• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #339: Pygmalion


My wife's feet are cold like that, too.

Ovid first tells us of Pygmalion a classical sculptor so disgusted by the Propoetidian whores that he swears off women. He then crafts an ivory state of such beauty that he falls in love with it. This being mythology, he prays to Aphrodite and she grants his wish, turning the statue into flesh (named Galatea by later poets). And they lived happily ever after, Pygmalion and his perfect bride. It pays to ask for what you want, I guess.


The myth of Pygmalion was a recurring Renaissance theme, and secured modern fame in the Shaw play of the same name, subsequently reinterpreted as the movie My Fair Lady. The story is often critiqued as a representation of the hypocrisy of masculine desire, the dual madonna-whore expectation of women, and there's some truth to that. Pygmalion essentially sculpted his own virgin, an ivory sex doll that he owned and could shape into what he desired. Professor Higgins does the same thing centuries later, molding Eliza into a polished lady.


And yet it's a phenomenon not peculiar to men. Women too pursue their own version of the madonna-whore complex, often seeking out bad boys to date and then tame providers to marry. And what wife doesn't endeavor to improve her spouse, bending his behavior toward the more domestic ideal? All men and women are possessed of the internal tension between erotic passion and safe companionship. We all visit these impossible expectations on our lovers and partners, and chafe under their impossible expectations in turn. We're a greedy, complicated, difficult-to-please species.

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