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All that and a little feminism too: My love for “Absolutely Fabulous” lives on.

June 23, 2010

I still remember the first time I ever laid eyes on the comedic goldmine that is “Absolutely Fabulous”. I was a sophomore in college and spending the day in Manhattan with my best friend Sarah and her friend David and they would not shut the hell up about some English TV show called “Ab Fab”. They were “sweetie, darling”-ing it up and driving me absolutely batshit crazy and making me feel super left out of each fun little moment they had sharing a knowledge of this show. Before I could get overly irritated with all of their little in-jokes they informed that I simply *had* to see the show and that an episode of it would be airing on Comedy Central that day. So we headed to Sarah’s itty-bitty studio apartment on the Lower East Side so I could lose my Ab Fab virginity. We watched “Iso Tank”, the fourth episode of the first series and I have to say, the fact that I am still alive to type this entry is a minor miracle given that I spent most of the episode laying on my side on the floor convulsing in paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter. I had never seen anything like it in all my born days. Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone were a revelation to me. I had never seen two women do so much boozing, drugging, insulting, falling down, fashion slaving, boring-daughter-bashing, barely working, celebrity obsessing craziness in my whole life! And every Maryann Thorpe, Karen Walker and Lucille Bluth has Patsy and Eddie to thank for their existence. Or rather, they have Jennifer Saunders, the writer of Absolutely Fabulous as well as the actress who plays Edina, to thank.

But from that point on, Ab Fab pretty much completely confiscated my life. Or at least my television viewing life. I became obsessed with watching it whenever I could and even filled two VHS tapes with the episodes from a Comedy Central Mother’s Day marathon that contained almost every episode of the original first three series as well as “The Last Shout”, a two hour special that was supposed to be the end of the show. At one point not long after the taping of said marathon I found myself living in Lincoln, Nebraska for a year and a half (don’t ask) without cable television and thus very little access to any TV at all. I watched those recorded episodes an unhealthy number of times. It got so bad that Patsy and Eddie started entering my dreams wherein we’d be friends hanging out, having ourselves a time and tearing it up all over London. Eventually I graduated to the VHS boxed set of the original three series and now I’ve got the whole shebang on DVD. I’ve watched all five series and their intermittent specials so many times it’s not even funny. And I still think the show is by and large a brilliant piece of comedy – even with some of the weaker episodes in the fourth and fifth series. It’s so irreverent and incorrect and iconoclastic. And a little bit feminist. No, seriously.

The other day I was reminded of “Bechdel’s Test”, a kind of feminist media analyzing tool based on an installment of writer/cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s highly addictive comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For called “The Rule”. In the strip two women are out on a date hoping to see a movie when one of them mentions her three criteria for viewing a film: 1) Does it have more than two women in it? 2) Do they talk to each other? 3) About something other than men? Sweetie! Darling! Absolutely Fabulous passes this test with flying, Pucci-esque colors. In fact, the show features an almost exclusively female cast save for occasional visits from one of Edina’s ex-husbands or the occasional glimpse of one Patsy’s boy-toys.

But passing Bechdel’s test isn’t the only way the show has a feminist bent to it. Saunders’ writing smashes so many conventions set up for female characters on television. Patsy is frequently portrayed as having sex with just about anyone she can get her hands on and she never has to pay a price for her licentious behavior – no pregnancy scares, no STDs, no scorned or angry lovers seeking retribution. In fact, men are just a means to an end for her, and pale in comparison to the importance of her friendship with Eddie:

Saffie: You can’t have anything in common. You can’t have anything to talk about.
Eddie: She doesn’t want somebody to talk to, darling!
Patsy: I’ve got you to talk to!

Patsy’s quote could have come straight out of the mouth of Samantha Jones, the sexually voracious vixen of Sex and the City. But even Samantha couldn’t get away without an HIV scare, a temporary blacklisting from Manhattan’s social hierarchy and the occasional scorn and judgment from her gal pals for her humptastic ways. And in any other show a mother as horrible as Edina Monsoon would be figuratively string up in the town square or, at the very least, have her child maimed or killed in some way so as to make her regret her actions and martyr herself for her misdeeds for all of her remaining days. But even when daughter Saffy writes a play about her childhood intending for the drama to expose and exorcise the cruelty and neglect, the audience takes it for broad comedy and Edina ends up onstage alongside her double to rapturous applause.

Furthermore, Saunders, by way of Edina, skewers so many of the weight-loss fads, self-help trends and other woman’s magazine fluff that rules the lives of so many women today. Eddie’s done everything from detoxing to contemplating liposuction to eating with tiny doll cutlery (to make her food look larger – “Elizabeth Hurley does it, sweetie!”)  to drinking her own wee in hopes of losing weight. She’s been a Buddhist, tried yoga and, in one episode, tells her ditsy assistant Bubble to “Cancel my aromatherapy, my psychotherapy, my reflexology, my osteopath, my homeopath, my naturopath, my crystal reading, my shiatsu, my organic hairdresser… and see if I can be re-birthed next Thursday afternoon!” before she leaves on a business trip to France. She’s a parody/cautionary tale of what happens to a woman who absorbs every negative message the media throws at her and then tries to answer them with every solution the same media provides.

In a 1996 interview, Jennifer Saunders she states that she did not have a feminist agenda in writing the show.

Saunders does not wish to be seen as a crusader for women’s rights. “Absolutely not. I don’t write anything from that point of view. I write for women because it’s the only way I can use what I’ve experienced. It’s good that people like what I write, but I don’t want to go down the feminist path.”

But whether it was her intention to put it there or not, the feminist elements seem to exist nonetheless. At the very least, the show was and is refreshing in featuring an ensemble cast of women whose lives didn’t revolve around men, sex and relationships. Even if they were hardly sparkling examples of womanhood, motherhood or humanity in general, they were exciting, profane, gaudy, drunk, high, hilarious, unapologetic and truly, madly, absolutely fabulous.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 23, 2010 10:33 am

    You’re welcome, sweetie darling!

    I still quote AbFab lines without thinking about it–what is it, like 15 years ago?!

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