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Rowe identifies the unruly woman by a physical presence which is both excessive and loose (she specifically focuses on Roseanne as the archetypal unruly woman), excess may also be represented through the behaviour, uniform and attitudes of the female characters. In this way, Feuer is able to develop the definition of the unruly woman as any character “exceeding the norms of femininity at the time the character was popular”.
The icon of the unruly woman has been interpreted by some academics as providing a space in which female transgression can be witnessed and celebrated, even while they seem to be part of larger social forces, which should contain them, such as marriage and family. Absolutely Fabulous clearly generates comedy from the excesses of its protagonists, and particularly by implying their distance from the values which they should display as woman or mother.
In an episode from series 4, Small Opening, the programme opens with a tracking shot across an opulent living room set, characterised by its extravagant furniture and objets d’art.
Eddie and Patsy are in the living room, attempting to tidy up. However, this is not a scene of domesticity, since the mess in question is a huge pile of various narcotics. Various empty bottles of Bollinger champagne also litter the set, adding a final touch to the hedonistic atmosphere.
As with many sitcoms, this particular space is strongly associated with the protagonists, signifying the conspicuous affluence, adherence to fashion and the uninhibited lifestyle that Eddie and Patsy have chosen to lead. However, Eddie’s house is not entirely her own.
The kitchen, for instance, is clearly demarcated as Saffy’s space. Tucked away below the rest of the house, Saffy and her grandmother are most often shown around the kitchen table, which is probably the most traditional piece of furniture in the house. Eddie and Patsy only venture into this room when necessity demands, and both are shown to be uneasy here. In most episodes, it is a place for confusion and conflict. In Small Opening, Eddie (stoned and paranoid) attacks her mobile phone on the kitchen table, mistaking its ringtone for the drone of a giant bee.
Later, she verbally assaults her former husbands as they gather in the kitchen, prior to the opening night of Saffy’s autobiographical play: “I can tell you a few things about him. Being married to him was like being married to an antique shop – full of crap and always closed. Old wood, aren’t you? ” Eddie’s antipathy towards the kitchen, the domestic space most closely associated with traditional notions of femininity, is typical of the way in which the programme constructs the character in opposition to familiar ideas about women and their roles.
The notion of motherhood is parodied in almost every episode of the show, as Eddie’s neglect of Saffy is revealed in monstrous proportions. In this episode, a flashback sequence shows Eddie and Patsy taking a young Saffy to the park during the 1980s. Dressed in an exaggerated version of a New Romantic costume and played out to the soundtrack of Prince Charming by Adam and the Ants, Eddie and Patsy are fascinated by this unfamiliar environment. Ignoring Saffy, they take over the children’s play area. However, their lack of experience is telling; Patsy is knocked out by a flying swing, despite being warned by Saffy that “it comes back again”.
After the flashback, Eddie confronts her daughter about the play that she has written, but her fears are not based, as we might expect, upon filial betrayal: “Saffy darling. Will you answer Mummy one question? How fat is the woman playing me? ” Given that Eddie’s relationships to her daughter and to her home are turned upon their heads for comedy, it is not surprising that Absolutely Fabulous plays a similar trick with the role of men within the narrative. Neither of the protagonists are shown to be dependent upon men or emotional relationships for their well-being.
Unlike more conventional domestic comedies, there is no straight man used as a foil for the female characters’ eccentricities, nor to sort out the situations in which they find themselves. In fact, the environment is often constructed as hostile to male presence. When ex-husband Marshall arrives, his entrance into the house is choreographed like a scene from a spaghetti western. His trepidation is shown to be well founded, as we cut to a low angle shot of Eddie and Patsy looking down from the landing, smoking cigarillos, accompanied by a Morriconesque soundtrack.
In many ways, the most obvious source of conventional masculine values within the text is Patsy. Her excessive appetites for alcohol, drugs and sexual satisfaction suggests a similar outlook to the protagonists of/Wen Behaving Badly and her ‘maleness’ is further heightened by the jealous way she guards her relationship with Eddie. The programme is able to play on this idea of Patsy’s masculinity in order to confuse the conventional representations of gender further. Eddie’s mother often treats Patsy as’the man of the house’: Patsy, there you are dear.
I need a strong pair of arms. I’ve got a wardrobe stuck on the stairs. Furthermore, Patsy’s look (bouffant hair, exaggerated makeup, extravagant designer costumes) and the way she is lit strongly suggests another archetype of mixed gender qualities – the drag queen. Small Opening acknowledges the significance of this construction as we watch the play within the text. In Saffy’s production, Patsy is played by a man. Patsy doesn’t realise this but is delighted with herdoppelganger: “Her tits are bigger than mine, Eddie, but otherwise she’s fantastic”
At the end of the episode the truth is revealed when the cast of the play are invited to lunch. Patsy is not, however, thrown by the revelation: “Never mind. Cheers mate. ” Patsy’s (and the programme’s) acceptance of her gender ambivalence is indicative of the text’s refusal to ‘punish’ the characters for their unconventionality or to force them to return to more normal modes of behaviour at the closure of each episode. Feuer indicates the radical potential of this kind of strategy in offering a critique of femininity:
“In this reading farce and ideological subversion count for a lot; the exaggerated excess of the characters make them radical. The fan culture that formed around AbFab would seem to indicate that many viewers identified with the bad mothers and therefore against the proper but dull daughter” The privileging of this kind of reading is even more pronounced in later series of the show, where Saffy increasingly becomes an unattractive, insular character, almost justifying her mother’s treatment.
However, it is worth considering to what degree the show’s form contributes to the sanctioning of this value system. The heightened style, involving elements of farce and other obviously theatrical moments, distances us sufficiently from the text so that we can laugh at, rather than be shocked by, the excesses on show. Whether similar narratives would work in the more gritty, realist style of shows such as Roseanne is debatable.