tales we know to be true. They begin with "once upon a time." They end with "happily ever after." And somewhere in between the prince rescues the damsel in distress.
Of course, this is not actually the case. Many fairytales omit these essential words. But few fairytales in the Western tradition indeed fail to have a beautiful, passive maiden rescued by a vibrant man, usually her superior in either social rank or in moral standing. Indeed, it is precisely the passivity of the women in fairy tales that has lead so many progressive parents to wonder whether their children should be exposed to them. Can any girl ever really believe that she can grow up to be president or CEO or an astronaut after five viewings of Disney's "Snow White"?
Perhaps, perhaps not. But certainly it is true that modern popular culture contains a number examples of characters and stories that intentionally play with the ways in which gender was traditionally used to construct narratives, presenting us with female characters who disrupt traditional engendered rules of power. We can see this in the British television show "Absolutely Fabulous" and the two main female characters, Edina and Patsy, who are reprises of a recurrent character in Western narrative, the "unruly woman."
While such characters appear with regularity since at least the moment that the Wife of Bath steps on to the literary stage, usually such characters are only allowed to disrupt the world of the story for a brief period before the normal order of events and power is reestablished. However, "Absolutely Fabulous" presents us a world in which misrule is allowed to continue, in which the inverted order of power (i.e. one in which women are allowed to have a significant degree of power) is allowed to continue, to be normalized.
What makes the female characters in "Absolutely Fabulous" especially compelling is that they are not simple representations of the "unruly" in the way that a character like "Roseanne" was: These are not characters created simply to violate our ideas about the norms for gendered behaviour. Roseanne, an entirely grotesque character, exists as an anti-woman, an exemplar of all of those things that we consider to be the anti-thesis of femininity. Edina and Patsy, on the other hand, violate some traditional expectations that we have of the feminine, but play in more sophisticated and ambiguous ways with other ones, as Waddell (1999) suggests.
One of the ways in which "Absolutely Fabulous" plays with traditional ideas about appropriate gendered behaviour is how the show approaches the issue of consumerism: These may be independent women in many ways who derive their sense of self in modern ways -- but they also derive a sense of who they are by the way in which they shop. In this sense, they are little different from those essential icons of traditional televised femininity Lucy and Ethel.
The ways in which gender and the power of money are mixed together in this show are an example both of the inversion of the normal status quo -- it is men and not women who are supposed to wield money in the particular way that these female characters so -- and a reinforcement of that status quo, because after all it is still money that talks.
Even though Edina and Patsy can afford to 'buy' just about whatever man strikes their fancy (along with the more traditional trappings of female consumerism, such as the best clothes and the best therapist), we must see them as in many ways pre-feminist creatures, happy to be defined by a consumerist culture that in the end cannot be truly liberating for any woman who defines herself in terms of its values.
It is important to note that it is not only the female characters that are important in terms of questioning and reasserting (in some measure) traditional ideas about the relationship between power and gender. The male characters (e.g. Paolo, Oliver and Marshall) also call into question how both genders can use money to establish dominance in their own worlds through the power of money. We see this especially in an episode from the second series, "Death and Morocco" (1994) and the episodes "Happy New Year" and "Sex" (1995).
These episodes, like the series as a whole, of course, set the entire issue of the inversion of power in terms of gender within the context of comedy. Indeed, comedy takes as one of its major forms of discourse the inversion of the normal and orderly: This is what is funny about comedy, after all.
Satire, which is the dominant trope of this show, is especially concerned with a focus on the ways in which the normal and orderly can be upended. The four major female characters -- representing three different generations -- are both concerned with traditional feminine (and not feminist) issues such as friendship, aging, sex and love -- and shopping. The major running jokes in the show are each centered on these issues -- and how the various female characters act out (act the grotesque) in refusing to act in the ways that women are supposed to in regards to these issues. And yet, of course, even as these female characters disrupt expectations about how it is that they are supposed to act, they remain in the end short of revolutionary. They are certainly playing with the rules of gendered behaviour, and often breaking them, but the rules remain the traditional ones and the game is the same.
We see this playing with traditional female roles both in terms of those characters who embody traditional female comedic characters (such as the mother as a spiteful hag with a sharp tongue) and in those characters -- Edina and Patsy -- who are a rather different sort of disruptive woman than we have seen before. These two characters -- often hyper-critical, almost always loud, very snobbish -- shift constantly between the feminist and the feminine. Such shifts are funny, but they are in the end fundamentally much more conservative than we might think through a casual viewing of the show.
Neither Edina nor Patsy in the end offers a true alternative to women in terms of the ways in which patriarchal has written their parts. Edina is a grown-up version of the Bond girl: A female who is defined by the pretty things that she buys, even if she is now herself doing the buying.
The essential conservatism of the show (the fact that it plays with ideas of the burlesque and the unruly without ever really intending that we should look to the show as a blueprint for even the most minor sort of revolution) can be seen in the way in which all of the characters, but especially the female ones, trivialize the important issues of our time -- elevating style over substance whenever it gets the chance.
"Absolutely Fabulous" seems to be more radical than it is because it mock the style and form of upper-class life, but this must be seen within the context of British rather than American class ideals, and again the final message is that while the rich may often provide material for us to laugh at them, they are still people that we (and especially if that "we" is female) would much rather be than not.
We can gain a better understanding of the ways in which "Absolutely Fabulous" flirts with but never commits itself to the idea of inversion if we compare it to classical engendered Western narrative like "Snow White" Bacchilega (1997, chapter 2) chooses "Snow White" as a nearly pure form of gender archetype in the fairytale, looking at Western traditions and focusing even more particularly on the two best known versions of this story in the West, the Disney animated movie and the Grimm Brothers' version of the tale.
We see in "Snow White" precursors of many of the characters that we see in "Absolutely Fabulous" (especially in the ways that women of different generations relate to each other, for the stepmother is simply a representation of the older woman jealous of the younger woman's taking her place, a dynamic that we see played out in "Absolutely Fabulous").
In "Snow Wige," the stepmother (or in some versions it is actually the mother herself) attacks Snow White in a variety of different ways, and the maiden is forced to take refuge with a number of different kinds of unlikely protectors -- robbers, assassins, giants and fairies and as well as those adorable Disney dwarves (Bacchilega, 1997, p. 29).
Each version of "Snow White," no matter how different the surface details, shares several factors in common that are central to the way gender is described and used in so many Western fairytales: The heroine has a wondrous origin, she is innocent, she is persecuted at the hands of a jealous older woman, she is apparently killed (or dies) and she is then resurrected (Bacchilega, 1997, p. 31). The most striking…