Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Why can’t a woman be more like me? Those were the words of frustration about Lisa Doolittle uttered by Professor Henry Higgins in Lerner and Loewe’s musical take on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 Pygmalion. Shaw’s Higgins was a misogynist and a manipulator and the 1964 Fair Lady lyric rings particularly sexist in 2010. But the question, why couldn’t she (or indeed he) be like me, or perhaps more so, as I want them to be, is universal, fresh as ever. I was reminded of that in listening to a couple of pundits voicing their frustration that Barack Obama wasn’t like the idea of what they thought he should be. He should be more emotional, less cerebral; more down to earth, less professorial. He should “feel our pain” like Bill Clinton did. He should communicate more like Ronald Reagan. He should be less elite, more like ordinary folks — more like us.
Now this is not to question the frustration some thoughtful people have in the wake of the shellacking the President’s party took earlier this week. In fact, this post is not really about politics. Let me simply say that, some of us may not like everything he does or how he comports himself, but the Barack Obama who sits in the White House is the same person we saw campaigning in 07-08. He’s amazingly consistent. Also, similar kinds of complaints were expressed about previous occupants. Didn’t we want George W. Bush to be just the opposite of he was — more like, say, Obama? Didn’t we want his father to be less patrician, less detached? Didn’t we want Bill Clinton to be the perfect and faithful husband, more personally disciplined? We want our leaders to fit, not who they are, but our image of who we think they should be. And it isn’t only our leaders. We have a tendency to do the very same in many of our relationships. Not only is it unrealistic and frankly often unfair, it gets us, and those relationships, into terrible trouble.
Whether in our marriages, our parenting, our professional or social relationships, we have great problems separating who we are from who they are. Yes it’s true that we often cherish the differences — sometimes heralded as the source of our attraction — or take pride, for example, in the individuality of our offspring. But when things go wrong, all that melts away; why couldn’t they be just like us, or at least how we envisioned them? Or more destructively, we try to contain those with whom we relate into that ideal picture, to force them into a size 6 when they’re a size 8. And by the way, we knew they were a size 8 from the start, so it’s fair to ask who is in the wrong here? Are they the problem or are we? Nothing is as hard as accepting others for who they are, no impulse greater than replaying Pygmalion.
Consider this from the current NY Times Magazine article on Debra Winger, who has returned to acting after a six year hiatus. Toward its conclusion Mark Harris reports that, Winger agreed to participate in a documentary…called “State of the Art,” about how the industry treats women. Dozens of women were interviewed so Winger was taken aback to learn it had been retitled “Searching for Debra Winger,” finding herself turned into a symbol…as if her decision to stop acting had been more political than personal and she was now the embodiment of some mystical inner repose. “I’m standing for something that people have a need to feel,” she says, still bewildered, “but it’s not me!” Winger’s dilemma is one we all share from time to time, the kind of characterization of others we all often impose. That’s not me, that’s not you.
What is becoming the driving leitmotif of our time, this discomfort with the other whether a different background, skin color, religion or political point of view, derives from the very same phenomenon. I’ll call it a prime human failing. We want people to be just like us, or the ideal picture that we have drawn of them. It’s a picture that fits our needs, often our self-image, not theirs. We’d be so much more comfortable if everyone around us spoke unaccented English and shared our ambitions and aspirations. Would that all people of color could have Harvard degrees. At least then we could kind of accept them as Presidents or the like, sort of. Why can’t everyone in the world see Jesus as their savior, Muhammad as their prophet or that God is a delusion? You know, why can’t a woman be more like a man…think, act and behave just like me?