Sabrina Sidney’s Story: The Real Girl Behind Eliza Doolittle

In 1964, the film My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, won numerous Academy Awards and the hearts of audiences worldwide. The movie was based on a stage musical of the same name, which in turn was based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison / Sabrina Sidney / Jack L. Warner, Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and George Cukor / Audrey Hepburn

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Shaw shared that the character of Henry Higgins was based on various British professors of phonetics, like Alexander Melville Bell and Henry Sweet. However, the true identity of Eliza Doolittle remained unknown until 2013, when English historian Wendy Moore revealed that she was based on a real woman, known as Sabrina Sidney.

Based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses

George Bernard Shaw’s inspiration for the play Pygmalion was the Greek mythological character of the same name from Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses. In the poem, Pygmalion is a king and sculptor who falls in love with a statue that he carved. The subject of Pygmalion has been the inspiration of numerous works of poetry and prose.

George Bernard Shaw is writing in the garden of his home.

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Shaw was particularly moved by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s melodrama from the 1760s. However, instead of setting his play in ancient times, Shaw’s Pygmalion occurs in 20th century England. Shaw’s Pygmalion character is Professor Henry Higgins, and his “creation” is a real woman, Eliza Doolittle.

Why Can’t the English Speak?

Based on Pygmalion, My Fair Lady tells the story of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins from her point of view. Eliza begins as a lowly flower seller, mocked by Higgins, a phonetics professor, for her terrible English. Higgins bets that he can teach Doolittle to speak correctly with the proper education.

Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins.

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Higgins wonders why the English can’t teach their children how to speak and believes that Eliza’s cockney accent is the reason she is poor. He proceeds to give her an education and a makeover, so much so that she is able to pass as an upper-class lady.

What Year Is My Fair Lady Set In?

The play and subsequent film My Fair Lady are set in England in 1912, like the Shaw work it is based upon. However, the Broadway play, starring Julie Andrews, premiered in 1956, and the film was released only in 1964, both of them after Shaw had passed away.

Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, and Wilfrid Hyde-White in a scene from My Fair Lady.

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While he has alive, Shaw admitted to basing the character of Henry Higgins after more than Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He shared in the play’s preface that Higgins “is not a portrait of [Henry] Sweet, to whom the adventure of Eliza… would have been impossible; [but] there are touches of Sweet in the play.”

The Story of Sabrina Sidney

In 2013, Wendy Moore, British historian and nonfiction author of Wedlock, revealed how to Create the Perfect Wife is about Sabrina Sidney, the woman she believes inspired Eliza Doolittle. Sabrina was an orphan, born in 1757, and taken in by British author Thomas Day at age twelve.

A drawing of Sabrina Sidney.

Source: Wikimedia

Day decided to mold her into the perfect wife after other women had rejected him. The author thought the best way to find the perfect woman was to make her himself, much like Ovid’s Pygmalion. So, he chose Sabrina and another girl, Lucretia, for his experiment.

Left at the Foundling Hospital

Sabrina was born in London in 1757 and abandoned at the Foundling Hospital (a home for deserted children) as a baby, with only a note explaining that her baptismal name was Manima Butler. She was raised at the Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital branch until age twelve, when Day took her in.

The now-demolished Foundling Hospital.

Source: Wikimedia

Day was an abolitionist and an author, described as pockmarked, with a bad temper and a brooding disposition. On the other hand, Sabrina was thin and pretty, “a clear auburn brunette, with darker eyes more glowing bloom and chestnut tresses.”

Creating the Perfect Wife

Thomas Day had a list of requirements he’d compiled for his future wife. After being rejected and not finding the girl of his dreams, he encountered Rousseau’s book “Emile.” In the book, the character of Sophie becomes the ideal wife after being raised from adolescence to be so.

The title page of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel, Emile.

Source: Wikimedia

So, inspired by the book and Rousseau’s learning-by-doing educational technique, Day and his friend John Bicknell conspired to find two adolescent girls to groom into their perfect wives. At age twenty-one, Day took in the lovely twelve-year-old Sabrina.

Lying About the Experiment

In order to use the girl in his experiment, Day lied to the orphanage and told them that she would become an indentured servant at his friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s home in Berkshire. The reason for this was that girls were only allowed to be taken in by married men.

A portrait of Thomas Day.

Source: Wikimedia

In 1769, under the fabricated terms, her apprenticeship was approved by the orphanage. Day named his newly adopted experiment Sabrina Sidney. He then took in a second charge, who was blond and beautiful and called her Lucretia.

Education in Isolation

Day supposedly wanted to educate the young women in isolation, so he moved them to Avignon, France. He may also have migrated there to avoid his experiment being discovered, especially since he’d lied and broken the law to adopt Sabrina and Lucretia.

A man reads out of a book as two women stand by the door.

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Day hired no servants so that no one would have any influence on the girls except him. Focusing on teaching them in the style of Emile, Day taught them to write and do arithmetic and how to manage a house, doing cooking, cleaning, and all manner of housework.

Growing Impatient With the Girls

Thomas became impatient with the young girls as they grew bored of their studies and fought between themselves and decided that he had to drop one of them. He wasn’t sure at first who to continue with since they were both gorgeous.

A painting of a man standing beside a woman in a field.

Source: Wikimedia

Although she was more cheerful, he eventually dropped Lucretia, calling her “invincibly stupid” and “impossibly stubborn.” Sabrina was studious and reserved, closer to what he wanted in a wife. In 1770, he moved back to Lichfield, England, with Sidney and sent Lucretia to a hat-making apprenticeship.

The Negative Education Concept

Aside from continuing his tutoring of Sabrina in science and her household training, Day decided to begin using the concept of “negative education” to make her stronger. He believed that by torturing her, he would fortify Sabrina against the hardships of life.

A drawing of Day shooting his pistol at Sabrina’s feet.

Source: Wikimedia

The idea was to protect her from vices rather than teaching her virtues, in some type of warped reverse psychology. The unkind man fired at Sabrina’s skirts, not telling her his pistol was loaded with blanks. He dropped hot sealing wax on her and poked her with pins.

An Unsuccessful Experiment

Day’s cruel experiments reached their peak when he made Sidney wade into a frozen lake up to her neck to improve her resistance to cold. Sabrina began to tell people in their intellectual circle about his techniques and started to question what she was being told.

A man leans back to back with a bashful woman.

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Soon, the propriety of the experiment came into question, and Edgeworth convinced Day to deem the experiment unsuccessful. In 1771, Day sent Sabrina away to Sutton Coldfield boarding school in Warwickshire, a finishing school, where she stayed for the next three years.

Still an Option

When Sabrina finished school, Day sent her to be apprenticed with a dressmaker’s family and asked them to make sure she worked hard and was denied luxuries of any kind. They ignored his wishes and treated her well until they went bankrupt, leaving Sidney with no apprenticeship or home.

Two women sit, sewing dresses.

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Thomas was still considering eighteen-year-old Sabrina as a potential wife for himself and arranged for her to stay with his friends. She was in his control again, and Day resumed his process of molding Sabrina to become his ideal wife.

Forced Ideas on Her

He chose what she wore and forced his ideas on her. Sabrina willingly went along with his wishes and ideas, making Thomas believe he’d succeeded in creating the perfect wife. He began boasting of his plans to marry Sabrina without consulting her first.

A man grabs a woman as she tries to push him away from her.

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One of his friends told Sidney of Day’s plans to wed her, and she confronted him. Thomas admitted to Sabrina that he wished for her hand but did not reveal to her that he had been planning to marry her since before they even met.

A Broken Engagement

Sabrina neither agreed nor refused Day’s proposal, but nevertheless, as she debated it, he began to plan the wedding. Thomas left Sabrina with friends while he went about planning the event. He gave her instructions detailing exactly what to wear while he was gone.

A woman rides past a man as she sits in a horse carriage.

Source: BBC

Day returned to find Sidney dressed differently than what he had ordered and became enraged. She fled out of fear, and he called off the engagement. He then sent her away to a boarding house in Birmingham and decided he wanted never to see her again.

Finding Out the Truth

Sidney spent the following eight years in Birmingham while Day married an heiress. An apothecary proposed to Sabrina, but Day told her she shouldn’t marry the man under any circumstance. After becoming a lady’s companion in 1783, Sabrina encountered John Bicknell, who’d helped pick her out at the Foundling Hospital.

Thomas Day / Sabrina Sidney

Source: Tumblr

Bicknell was a lawyer with a gambling problem and proposed to Sidney right away. She asked Day for his opinion, and he disapproved. Bicknell then told Sidney all about the experiment and Day’s plans to marry her.

He Refused to Apologize

After finding out Day had been molding her into the ideal wife since childhood, Sabrina confronted him. Thomas admitted it was true but refused to apologize. He then allowed her to marry Bicknell, and they never spoke again.

Man proposing to a woman.

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Sidney and Bicknell married in 1784 and had two children. Bicknell continued to use all their money gambling until he died of a stroke in 1787. After his death, Day and Edgeworth began sending Sidney money, and she found a job as a housekeeper and then as general manager of a school.

Keeping Her Past a Secret

Later in life, Sabrina refused to discuss her past mistreatment and asked her friends not to either. However, Anna Seward disrespected her wishes and wrote about Sabrina’s upbringing. Sidney’s sons found out and were very upset to learn of their mother’s past.

A drawing of Sabrina Sidney.

Source: Pinterest

Edgeworth wrote that Day and Sidney were a great match and loved each other, but Sidney disputed this, stating that she’d effectively been Day’s slave and had been miserable. By the time of her death in 1843, Sabrina Sidney lived in a four-story home with her own servants.

A Less Severe Adaptation

Shaw’s version of Sidney’s story is far less severe than the actual events that took place. Professor Henry Higgins, the Thomas Day character in Pygmalion, takes on Eliza Doolittle at her request.

Audrey Hepburn walks with a book on her head in a scene from 'My Fair Lady.'

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Higgins bets his friend that he can make Eliza pass as a lady within six months, and he teaches her to speak proper English so that she can make her way up in the world. He has no intention of marrying her at first, but later, he falls in love after molding her into a lady.

Higgins Is Still Problematic

Henry Higgins is still a problematic character despite being far more likable and less criminal than Thomas Day. He is snobbish, mean, and conceited and treats Eliza with the utmost disrespect. However, rather than trying to create the perfect woman to marry, he’s sworn off women.

Rex Harrison in publicity portrait for the film 'My Fair Lady.'

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Higgins is trying to make a point by teaching Eliza. He wants to prove that the only real reason the working class remains poor and downtrodden is because they don’t speak proper English. Higgins believes that with proper education, class can be transcended.

Shaw Swore Pygmalion Wouldn’t Become a Musical

While he was alive, many producers approached George Bernard Shaw to convert Pygmalion into a musical stage show. However, Shaw refused any such requests swearing that he wouldn’t “allow a comic opera to supplant” his drama.

Julie Andrews sits amongst principal cast members during the My Fair Lady Production.

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Shaw’s reasoning against a Pygmalion musical was purely financial. He professed that “a Pygmalion operetta is quite out of the question [because] Pygmalion is my most steady source of income: it saved me from ruin during the war and still brings in a substantial penny every week.” After his death, Shaw’s wishes were ignored.

Who Wrote My Fair Lady?

First, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein attempted to make Shaw’s Pygmalion into a musical but found it impossible. They told Alan Jay Lerner that it couldn’t be done, yet Lerner proved them wrong and wrote My Fair Lady in the early 1950s with composer Fredrick Loewe.

Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner sit at a piano.

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After much deliberation, Loewe and Lerner chose My Fair Lady’s title before originally considering Pygmalion and Lady Liza. The name, which appears nowhere in the musical, is the last line of the famous nursery rhyme “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”

Eliza Is Different Than Sabrina

Like Higgins, Eliza Doolittle is different than her real-life counterpart, Sabrina. She isn’t a deserted child adopted at age twelve, but a poor flower seller aged twenty-one. Eliza’s mother is dead, but her father, a drunken garbage collector, is alive.

Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn appear in a scene from 'My Fair Lady'

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Eliza has agency; she chooses to ask Higgins for help herself after he brags to a friend that he could pass her off as a lady. She asks him to teach her proper English so that she can someday have enough money for chocolates and a heated room.

Cynical About Higgins

The songs save the musical; they’re from Eliza’s point of view and are cynical about Higgins. The songs reveal that he’s a pompous fool with a blown-up ego who believes he’s the one responsible for Eliza’s success. Yet the audience knows better.

Audrey Hepburn sits in her iconic dress beside Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

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The Pygmalion story always intended to prove that a man who believes he can create the perfect woman is a fool. It isn’t about a pliable female being molded into a wife, but about a strong woman retaining her identity despite a controlling man trying to change her.

The Broadway Play

My Fair Lady premiered on Broadway in 1956, with Rex Harrison as Higgins and Julie Andrews as Doolittle. However, the play’s dress rehearsal was almost canceled due to Harrison’s cold feet and self-doubt about his singing ability.

Julie Andrews is wearing her ballgown from the stage musical 'My Fair Lady.'

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After singing with the orchestra for the first time, Rex exclaimed, “I’m not opening tonight… as a matter of fact, I may never open.” Luckily, the terrified Harrison rallied, and the curtain went up. The audience loved the show, and every song was applauded, especially The Rain in Spain.

The Rain in Spain

As it happens, the lyrics to The Rain in Spain might rhyme perfectly, but they are pretty inaccurate. The words are: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” However, in truth, the rain in Spain falls mainly in the northern hills and mountains.

Rex Harrison and Reid Shelton look at Julie Andrews sitting on a sofa in My Fair Lady's play.

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This mistake never bothered the audience, and My Fair Lady won six Tony’s in 1957. The musical’s original run went on for six years, a record at the time, and the show’s original cast soundtrack recording became the bestselling album in the U.S. in 1956.

Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle

Julie Andrews was cast to play Eliza in the Broadway show at only nineteen. Andrews was “hopelessly out of [her] depth” and needed one-on-one rehearsals. Moss Hart, the director, canceled practices for a week and went over each scene numerous times with Andrews until she felt ready.

Julie Andrews plays Eliza Doolittle in the stage musical 'My Fair Lady.'

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Yet when the film rights were procured, Andrews wasn’t chosen to reprise her role as Eliza. At the time, Julie was only known for her work on Broadway, and the producers were scared that the movie would fail without a famous female lead.

Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins

Rex Harrison played Henry Higgins in both the Broadway and film adaptations of My Fair Lady. He was quite a diva and had many complaints throughout both productions. Harrison protested the play’s original title, Lady Liza, upset that it made Higgins second tier to Doolittle.

Rex Harrison in a scene from the film 'My Fair Lady.'

Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images

He’d never sung before and got through the musical by talking to the beat rather than singing. Harrison was a loyal fan of Shaw and wanted to ensure the musical didn’t waver from Pygmalion’s source material. Whenever something did vary, he’d complain.

Best Picture of 1964

My Fair Lady was adapted to the silver screen in 1964 by Lerner, who wrote the musical. The film was directed by George Cukor, who accepted the project gladly after hearing only two songs. My Fair Lady cost $17 million to produce and broke Warner Bros.’s most expensive film record.

Jack L. Warner, Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and George Cukor pose with their Academy Awards.

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But, with a little bit of luck, My Fair Lady became the second highest-grossing film of 1964. Furthermore, the movie gained critical acclaim, taking home eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

Cary Grant Almost Played Higgins

Before Cukor and Lerner asked Harrison to reprise his role as Higgins, they considered many other Hollywood stars. Among the candidates were Noel Coward, Rock Hudson, Peter O’Toole, Michael Redgrave, George Sanders, and Cary Grant.

Cary Grant on the deck of a ship.

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Cary Grant turned the role down, explaining that his manner of speaking was far closer to that of Eliza Doolittle than to the perfect English of phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. So, despite their feeling that the age difference between him and Eliza would be too big, the filmmakers offered the role to Harrison, who accepted.

Julie Andrews Showed Them

After screen testing Julie Andrews for the role of Eliza, the producers decided they needed a bigger Hollywood star to draw in the audience. Before settling on Audrey Hepburn, they considered Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Jones, Connie Stevens, and Shirley MacLaine.

Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in a scene from the movie

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Meanwhile, Andrews was instead cast in Mary Poppins. In her acceptance speech after winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress, she thanked Warner Bros. for not casting her in My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews also showed them up by beating Audrey Hepburn for Best Actress at the Oscars that year.

Hepburn Didn’t Get Along

Audrey Hepburn was cast to play Eliza Doolittle at age thirty-four, despite the character of Eliza being only twenty-one. Fortunately, Audrey is ageless, and no one knew any better. However, she and her male co-star, Rex Harrison, didn’t always get along.

Audrey Hepburn dances with Rex Harrison in a scene from My Fair Lady

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Rex had recently quit smoking, and it drove him nuts that Audrey, who smoked three packs a day, always had a cigarette in her mouth. In order to prepare for her role in the musical, Hepburn did intense vocal training and practiced her singing constantly.

Did Audrey Hepburn Sing in My Fair Lady?

Unfortunately, Audrey Hepburn’s efforts to improve her singing weren’t good enough for the director. So, despite her months of training, while editing the film he decided, that she would have to be dubbed over. In the end, Marni Nixon sang almost all of Eliza’s songs.

Audrey Hepburn poses for a portrait in her My Fair Lady costume.

Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Nixon was an experienced dubber and had sung the songs for The King and I and West Side Story. Hepburn only sang the harsh-toned chorus for the song Just You Wait and its reprise. Jeremy Brett, who plays Freddy, was also dubbed by Bill Shirley.

The Bath Scene

The scene in which Eliza Doolittle has her first bath is not exactly historically accurate. The working class of Edwardian England may not have had baths in their homes, but by the early twentieth century, there were public bathhouses all over London, and Eliza would have certainly been to one before.

Eliza is forced to take a bath in a scene from My Fair Lady

Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

In 1912, even poor Londoners would attend the bathhouses once a week. However, it’s possible that the filmmakers were suggesting that Doolittle’s character merely washed off doing a sponge bath instead of fully submerging in a tub until then.

Eliza Doolittle Day

Devoted fans of the film celebrate Eliza Doolittle Day annually on May 20th, as decided by Eliza herself in the song Just You Wait:

“Next week on May 20th

I proclaim Liza Doolittle day

All the people will celebrate the glory of you

And whatever you wish and want, I gladly will do”

Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison on the set of My Fair Lady.

Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

In 1965, a year after the movie’s release, the artificial intelligence program ELIZA was named after her. ELIZA was a language processing computer program created to show the superficiality of communication between machines and humans.

My Fair Lady’s Legacy

Still today, My Fair Lady’s legacy lives on. British singer-songwriter Eliza Caird chose the stage name Eliza Doolittle after Shaw’s memorable character, which had been her childhood nickname. In 2021, model and reality star Kendall Jenner wore an ensemble identical to Eliza’s ball look to the Met Gala.

Audrey Hepburn portrait for the film 'My Fair Lady' / Kendall Jenner attends The 2021 Met Gala

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Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the series Family Guy, shared that in college, he’d “worked up an impression of Rex Harrison… to get girls.” Later, when developing the voice for Stewie, the snobby maniacal baby, he used his Henry Higgins impression.

The Original Makeover Movie

My Fair Lady or Pygmalion is the original makeover story. An unwanted girl gets transformed into a beautiful lady and gets the guy. The makeover is a familiar film trope and repeatedly appears in Hollywood to this day.

Audrey Hepburn arrives at the ball in a scene from My Fair Lady.

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At some point, instead of a man making the girl over in the movies, girls and gay guys started making each other over, but they were still doing so to get the guy. Only recently, films in which a girl gets a makeover for herself have appeared, like The Devil Wears Prada.

Shaw Wrote an Alternative Ending

Initially, in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza and Henry don’t end up together. However, despite the show’s success, audiences wanted a happy ending for Doolittle and Higgins. So, to Shaw’s exasperation, producers changed the end to one in which the two leads live happily ever after together.

Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in the musical film 'My Fair Lady.'

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Shaw told the play’s producer, “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot.” Afterward, he added a story called What Happened Afterwards to the print edition of the play, where he explains why Higgins and Eliza could never be married.

Protecting Eliza’s Integrity

Shaw wanted to protect Eliza’s integrity, which was ruined by the happy ending. In a letter to the actress, he wrote, “When Eliza emancipates herself… she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end. When Higgins takes your arm… you must instantly throw him off with implacable pride.”

Audrey Hepburn poses for a portrait as Eliza Doolittle.

Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Shaw even continued fighting against the happy ending in the 1938 film Pygmalion. He suggested a compromise in which Eliza and Higgins tenderly bid farewell, and she goes to live with Freddy and run a flower shop.

Modern Day Pygmalions

Sadly, Shaw failed to uphold Eliza Doolittle’s honor, and today we are left with the version in which she chooses to stay with the controlling man. Throughout history, many films have been made using the same plot, including Pretty Woman and She’s All That.

Addison Rea and Tanner Buchanan in a still from He’s All That.

Source: Moviestilldb.com/Copyright: Netflix

Recently even gender-reversed Pygmalion films, like He’s All That and The Makeover, have been released. At least Sabrina Sidney, the real-life Eliza Doolittle, unlike the many characters based on her, didn’t marry her abuser, Thomas Day, and instead lived a long life away from him.

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