Next time you watch this, I challenge you to see it as a deliberate gay farce. Henry Higgins is clearly a drag queen teaching a lower class Eliza Doolittle, cis lesbian, how to femme it up for high society.
I’d like to argue this was entirely deliberate: the movie is entirely too funny to be unselfaware about the impact of Rex Harrison swanning through a song like “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” when he’s been wearing crushed purple velvet and flapping his hands at the wrist like he’s swatting rainbow gnats.
This man dismisses beautiful young Eliza when he first sees her because he can’t wait to get home with Colonel Pickering, who Higgins seems to live with, and who is the target of this song pining for more masculinity in women.
Pickering and Higgins together are the bitchiest old queens. They are the arbiters of femininity. Though they are both obligate bachelors (expressed in the same coded language once used to describe aging gay men), Pickering knows the good dress shops. Why, Higgins asks? With different performances, we might think Pickering is treating his many lovers, but in this performance, it’s easy to think Pickering likes to dress up himself. Eliza even asks if Pickering will expect to have her dresses when she leaves (because he bought them, of course, but even so–)
This doesn’t substantially change the relationship between Higgins and Eliza! Queer relationships are complicated. There can be intense intimacy without following the linear treadmill of heterosexual relationship milestones (courting, engagement, marriage, children, MONOGAMY, lifelong, etc). When a fabulous, larger-than-life, legendary-in-society drag queen takes humble little dyke Eliza under her arm, who is to say Eliza can’t fall for Miss Higgins? and vice versa?
Indeed, Eliza expresses the opposite of desire for sex with Higgins. She says she doesn’t want to make love to him. She wants to be close to him. She sees the grand, fabulous, worldly beauty of Miss Higgins. Eliza is genuinely grateful for the embiggening of her life with this fancy fussy fellow who wears a *lot* of purple velvet. She has no use for Freddy. She’s not into *guys* like that.
Higgins is head over heels for Eliza too. It is this obsession that makes their relationship compelling in this performance: Eliza is a doll for Higgins and oh boy he needs to be able to act out his queer dress-up gender affirmative urges on her. Once he knows that she can read him as well as he can read her, that’s it. Miss Higgins cannot *breathe* without Eliza.
Hence, both of them are happy with the slipper situation at the end, uneven as it seems, because both of them have what the other wants, and they’re fine with the status quo (as long as Miss Higgins stops being such a bitch *sometimes*).
I’d also like to add that Eliza’s speech about her aunt’s straw hat while Higgins dances around, dying in the background, is actually the funniest speech in cinema ever.
Image credit: Warner Bros Studios