WHO’S ELIZA’S MYSTERY STYLIST? (COLONEL PICKERING’S QUEER ROLE)

I show to my first year students the glamourous Ascot sequence of My Fair Lady and the moment I write ‘Cecil Beaton’ on the blackboard, I wonder once more why Shaw neglects to explain in further detail Col. Pickering’s role in Eliza’s transformation. We do know he is the one paying for the whole experiment, as he bets with Higgins, precisely, the expenses. Yet, Shaw is so engrossed by Eliza’s relationship with her impatient phonetics teacher (speech therapist, rather), that he forgets to explain her equally spectacular bodily transformation.

Whoever is responsible for that works fast, as by Act III Eliza, a pretty girl literally covered in uglifying gutter grime until Act II, already looks like a lady (her dreadful small talk, though, betrays her origins). Perhaps Shaw was thus making the point that anyone can pick up the right classy clothes, but the more I read Pygmalion, the more I think that that awful film, Pretty Woman, got this aspect of female metamorphosis right on, with Julia Robert’s famous shopping spree on Rodeo Drive. Now, whereas Cecil Beaton got all the credit he deserved for lovely Audrey Hepburn’s marvellous look in My Fair Lady, in the play Eliza-Cinderella’s fairy godmother goes uncredited, though she must have one. Remember what she wears when she first knocks on Higgins’ door… My students suggested Mrs. Pearce, but there’s nothing to explain why Higgins’ sober housekeeper should have such fine taste. Higgins himself dresses badly and knows nothing at all about women’s clothes. His mother, the elegant Mrs. Higgins, meets Eliza once her outward transformation is accomplished. This leaves us with only one candidate to be Eliza’s secret stylist: Colonel Pickering (um, one wonders what went on in the British military abroad…).

I’m not the first reader to notice that Pickering and Higgins form one of those happy, socially accepted, pre-gay bachelor couples (think of Holmes and Watson). See how romantic this sounds: Pickering has travelled all the way from India to London, just to meet Higgins, his hero phonetician. Once he sets the bet on Eliza in motion and the girl is admitted into Higgins’ house –not without Mrs. Pearce’s misgivings, soon confirmed by blackmail from Eliza’s father– Pickering quickly moves in. Mrs Higgins sees in this a perfect arrangement, worrying instead, like Mrs Pearce, about Eliza’s (sexual) function in her son’s household. Pickering himself seems also anxious to prevent Higgins from touching his pupil… I’m aware that by suggesting that Pickering is Eliza’s fairy godfather I’m using a politically very incorrect word to out him. It is far from my intention to sound homophobic, which I’m not at all. I do intend, rather, to bring Pickering into the ranks of the queer stylists who, like Beaton, give our sad heterosexual world the glamour it so badly needs (Is this homophobic? Cliched?).

Shaw would surely give me a good show of his famous Irish irascibility if he could read this, but if his homophobia prevented him from making Pickering openly gay this is his fault not mine. Perhaps, only a homophobic, misogynistic man would insist on making the abusive Higgins the main focus of Eliza’s transformation and not the gentle-man who enhances her good looks and, above all, her self-esteem. By treating Eliza with the respect any person deserves, Pickering accomplishes far more than Higgins, who clearly could take a few lessons from his good friend. It is in order to protect Higgins’ masculinist allure, however, that Shaw pushes Pickering to the background, leaving him closeted. And Eliza all dressed up but not quite her own woman.

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