Pygmalion was a sculptor who falls in love with an ivory statue he had carved. The most famous story about him is the narrative poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. (Pygmalion can be found in book ten.) In this poem Aphrodite turns the statue into a real woman for him. In some versions they have a son, and also a daughter together.
In Ovid’s narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides he was “not interested in women”, but his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it.
In time, Aphrodite’s festival day came, and Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite. There, too scared to admit his desire, he quietly wished for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s wish.
Pygmalion married the ivory sculpture changed to a woman under Aphrodite’s blessing. In Ovid’s narrative, they had a daughter, Paphos, from whom the city’s name is derived.
In some versions Paphos was a son, and they also had a daughter, Metharme.
Basically, Pygmalion/Daedalus is a story in which a man gives birth to a woman. You might say, it’s a type of wish fulfilment for men: The wish to create someone, especially someone in his own image. The creator might be deformed, and wishes he could have the advantage of beauty, like a beautiful woman. (Because women are the main objects of The Gaze, and always have been.) Or maybe he’ll change a small thing about her to make her his version of ideal. Or it might be about controlling her fertility.
Pygmalion and The Image by Edward Burne Jones
The Pygmalion/Daedalus story has been told many times, and continues to be told. There is inherent sexism in this story, of course, or at least there is in many modern renditions, unless the whole point of the retelling is to point out the sexism. The modern form is that a man makes a woman into who she is. Ironically, the males do not find fulfilment for having helped a woman fulfil her potential. His control of her generally leads to his downfall rather than to exultation.
As feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey once put it, the woman stands as a “signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command, by imposing on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”
PYGAMLION AND LITERATURE FOR ADULTS
Some examples in stories for adults:
- The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, about controlling pregnant women’s bodies among other things
- Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film starring Clint Eastwood, who turns trailer park kid Hilary Swank into a prize fighter. The film poster would have you believe that this is a film about a female protagonist, but the real hero — the one who changes over the course of the story — is Clint Eastwood.
- Annie Hall, the 1977 Woody Allen movie. Annie actually resists Alvy’s attempts to turn her into something in his own image, subverting the story. (Woody Allen is a feminist? Who knew!)
- The Phantom of the Opera, who falls in love with an obscure chorus singer Christine, and privately tutors her while terrorizing the rest of the opera house and demanding Christine be given lead roles
- Titanic, becauseJack helps Rose speak out and assert her independence from her suffocating family and fiance.
- The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which a man is repulsed by the birth-mark on his wife’s cheek, so dreams he cuts it out with a knife while she’s asleep, comparing himself to Pygmalion. The man is a natural scientist, so in real life makes a concoction and has her drink it.
- George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. A professor of phonetics wagers that he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.
- Pretty Woman, in which creator and created are united at the end (and is probably why audiences loved it so much)
- John Cheever’s short story Metamorphoses translates legends from Ovid into Westchester settings.
Stories in which a man helps a woman have a sexual awakening might also be considered part of the Pygmalion wish-fulfilment fantasy of men. This can be traced at least as far back as fairytales:
The disadvantage — or, if you prefer it, the advantage — of being a princess is that you are essentially passive. You just sit there on your throne, or on a nearby rock, while the suitors and the dragons fight it out. In an extreme form of this passivity you are literally asleep or in a trance like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. This particular archetype is one that has always appealed to men, and it turns up again and again in their fiction. The trance takes different forms: soemtimes it is physical virginity, sometimes it is a sort of psychic virginity. Often the princess is frigid, or sexually unawakened like Lady Chatterley; sometimes she is intellectually or politically awakened, like Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda or like the Princess Casamassima in Henry James’s novel of the same name, which is in many ways, and not always successfully, very much like a fairy tale.
— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature
This Pygmalion trope is not limited in stories for and about men; take the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. The success of this series shows that the trope has worked its way into a widespread female fantasy of the 2010s.
PYGMALION IN PSYCHOLOGY
The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance; both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy.