August RE News: “My Fair Lenses”

By Joanne Dingus,
​Director of Religious Education

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Being a UU for so many years has helped me develop a UU lens with which to view life.

I recently got to see a local theater production of My Fair Lady. As a child, I remember listening to the record with my sister. We would sing along, “Lots of chocolates for me to eat . . . oh wouldn’t it be loverly.” We cheered for Eliza Doolittle when she finally said, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” in a proper British accent. And we danced across our playroom floor believing that we too “could have danced all night.
I probably saw the movie on television when I was about 10 years old, and I know I enjoyed it, especially because I was so familiar with the music.

If I had written a blurb about this story when I was 10, it might have gone something like this.  A nice man wants to help a poor girl.  He buys her pretty clothes and teaches her how to pronounce her words.  They fall in love and live happily ever after.

So, my reaction to seeing this play so many years later was a bit surprising.  Technically, it was really well done.  The cast was very talented.  The woman who played Eliza had an amazing voice.  The costumes were lovely, and everyone spoke with convincing accents.

It was the story itself that upset me.

Here is the description from the Scripts for School Theatre website, which has a similar script to the one used in the production I saw.

A misogynist and snobbish phonetics professor agrees to a wager that he can take a poor flower girl and make her presentable in high society. Henry Higgins, an arrogant irascible, takes a bet with Colonel Pickering that he can transform an unrefined, cockney flower girl into a refined Victorian Lady with an aristocratic accent and pass her off as a duchess.

I think if I had read this blurb first, I would have been better prepared.  Because this is a far more accurate description of the story. In addition, I would add that My Fair Lady is a story of an abusive relationship between a powerful man and a vulnerable young woman.

Throughout the play, the Henry Higgins character consistently makes disparaging remarks about Eliza Doolittle.

A woman who utters such disgusting and depressing noises has no right to be anywhere. No right to live.

Look at her. A prisoner of the gutters condemned by every syllable she utters. By right she should be taken out and hung, for the cold clouded murder of the English tongue.

You squashed cabbage leaf. You disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns. You incarnate insult to the English language.

Should we ask this baggage to sit down or shall we just throw her out of the window?

If she gives you any trouble, wallop her.

That barbarous wretch.

Henry Higgins is nothing if not consistent.  He has no respect for women and is the first one to admit it.  “But, let a woman in your life . . .” and well you better watch out!

Near the end of the story, when Eliza succeeds in becoming a refined lady by practicing every day, all the credit is given to Professor Higgins and none to her.

She tries to stand up for herself, and she actually walks out on him.  But in the end, her lifelong struggle, with low self-esteem and the fact that she is so changed that she can’t return to her former life, leaves her with few options.

I found myself sitting in the audience wanting to scream, “No! Don’t you dare go back to him. Do not fetch the slippers of your abuser.”  But of course, I already knew the ending. She returns.

So why am I writing this as an RE NEWS article?

Developing my UU lens for viewing life has been a gradual process.  An important part of our Children’s Religious Education Program is helping our children develop their UU lenses, learn positive values and make good choices.  We teach them stories about standing up for themselves and treating other people the way they would want to be treated.  And of course, this is also an important part of parenting.  Our kids are fortunate to grow up in a time with so many different sources of entertainment.  This makes it harder but even more important for us to check in with them about the stories they’re seeing and hearing.

I want to encourage families to read with your kids and talk about the characters and events in the books.  Watch shows and movies together and ask questions.  Listen to music together and talk about the meaning of the lyrics.  And when you are talking and questioning, think about your UU lenses. Referring to the seven principles is an easy way to start.  When were people treated with dignity?  Was justice served?  Who did you feel compassion for?  How did you feel connected?  Where did you find truth and meaning?

I can’t go back and talk to my 10 year-old self, but with a little bit of luck we can work together to help our children have a better understanding of life and develop their UU lenses early.

See you in the RE!

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