In a Nutshell
Ideas about how women should look are all around us. Swing by your local American Eagle store, and you'll see lots of slender mannequins with blemish-free skin and cheek bones that you could grate cheese on. Unfortunately, despite the fact that girls and women come in all shapes and sizes, these plastic ladies are pretty good examples of what our society thinks a "perfect" female should look like.
As it turns out, worshipping unrealistic standards of beauty started long before the J. Crew catalogue existed. In fact, one of the chief instigators was a sculptor from ancient Greece named Pygmalion who, rather than hang out with real ladies, decided to chisel his ideal girlfriend out of ivory. Pygmalion then fell in love with his statue and actually ended up marrying it. Ah, mannequin matrimony.
When you get down to it, the Pygmalion story is full of thorny ideas about female beauty and clinging to romantic fantasies. This myth is for you if you've ever sworn off the opposite sex, idealized a potential boyfriend/girlfriend, or thought, "What is it about those American Eagle mannequins that makes them so creepy?"
Explore the ways this myth connects with the world and with other topics on ShmoopSurprise, surprise—the satirical play Pygmalion was inspired by the myth of Pygmalion. It was written by George Bernard Shaw, a famously stuffy theatre critic who disliked Cockney accents (crazy, we know). Oh, and bonus: Shaw's play was the inspiration behind My Fair Lady.
Ovid—one of our favorite Roman poets—wrote about Pygmalion in Book 10 of his Metamorphoses. Shmoop has some interesting things to say about it, if we do say so ourselves.
In Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, the main character, Lily Bart, is referred to as "malleable," and she's often treated like an object, much like Pygmalion's statue. Is Lily just Play-Doh for the other characters to shape? Find out with Shmoop's analysis.
In his play The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare invoked the Pygmalion myth by having a statue of Queen Hermione come to life. Spooky or magical? You decide.
Pygmalion isn't the only one who's ever been obsessed with a pretty face. In Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a man named Dorian Gray sacrifices inner good for exterior beauty. Wonder how that turns out.
Isabel Archer, the main character of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, is transformed into a proper lady when her rich uncle leaves her a whopping 70,000 pounds. Not quite a statue-coming-to-life story, but we definitely see the myth in there.
In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, an inanimate human is brought to life. Sadly, Frankenstein doesn't end on as rosy a note as this myth. Check it out for yourself.