The 2017-2018 school year marks the continuation of “Sharing Englishes and Social Media”, a journey embarked on by Dr. Florescu and I. The first portion of our project has explored personal experiences, scholarly texts, and some previous research surrounding the way the monolinguistic ‘English’ has shaped our lives. This upcoming part of our project will be centered on how the concept of monolinguistic English appears in social media. “Social media” — for the sake of our project — branches outside of what we have come to know as present day social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. We will be exploring those platforms as well, but “social media” for this project will also encapsulate the arts, such as movies, literature, and so on. Dr. Florescu and I also plan to take a closer look into how our present society has found ways to branch away from monolinguistic English, creating other Englishes are, indeed, valid forms of Englishes.
As an introduction to the half of our research dedicated to media, I’d like to begin by deconstructing this clip of My Fair Lady. For those unfamiliar with the film, the Google synopsis of the film is as follows:
“In this beloved musical, pompous phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is so sure of his abilities that he takes it upon himself to transform a Cockney working-class girl into someone who can pass for a cultured member of high society. His subject turns out to be the lovely Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), who agrees to speech lessons to improve her job prospects.”
The synopsis alone is very telling: language becomes a classist factor, a tool that can be used to differentiate who is of ‘high society’ and who is not. Not only does Eliza Doolittle’s working-class society set her apart from high society, but linguistically, her Cockney accent — common among working-class Londoners — becomes a dead giveaway to her social standing.
The clip begins with Higgins asking Doolittle to recite the phrase: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” He is clearly exasperated by her pronunciation, calling it an offense to the Lord (My Fair Lady 0:00-0:37). Although ‘proper issue’ is more often than not looked upon as a minority issue, it is important to note that both Higgins and Doolittle are white; the only thing that separates them is that Doolittle is a female and more importantly, she is working-class.
The film takes on a rather classist approach. The premise of the movie is centered around Doolittle not being considered a proper lady due to the way she performs her English, as it is associated with being working-class. The fact of the matter is that Doolittle does speak English, but clearly, this is not enough for Doolittle. He needs her to speak proper English or fulfill what I have previously referred to as the gold standard of English. In his eyes, her Cockney accent does not satiate the requirements. Rather than being looked at as a full-fledged human, Doolittle is Othered because her Cockney accent is a signifier of her marginalized working-class status. Professor Higgins asserts his superiority over her; he is white, male, and upperclass, and so, he becomes the standard. In order for her to be perceived as acceptable to him and his society, she must assimilate and shape herself in his likeness. This process becomes impossible if she cannot change the way she performs her English and thus, she becomes his project — a broken thing that needs fixing. An entire song is dedicated to his plight, titled “Poor Professor Higgins”, as he endures the burden of civilizing the social savage.
Through the performance of her English, Doolittle becomes the butt of the joke. We are not meant to take her seriously in this clip because even Higgins does not take her seriously. Higgins views Doolittle, in her current state, as a blight on society, while we look at her as comedic relief because of her inability to fulfill the gold standard. However, perceiving those who speak dialects affiliated with the working-class as purely comedic is problematic, since we are taking joy/humor in someone’s social status because we see them as being lesser.