Is Educating Rita a comedy of gender or social class?

Educating Rita, both in its version of a motion picture as well as a play, is a comedy contrived from class based differences of the lead protagonists.  Rita, played by Julie Walters is a twenty six year old hairdresser, ailing from working classLiverpool.  To the role of her tutor, played by Michael Caine, are associated middle-class markers of education, job security and social status.  Having emerged from different socio-economic backgrounds, the meeting of the tutor and the pupil induces refreshing changes in both their lives.  For instance, Rita aspires to overcome the attendant disadvantages of her working class background through her enrolment in the Open University.  The education she would receive there, she believes, would liberate and enlighten her; by way of which she hopes to move away from the social strata of her birth.  Professor Frank Bryant, on the other hand, is a middle-aged alcoholic, who has no interest what so ever in his professorship.  Instead he openly displays his melancholy and acts indifferent to the requirements of his work.  So when these two characters from disparate social and economic backgrounds cross paths, new and interesting developments take place in both their lives.  While comedy is used by the director as a suitable narrative implement, the recurrent theme is one based on class.  In Educating Rita,

“Rita’s desire for self-discovery places her in conflict with her class background. She is, thus, a kind of female version of the 1950s ‘scholarship boy’ whose involvement in education and middle-class culture inevitably takes her away from her social origins.  In this respect, the film follows the older school of working- class films in placing particular emphasis upon cultural rather than economic divisions. Unlike many of the working-class films that follow it, there is little evidence of unemployment or poverty. What Rita (who is herself employed) aspires to escape is not so much economic hardship as ‘cultural deprivation’” (Kramp & Humphreys, 1993).

It is true of Educating Rita too, that the British nation can stake out intellectual turf as they have always done with class warfare. Running all the way from Richard Sheridan through George Bernard Shaw and John Osborne, the theme of class-conflict has provided the staple of comedy of attitudes and manners. In Educating Rita, the lead characters Julie Walters and Michael Caine bring to screen contrasting but complementary kinds of energy. To their credit, the lead pair also makes life in British academia more interesting than is usually portrayed.  Michael Caine’s performance in his role as a despondent English professor and one-time poet is full of artistic skill and finesse.  Julie Walters’ portrayal of a charming and cheeky working-class heroine is a perfect foil to Caine’s performance.  Though its most obvious debt is to Shaw’s Pigmalion,

“Educating Rita has much of the wit and grit of the British New Wave dramas of two decades earlier.  But Willy Russell’s script, from his own stage play (also starring Julie Walters), combines hard-edged social realism with a lightly-worn, spirited humour.  This is a comedy of contrasts, immediately juxtaposing the appearance of the sparkly young hairdresser with that of her middle-aged tutor. Walters’ Rita sports a peroxide-blonde hairdo with pink highlights and wears an array of bright outfits; Michael Caine, who bulked out and grew unkempt curls to play Frank, is dressed throughout in drab, faded shades.” (Hill, 1999)

Of course, the equations of gender too play an important role.  While there is no indication of romance between the two lead characters, the fact that they are from opposing genders, serves as an inducement of interest in one another.  This need not be a romantic interest at all.  From the point of view of the Professor, who is nursing his vapid and melancholic existence, Rita might symbolize the caring and understanding daughter that he never had.  In the same vein, in Professor Frank Bryant, Rita might have found a sophisticated mentor and a friend, into whose society she longs to belong.  While not denying the crucial role thus played by gender in the movie, the strongest underlying theme is one of social class.  For example, Rita’s husband, Denny (Malcolm Douglas), is shown to be employed, but he is hindered by his narrowness of outlook and an inability to support his wife’s wish to be independent and to discover her inner self. On discovering the birth control pills which she has been hiding from him, “he burns her books (which include Chekhov) in a fit of impotent rage. Similarly, in Letter to Brezhnev, Tracy’s (Tracy Lea) boyfriend, Mick (Ted Wood) is presented as typical of theLiverpool men from whom Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) wishes to escape. He is unemployed and primarily interested inTracy’s ‘purse’, ending his relationship with her once she is made redundant (and her redundancy money has been spent)”. (Kramp & Humphreys, 1993)

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