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Gender Representation – Liberating the Female and Re-thinking Gender

Where’s the man? – Gender representation, Liberating the Female and Re-thinking Gender in Absolutely Fabulous

Gender debates in the academia are still highly influenced by psychoanalytical theory. Although references will be made to some debates, I intend to adopt a cultural approach towards gender representation in Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-1995) that values the genre’s characteristics (i.e. satire), its Camp aesthetics and the influence on the series of consumerist culture. The relevance of Absolutely Fabulous to this study of gender is the complex combination that the series makes between the representation of gender ambiguities and the celebration of consumerism, incorporating a further criticism of the status quo.

These elements interact complexly within a mixture of social satire, theatricality, agitation and exaltation of individualism. It will be argued that Absolutely Fabulous represents gender as fluid (i.e. the ambiguity of Patsy) and also dependent on economic forces and consumerist choices (i.e. the upper-class privileged Edina and Patsy can afford to ‘buy’ men, as well as products and therapies to satisfy their ‘femininity’). Gender ambiguity also mocks traditionalism, conservatism and patriarchy.

Kirkham and Skeggs (1998;287-297) have explored the series’ conjunction of femininity and feminism, reserving little place for the ‘male’, traditionally the dominant ‘sex’ in the genre of comedy. It is crucial to ask to what extent the ‘dominant comic male’ is given a minor role or not in Absolutely Fabulous and how this permits us to ‘read’ him and the series in terms of gender representation. Is this comedy stereotyping the male and not the female, or is it rejecting male role stereotyping and conventional masculinity? If so, what does this say about gender representation in a consumerist society?

This essay will emphasise the role of the neglected male, concentrating on‘alternative readings’ that can be made in relation to the traditionally ‘straight’ one associated with the ‘white-male-middle-class’ (i.e. readings of gender ambiguity in filmnoir (Dyer;1993) have challenged mainstream ‘straight’ interpretations). Representations of ‘minor’ characters will be my focus: Saffy’s (Julia Sawahla) boyfriend Paolo (Tom Hollander); her father Justin (Chris Malcolm) and his boyfriend Oliver (Gary Beadle), and Edina’s (Jennifer Saunders) first husband, Marshall (Christopher Ryan). Patsy’s (Joanna Lumley) ambiguous figure is also crucial for this analysis.

The episodes which are rich in representations of gender ambiguity and appear linked to a consumerist culture are two from the second series, Death and Morocco(1994); two from the third, Happy New Year and Sex (1995) and The Last Shout – parts 1 and 2 (1996), although there will also be references to other episodes. It is necessary first to situate the female in relation to the male in this comic text, before moving on more thoroughly to the analysis of masculinity.

Satire, Theatricality and Hedonism: Situating the ‘Comic’ Female
According to Kirkham and Skeggs (1998;288), Absolutely Fabulous had its origin in the independent comedy circuit in Britain. The American comedian Ruby Wax (script editor of the series) had the idea for the programme. Directed by Bob Spiers and written by Jennifer Saunders, a total of three series (six episodes each) and two final specials were shown on television from 1992 to 1996, first in a mid-evening shot (9.30-10.00p.m) on BBC2 as a ‘quality comedy’, attracting 10 million viewers. Its popularity permitted it to move to BBC1, reaching 11 million people. After the final series in 1995, two special episodes were shown on BBC1 in November 1996.[i][i]

This satirical series focuses on four female characters from three distinct generations – Edina Monsoon (Saunders), the best friend Pasty, the daughter Saffron and the Mother (June Whitfield), drawing much of its humour from issues which may be labelled as ‘feminine’; the preoccupation over body fitness, old age, female friendships, family and sexual relationships. Absolutely Fabulous’ major ‘joke’ centres around the idea of a woman ‘behaving badly’ and not adapting herself to morality and social conventions.

Humour is exploited mainly in ‘non-feminine’ and anti-patriarchal themes, such as female promiscuity, devaluation of the nuclear family and the traditionally strong attachment of the mother and daughter relationship, all of which challenge the ‘domesticity’ of the traditional sit-com and the predominance of men in British comedy.[ii][ii] Laraine Porter (1998;66) has pointed out the ‘comic stereotypes’ of women used in the traditionally ‘male’ narratives, such as the ‘exaggerated dumb blonde’, the ‘naggy wife’ and the ‘ugly hag’. In Absolutely Fabulous, the ‘numerical’ superiority of the women over the men and their character importance is an evidence of female empowerment, which permits the women to misbehave and to engage in role reversals, creating humour out of ‘non-feminine’ representations and situations.

In spite of Saffy (‘the normal’) and the Mother (‘the old hag’), the series rejectstraditional ‘comic female stereotyping’ through Edina and Patsy. Loud, aggressive, agitated, critical, snobbish and consumerist freak, Edina is the embodiment of both the series’ shifts between feminism and femininity as she is the caricature of the New Age hippyish ‘70s and the materialistic ‘80s. Joanna Lumley’s star persona, constructed through parts such as the sexy Purdey of The New Avengers (1976-1977) in the ‘70s and as one of the Bond girls, has guaranteed her a place in the imagery of British male sexual fantasy.[iii][iii] Aristocratic, alcoholic and futile, Patsy has gained humour to both mock and celebrate with Edina ‘70s hedonism with ‘80s/’90s consumerist pleasures. Lumely’s past roles as femme fatale and her personal support for the Conservative party has resulted in a match of sexuality and aristocracy in Pasty, with the intelligent comic element added to this mixture.

According to Kirkham and Skeggs (1998;289-292), the series’ originality ‘lies in the mix of comedic devices, such as visual, verbal and physical humour,….with the comic traditions of disruption and burlesque.’ The visual humour is represented both in Edina’s extravagant clothes as well as in her partying, drinking and her theatrical scenes with Patsy. Physical humour is manifested less through slapstick jokes and violence, and more through the misbehaving of the two women (i.e. in the Birthday (1992) episode, Edina mistreats the guests at her own party).

Despite being considered ‘alternative comedy’, the format of the series is of a typical sit-com (23 to 30 minutes narrative), with regular characters and setting (Edina’s London house, office and holiday places like the Alpes, France and Morocco), relying on the traditional theme of the disruption of an order that is restored in the end. However,Absolutely Fabulous rarely reaches a closure (Kirkham and Skeggs;287-297). When it seems that Edina and Saffy are going to make up, an egoistic pleasure springs up to muddle things up again. Absolutely Fabulous also uses constantly flashbacks to explore the characters’ state of mind.

According to Neale and Krutnik (1990;236), much of alternative comedy relies on ‘character realism’ and anecdotal jokes, which is Absolutely Fabulous’ main source of humour. It is through characterisations that the females are defined by what they are (i.e Patsy and Edina as immoral and irresponsible in contrast to the rightness of Saffy) and the males by what they are not (Justin, not the caring, authoritative, ‘straight’ white-collar father of Saffy; Marshall, not the male who has control over the women in his relationship; Paolo, not the white-middle-class family man he would like to be and Oliver, not the stereotype of the black homosexual).

A sense of ‘triviality’ is also a major aspect of the series – by this I mean the tendency to devalue and give little importance to social and cultural aspects of reality. It rejects seriousness and flirts with Camp, as manifested by its emphasis on theatricality, style and exaggeration, elements which have been mapped out by Susan Sontag (1961,1990;275-292) as characteristics of Camp. The name Absolutely Fabulous in itself exalts style over content. The parody of the fashion and media world, with its excesses and futility, is a proof of the series’ stylistic inclinations. Many episodes emphasise theatricality and style, either through a thematic approach (i.e. the episodes Fashion andMagazine (1992) from the first series deal with the stylistic fashion world) or throughperformance (i.e. in the Morocco (1994) episode, Edina falls on the carousel in the airport and in Death (1994), she falls on her father’s grave).

Absolutely Fabulous’ form of satire is ambiguous, for it mocks the hypocrisy of the upper-class world while also making champagne and money desirable for women who are excluded from this ‘elite club’(Kirkham and Skeggs;1998). Episodes such as Fashion,Magazine, Jealous (1995) and The End (1995), which concentrate on the fashion theme, combine moments of excitement and celebration (i.e. in the Jealous episode Edina is surrounded by celebrities like Naomi Campbell in the PR Awards evening) with disillusion and mockery (she ends up losing the award and falling on top of the garbage outside).

The series focuses also on parallels between the characters, in the contrast between the ‘carnivalesque’ and colourful ‘outfits’ of Edina in opposition to the boring clothes of Saffy. It also relies on ‘quick put-downs, sharp and often vituperative satirical stabs, verbal deflations…(Kirkham and Skeggs;289-290). There is a lot of double comic acts, between Edina and Saffy, Edina and her mother, Patsy and Saffy (p.290). In theMagazine, Hospital (1994) and Door Handle (1995) episodes, for instance, Saffy and Patsy are jumping on each others throats, whereas in episodes such as Death andBirthday (1992), Edina and her mother exchange ironies and verbal deflations.

Nonetheless, the question of where the male stands within this text remains to be debated. It is the empowering of the female, though, that has permitted hedonism, theatricality and social satire to flourish through the characterisations of Edina and Patsy as women who behave badly, who live for pleasure and ‘make a spectacle of themselves’, mocking the status quo in their unconventional behaviour. The use of role reversals (i.e. Saffy is like a mother to Edina) is an element that also allows the representation of gender ambiguities and which finds in the empowering of the females a space of performance. It is to these role reversals and to the representation of ‘conventional’ masculinity in relation to the female world that I turn to in the next section.

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[i][i] The BBC’s head of comedy entertainment, Jon Plowman, explained the success of the series in an interview to James Rampton in The Independent (07/12/96) by stressing that Saunders had brought to television ‘some female silliness, and there wasn’t a lot of that sort of stuff around..’ According to Laraine Porter (1998;65), women in classical narratives from the 30s to the 80s in British comedy have been underrepresented, not only numerically, but also in terms of narrowness of their comic roles. The advent of ‘alternative comedy’ definitely inaugurated a new era of women’s ‘silliness’ on television, through female comedians such as Dawn French, Jo Brand and Saunders herself.

[ii][ii] John Cleese and Stephen Fry are some of the famous ‘male’ comedians. Most British comedies have tended to centre on the family (i.e. George and Milfred (Thames, 1976-1979) and more recent ones have focused on ‘males’ misbehaving, like The Young Ones (BBC, 1982,1984) and Men Behaving Badly (Thames, 1992-1994, BBC, 1994-).

Dr. Carolina Matos
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Dr. Carolina Matos

Lecturer in Sociology at City, University of London
Carolina Matos is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, City University London. She was previously a part-time lecturer at the Government Department at Essex University. Former Fellow in Political Communications at the LSE, Matos obtained her PhD in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College and has taught and researched in the UK in political communications, media and politics at the University of East London (UEL), St. Mary’s College and Goldsmiths.

Matos is the author of Journalism and political democracy in Brazil (Lexington Books, 2008) and Media and politics in Latin America: globalization, democracy and identity (I.B. Tauris, 2012), which won the Premio Jabuti 2014 prize, first category in communications. She is also Director of the Jeremy Tunstall Global Media Research Centre at the Department of Sociology, City University London, and also teaches on gender and development at the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS), a think thank in London.
Dr. Carolina Matos
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