 1930s and were exclusively male. They may not have killed villains but they certainly roughed them up and appeared to leave some of them severely injured. That was what men did in the real world. In the real world, women tended not to throw people against brick walls or indeed show a great deal of interest in doing so. But after a few years, somebody decided that this was not acceptable. Female superheroes must behave like men.
From the 1940s female superheroes, exclusively conceived by men to appeal to boys, were sexy women in skin-tight outfits, who sometimes had a few feminine superpowers, but were essentially women who behaved like men. William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, wanted “a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” In other words, a man who happened to be a sexy woman.
This image has prevailed. One of the most provocative portrayals has been Beyoncé’s in the video for her 2011 track Run the World (Girls). In girl power mode, the pop superstar claims that girls run the world. But for the video someone, possibly a man, decided that terrified males should be shown cowering before Beyoncé and her battalion of females in outrageously revealing outfits. This was what the public seemed to want. To date, the video has had nearly 530 million views on YouTube. The reason for this success was suggested by commentator Remona Aly: “Women are only powerful when they’re hypersexualised.”
Today in superhero films supermen and superwomen work together to defeat evil. It’s almost inconceivable that a superhero film would get off the drawing board if the treatment didn’t include at least one sex goddess helping the supermen to pulverise the bad guys into submission. But the big question remains: is this what 50% of the audience (women) really wants to see? I have a sneaking suspicion that most women and quite a few men would respond positively to a female superhero who didn’t use any masculine-type violence and instead magically produced handcuffs and secured the villain’s conviction with intuitive female superpowers. It’s just an idea.
This, however, is all a preamble. I was inspired to write this piece by what I believe to be the reductio ad absurdum as far as women wanting to be men is concerned.
Men have dressed as women since time immemorial. In the theatre, the convention was required because women generally weren’t permitted to work as actors until the 17th century. But from the 19th century, a new culture developed. Allegedly actresses were unwilling to portray old women and so these parts were taken by men. The men, usually comedians, got laughs (from men and women) by adopting stereotypical female attributes that bore little relation to reality. Audiences thought female impersonators were clever. In the UK and many British colonies the panto dame, the most ridiculous female impersonation of all, became a national treasure.
I have nothing against female impersonation, although that term is now passé. What we’re now talking about are drag queens. Many of them are very funny. So are women who impersonate men. Male impersonation also goes back to the 19th century. Most of us have heard of Vesta Tilley, who appeared as a would-be male toff. She was much admired as Burlington Bertie from Bow. In the 1970s male impersonation had a big revival. I remember laughing myself silly at a Fringe theatre show in London in which a woman pretended to be a stereotypical man. Not long afterwards drag kings became popular. Many of them are also funny. But apparently this wasn’t good enough. We now have female drag queens. Er…why?
The monstrosity of the female drag queen dates from 2019 and a well-meaning Channel 4 series called Drag SOS. In the show a clique of Manchester exhibitionists toured the country encouraging men and women, including rugby captain Matthew, to find their “inner drag.”
All good fun. But the show established a trend because the clique included women as drag queens and their targets included women who were encouraged to become drag queens.
Excuse me, but this is barmy. Women were being told that it’s a good idea to imitate men who think it’s a good idea to take the piss out of women.
But this idea has caught on. One of the Manchester crew in Drag SOS was a man who performs as Cheddar Gorgeous. In 2021 he turned up in an episode of the BBC Radio 4 series Tricky. He spoke admirably about “inclusion” but was arguably on shakier ground when he mentioned “women who do femme drag because it is one of the most interesting and exciting parts of drag. It has the potential to disrupt how we perceive feminine beauty and the expectations we place on women to be beautiful all the time.”
Sorry, but I don’t get that. The most recent series of RuPaul’s Drag Race included for the first time a woman who to all intents and purposes was a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. There was no disruption of how we perceive feminine beauty that I could perceive. It was just daft.
We are going through a difficult transition period. There is no consensus on how women should be represented in the media. Last year Daniel Craig was canvassed on whether James Bond should be played by a woman (or a black man). His response was, “There should simply be better parts for women and actors of colour. Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond, but for a woman?”
Something tells me that already we have the answer to the question of female representation in the arts. It’s been staring us in the face for at least 200 years but, because the example is in the rarefied world of ballet, few of us have noticed. Go to any ballet. The men leap around. The women dance en pointe. The skills are very different but they are equally difficult and we appreciate them both because of their difficulty.
It’s perfect. Men can do stuff. Women can do stuff. But often different stuff. You only have to look at Professor Higgins to know that there’s no sense in a woman wanting to be a man.
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