Photograph by Ken Jacques
"Let's all enjoy a spirited round of 'Pin this on the patriarchy!'"
Ring Around the Moon is a comedy of manners full of the stock characters that populate the genre. The action happens when everyone is invited up to the grand home of the Dowager Countess for a ball. A few of the characters are Hugo and Isabel and Frédéric and Diana.
Hugo is a handsome and cunning playboy and Diana, the spoiled daughter of a self-made millionaire, is infatuated with him. He finds her less than satisfactory. However, Hugo’s twin-brother Frédéric is obsessed with and engaged to Diana. In order to prove Diana’s undesirable qualities, Hugo invites a lower class ballet dancer named Isabel to the ball, but first he transforms her into a proper, upper class lady.
This aspect of the story is very much like My Fair Lady, a musical based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Both shows fit into the category of comedy of manners. What got me thinking was the idea of a man transforming a woman into an ideal.
It’s not a new idea. Pygmalion was based on the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion the sculptor. In the myth, Pygmalion sculpts the perfect woman and the statue comes to life. The terrible '80s movie Mannequin is likewise based on this myth, and the movie Pretty Woman also has the element of transforming a lower-class woman into an upper-class ideal.
What’s going on here? Why so much transforming of women?
It would be facile to pin this on the patriarchy, because that’s not the complete story. In every instance, the woman is being transformed from a lower class to a higher class. Even the statue and mannequin are going from inanimate to living beings with independent wills. It almost sounds like women’s empowerment.
On the other hand, maybe the patriarchy does have a hand in these stories. I can’t think of any stories where an upper class woman transforms a lower class man. Boys? Yes. Men? No. Yet within the same class, women appear to be trying to improve men all the time. Consider the couples you know. How many of them have a woman trying to improve a man? Quite a few, probably.
Could it be that these men don’t want an upper class woman — Hugo doesn’t — and are drawn to the more honest energy of the lower class? Are the women changing who they are on a fundamental level, or are they merely changing the way they dress and talk? Is the way a woman dresses and talks a fundamental element of her personality? I’d say yes, probably.
Ultimately, I don’t have a satisfactory answer for why these stories exist. Even in My Fair Lady, I feel as though there is a fundamental assumption that women need to be fixed — and that’s completely true. Every woman needs a man to fix her.
Of course I’m joking, and that’s not true. However, does every man need a woman to fix him?
Ring Around the Moon plays at Lamb’s Players through November 17.