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Entertainment / Fatwah / March 10, 2012

If you’re a woman—and if you’re reading eXiled you’re probably not—but let’s say you are for the sake of argument—if you’re a woman, life’s already tough enough without the Rush Limbaugh Slutgate saturation media orgy, and right-wing political threats to ban contraception AND abortion in the apparent hopes that you’ll never have sex again, though presumably if you don’t have sex with the men who want to have it with you, you’re a frigid bitch, same as always.

Happy International Women’s Day!

And Welome to the Women in the World Summit 2012! Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep say to women everywhere, “Be fearless” and “reject any efforts to marginalize any one of us.” I’m not sure they realize that would be a full-time job, and a lot of us work for a living already.

On the other hand, Madeleine Albright threatens, “There’s a special place in Hell reserved for women who don’t help each other.” So be afraid, be very afraid! See, I don’t want to help most women. Or most men. Or most children—especially not children, who are so often vicious! Humans in general I’d rather got along without me. There are only a few exceptions, and you know who you are. I’ve notified you. If you didn’t hear yet, it’s probably in the mail.

Anyway, if you’re a woman, this past week’s femi-crap is all piled on top of the regularly scheduled, women-designated pop culture dreck that’s shoved at you on a daily basis. Oprah, and the Oxygen channel, and Susan Orlean New Yorker articles, and novels by Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison, and tight fussy clothing, and bogus earth-mother spirituality, and sugary cocktails, and romantic comedies, and Sarah Jessica Parker, and other terrible things you’re supposed to embrace along with an attitude of smirking superiority because you’re the more evolved and put-upon gender or something like that.

It’s a nightmare. There’s no good place to stand in a shitstorm like that.

But every now and then you find a tiny little island of sane, shit-free enjoyment where you can go and chill out. The BBC-TV show Absolutely Fabulous is one of those islands, and it’s back with a few new episodes. It’s not as wonderful as it used to be back in the 1990s AbFab heyday, of course—few things are—but it’s still, comparatively, a riot.

If you’ve never seen it, Absolutely Fabulous is a show about two appalling women named Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) who lead ferocious lives in London pursuing everything Women of Substance are supposed to scorn—fashion fads, binge-shopping, chain-smoking, crash-dieting, celebrity-worship, unnatural highs, vicious gossip, ludicrous spa treatments, tawdry sex. These characters were designed by writing team Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French to be monstrous scags, and nobody was more surprised than the writers when everyone loved “Eddie” and “Pats” so much.

They weren’t supposed to be lovable, see. They were supposed to be accurately-observed grotesques drawn from life, equal parts hilarious and contemptible and sad. Which they are. But you know how it is. When you don’t actually have to live with accurately-observed grotesques, you can get damn fond of them.

Representing women accurately is tough: like I hinted above, most women are horrible, because most people are horrible. But historically women have been hated with greater intensity than men, so it can seem like piling on, creating more annihilating portraits of women. The museums are full of ‘em. You can see why there’s a feminist tendency to overcompensate and get awfully pious about women. Women especially get pious about women. Look how much better estrogen makes us! If women ran the world, it’d be empathy and pantsuits and yoga for everyone!

But then occasionally you get a genuinely fearless woman or two, like Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, and they proceed as if there were no weight of history on them as they write uncompromisingly accurate comedy like Absolutely Fabulous.

Just to give you a sense of the show’s roots in reportage, Saunders modeled her Edina Monsoon character on her pal Lynne Franks, a PR consultant with with her own top UK firm representing fashion and entertainment industry jerks. Edina Monsoon has Lynne Franks’ loony fashion-victim outfits, her faddish New Age spiritualism, and her lugubrious involvement in nauseating showbiz charities (Franks favors Amnesty International and LiveAid). Franks’ unlikely combo of phony Buddhism and PR ruthlessness presumably gave Saunders all the material she’d ever need, though she smoothed things over with her outraged friend by claiming that Edina’s “a composite character.”

Once AbFab became a big hit, of course, Franks decided she loved the character and used it to promote herself even more relentlessly.

It seems Lynne Franks’ relationship with her two children, Josh and Jess, also became fodder for the show, and if that’s true, there can’t be anything more damning. Edina’s son Serge is never onscreen because he left home as soon as was humanly possible to get away from his mother, and is always doing vague research work at some incredibly remote, unreachable location. Edina’s daughter Saffron (Julie Sawalha) is an embittered drudge whose drab utilitarian clothing and rigidly consistent, self-denying moralism is all about rejecting her mother’s example. Edina’s constant cry of “Sweetie, darling, sweetie-darling, HELP Mama, make Mama a cup of coffee, be sweet to Mama…!”  is the haunting refrain of Saffron’s stunted life.

And Edina’s rare attempts to imitate the behavior of a good mother are always especially funny and terrifying. On one memorable occasion, Saffron’s tight face breaks into tears, Edina tries to bond with her daughter by joining in the weeping, then resorts to imitating the odd sound it makes: “Oh, blub-blub, squish-squish, how do you do that darling, I can’t do that darling, that squish-squish thing you do…”

Edina’s own mother, Mrs. M. (June Whitfield), is an addled 1950s-era specimen with a wonderfully bright, blank expression who regularly steals bric-a-brac from Edina’s lavish house, splurges on the Home Shopping network, avoids her venomous daughter, and tries to get Saffron to do the same. (“Saffie, what are you doing over there so close to your mother? Come away from there, Saffie.”)

Supposedly there’s an AbFab movie in the works along with the new episodes, but we’ve heard all that before. (No doubt it’ll run as a triple-feature along with the Arrested Development and Party Down movies that are in the works too.) Hard to imagine a movie working well, anyway. Even the new episodes are weird in their effects, because the principle characters are now significantly older than they were during the defining episodes of the show. When we first met Patsy and Edina, they were forty-ish and desperately avoiding the specter of age, always aiming at recapturing the last whiffs of their hot mod youths in “Swinging London.”

Saffie was in her late teens and twenties, making her early attempts to get to college and away from her mother. Mrs. M. was in her sixties, lively and dotty.

Twenty years later, only Mrs. M. seems eternal and unchanged. Eddie and Pats are now in the age-range formerly occupied by Mrs. M., and old-crazy plays differently than middle-aged crazy.

Joanna Lumley has somehow managed to diet herself lean enough again to approximate Patsy’s skeletal death-rattle physique (“I haven’t eaten since 1973”), and her poufy bottle-blonde Ivana Trump up-do, so handy for hiding five or six joints, is the same. But the face underneath it is starting its soft collapse into real age, and that’s a bit distracting. Joanna Lumley (actually a model in the “Swinging London” era) had always been capable of putting on black leather pants and suddenly achieving an effect of absolute fabulousness essential to her aggressive sexual success. As Patsy said to a male prostitute who was new on the job, “You’re lucky, you’re in very experienced hands.”

There seems to be some sort of compensation for this loss of Patsy’s rampant sexuality, by making Patsy act like a real career woman. In the second of the new episodes, Patsy Stone is actually seen working at the fashion magazine that employs her, something that the classic shows insisted never happened. (Memorable classic episode when Patsy announced that she was going in to the office, and everyone at the Monsoon kitchen table stared in silent astonishment. Then Patsy couldn’t remember exactly where the office was.) Patsy’s work had always involved going out to lunch, getting free swag, banging male models and gloating about their “portfolios” the morning after: “He had buns so tight they were bouncing off the walls.”

But now we get Patsy at work, and not just work, displaying confidence at work! Patsy Stone strides up to the table where a line of photos await her review: “January issue!” She bends over the photo, looks through a magnifying glass: “Bulimic!” Second photo: “Fetus!” Third photo: “I see a puuuuube!” Fourth photo…she takes a gigantic sniff and rises, wiping the coke off her nose.

Okay, but still. Total violation of character. Patsy Stone is a creature of abysmal insecurity who longs to be formidable and feared by all, but at every opportunity to become a powerful fashion maven, foozles her chance and collapses into self-abasement. This is generally traced back, in hazy swirling flackback sequences, to her non-relationships with her horrifying Bohemian mother (Eleanor Bron) who gave birth to Patsy in the midst of an artists’ be-in, named her Eurydice Collette Clytemnestra Dido Bathsheba Rabelais Patricia Cocteau Stone, and exclaimed, “Now take this away and bring me another lover!”

If you know the show pretty well you’re naturally shuttling mentally back and forth between then and now and sighing, realizing none of us is getting any younger. As Eddie, Jennifer Saunders has packed on the pounds and “now mourns for menopause.” Her face and body have aged in a way that make her look oddly vulnerable, like somebody’s nice, plump, addled aunt, which was not at all what was projected in the 1996 show that looked ahead to imagine senior citizen Edina and Patsy. In that vision, Patsy was raddled, humpbacked and demented, a creature out of a nightmare, while Edina was stout but tough. “Not dead yet!” she declared, and of course it was hugely, unexpectedly heartening and moving, to think that the two old friends who’d lived large on “Bolly” and bile and cigarettes all those years would survive and share a house together and have the last laugh.

I hate to get pious about it and ruin the whole effect, but in fact, the show’s a great portrait of a female friendship, and you don’t see that everyday. It’s even grimly insightful about the way women are stuck with family care-taking chores, Saffie succumbing to her role as Edina’s keeper in spite of all her efforts to get away, and Edina enduring her own mother’s presence with equally bad grace. (“Oh, it’s you again, is it?”)  AbFab is so outside the ordinary run of the dreaded “television for women” category, it seems damning even to observe that it’s a show about women, with men only edging into it here and there…

Yeah, I’m ruining it, aren’t I? Just saying “it’s about women” makes Absolutely Fabulous sound drab and dutiful, makes you want to sidle your way to the exit, doesn’t it?

So now you know what it’s like to be a woman.

You’re welcome.

34 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Tommo  |  March 11th, 2012 at 12:01 am

    yeah, I think they made a movie about bridesmaids acting all bad or something a month or so back, but I can’t remember what it’s called.

  • 2. bighead  |  March 11th, 2012 at 5:30 am

    You ain’t a pretty woman Dolan. Not even in text.

  • 3. gatorade  |  March 11th, 2012 at 5:38 am

    it’s really vexing, isn’t it? Are you supposed to get old and let yourself be that old thing, it seems like the worst of all possible worlds. Especially now that you can’t wait to have a child unless you want to be guaranteed of some down synndrome wretch that you can’t abort without a trip to Portugal

    I love abfab, it really captures the adorable fact that the more tangentially someone is related to the core of fashion, the more they try to live whatever silly ideal is being sold to hapless women. All while designers and executives are not bothered in the slightest, with a few noble exceptions.

    Clothing can be the strongest and most perfect sort of armor if you know what to do, and not enough people bother to bolster themselves. If we weren’t all so dastardly poor, there would be so much possibility. You’d think that making everything in china would help to spread nice things over a wider population.

    But no, prices remain the same and profits increase exponentially, quality dies with every, totally legal, false label made in italy label, applied in guangdong or wherever. I’m sure this is all sustainable

    Abfab is the best, I remember watching it when I was almost too young to have memories (maybe 3, or 2) and being delighted by everything

  • 4. apatheticfuturist  |  March 11th, 2012 at 6:32 am

    Eileen Jones,
    If you want to get married tomorrow, I’m totally free.
    Just throwing that out there.

  • 5. jonnym  |  March 11th, 2012 at 8:12 am

    yay eileen!

  • 6. Gustavo Millebrand  |  March 11th, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Dear eXholes,
    I am currently going through a strange period in my life where I am watching all of the Julia Roberts movies — from Mystic Pizza to Eat Pray Love. I am trying to process what her style of femininity has meant to my masculinity. Sure, when I was an impressionable suburban teenager growing up in a college town in Pennsylvania and I saw her on the VCR cassette box of Pretty Woman in a mini-skirt, I was aroused. I have tried fairly successfully to block her out since watching … Flatliners, back in the early 90′s. Twenty years have passed. She sucks. What is wrong with me? She is so horrible. Same thing with Sandra Bullock. What is wrong with me? I can’t deal with American women.
    Cheers,
    Gustavo Millebrand
    Turks & Caicos Islands

  • 7. Flatulissimo  |  March 11th, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Well, will be interesting to read the comments from the “Jones is Dolan” crowd after this one.

    Eileen, go watch some more Parks and Recreation. It’s streaming on Netflix now, and after watching too many shows with “accurately-observed grotesques drawn from life, equal parts hilarious and contemptible and sad” it is kind of a nice change of pace to see an unrealistic fantasy world where the characters are basically nice people who care about each other.

  • 8. Mason C  |  March 11th, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Both Saffron and Bubble gave crucial depth, harsh reflections of a grim or clueless future.

    AbFab doesn’t get half the credit it deserves. The Republican field should have their eyes sewn open and the entire series looped three feet in front of their faces. Can’t wait to see the new episodes.

  • 9. Alexei Belyaev-Gintovt  |  March 11th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    i self-identify as a woman; it’s my gender, though i’m not bio.

    if mark wants to get married tomorrow, i’m totally free. let’s get married & bathe in bits and plaintext.

    yea i do bad things to get punished by AEC like maggie gyllenhaal in “secretary.”

  • 10. DeeboCools  |  March 11th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    I always liked Absolutely Fabulous when it played on Comedy Central, tho I never admitted to it.

  • 11. CensusLouie  |  March 11th, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Ab Fab was the more brutal Sex & the City of its day. Ab Fab is awful women reveling in their awfulness whereas S&C is awful women deluding themselves on how wonderful they are.

    Comedy Central used to run non-stop marathons back in the day (when Penn narrated every promo). It was a clear signal that everyone with a penis leave the room for the next couple hours.

  • 12. Dimitri Ratz  |  March 12th, 2012 at 3:34 am

    I’m at a loss for largely total disregard of many California men when it comes to women. When it comes to cars we have a great 5 star system for side rear impact, frontal impact, rollover, rear impact, and frontal side impact. When it comes to women the men have been conditioned that any logic beside good sex is derogatory in forming a relationship. While great sex is definitely a plus, it’s even better when accompanied by excellent food once in a while. Also organizational skills are a must as relationships should be adding something to one’s life. If your girl doesn’t get at least all fours not only can you do better it’s your obligation as a man to dump her for betterment of mankind.

  • 13. Trevor  |  March 12th, 2012 at 7:13 am

    I used to catch the end of episodes when it preceded MST3K back when Comedy Central was funny. Unfortunately I was a twelve year old boy at the time and in no position to appreciate vicious humor yet. Now if I can only find a torrent site The Man hasn’t shut down yet…

  • 14. YankeeFrank  |  March 12th, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Amen to AbFab and thanks to Eileen Jones from a “man” who loves un-horrible women. Them AbFab bitchez are the funniest eva! Forget looks men, go for personality! Dawn French is quite large, but dammit she is funny and smart. Beauty fades but hilarity lives forever! Its just too bad that more men aren’t comfortable enough with their masculinity to take a punch or two directly in the balls from a woman when they deserve it — and laugh it off knowingly because this whole damned “life” thing is a circus anyway and there’s no time to take yourself too seriously, you just wind up looking like a fool. But then, as Eileen points out, most people are horrible. I mean, the most popular show on AMC, by far, is “Walking Dead”, when they also host “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men”, that are both vastly superior in every imaginable way. Humanity is mostly stupid (and horrible) and ain’t gettin’ smarter any time soon. All the best to Eileen — keep the antidotes to “tv for women” coming!

  • 15. doxysville  |  March 12th, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    not trying to bring anyone down but “humanity is stupid and horrible” is an efficient way to justify doing evil to others

    it can really easily become “fuck you got mine” and pretty soon you run a petrochemical empire

    just a thought

  • 16. strahlungsamt  |  March 12th, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Speaking of great women’s cinema, where’s Eileen’s take on “The Iron Lady”???

    I can’t believe The Exiled skipped that one. I haven’t summoned up the courage to see it yet but from what I hear it portrays Maggie as a poor struggling woman, struggling to fight the good fight against the male establishment or something. Sounds like pure Exiled country.

    Or where’s the Eat Pray Love review for that matter?

    What gives?

  • 17. Kristina  |  March 13th, 2012 at 2:00 am

    Eileen, if I somehow became very rich, could I pay you to quit your day job and write a review every day? I need to know if this could be a goal I can work towards.

  • 18. Senescent  |  March 13th, 2012 at 2:28 am

    brilliant.

  • 19. Warlord  |  March 13th, 2012 at 4:19 am

    My wish list for colummns:

    1. Diff’rent Strokes
    2. Good Times
    3. What’s Happenin’?

  • 20. Gustavo Millebrand  |  March 13th, 2012 at 5:07 am

    Dear eXholes and fellow deerhunters,
    I think that we have found a troll in YankeeFrank above. I wrote of Eat, Pray, Love only ironically, as was patently obvious.
    Cheers,
    Gustavo Millebrand
    Turks & Caicos Islands

  • 21. Gustavo Millebrand  |  March 13th, 2012 at 5:09 am

    Dear eXholes,
    Just say no! to the gynepologists!
    Cheers,
    Gustavo Millebrand
    Turks & Caicos Islands

  • 22. Ilona  |  March 13th, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Nice to see Absolutely Fabulous getting some well deserved appreciation here at eXiled on the International Women’s Day.

    Absolutely Fabulous can also be viewed as an ultimate emancipation from the repressing care-taking shackles which lets women to behave as badly as men, not better as the official feminist party line goes, letting the female libido go berzek. If one wanted to make a cute little caricature out of this form of feminism one’d say it’s feministic chauvinism, pure and simple.

    On the side of this runs strong romantic notions of women being life-creating, life-preserving force of Mother Nature from which stems the romantic, Utopian notion that if women got more real political and economical power with real high prestige positions the world would inevitably become a better place to live in for all of us.

    One manifestation of this form of feminism is the Madeleine Albright Disorder: Vote for a woman no matter what she stands for, no matter what you stand for. Or else… With Mother Nature’s female power you won’t go wrong.”

    Of course, one doesn’t hear that often this side of feminism spoken about openly outside of the cabinets of feminist workshops.

    Oh dear! I just shot my own foot off! Oh well, with the Bolli-Stolli’s mystical power I simply won’t go wrong.

  • 23. Skeeve  |  March 13th, 2012 at 8:54 am

    “See, I don’t want to help most women. Or most men. Or most children—especially not children, who are so often vicious! Humans in general I’d rather got along without me.”

    That does sound like Dolan, actually. And I’ve never met a woman who didn’t think she was a member of the “more evolved and put-upon gender,” even if she genuinely liked men. Dolan or not, that’s a dude writing this.

  • 24. 69 Anytime 88 On a Date  |  March 13th, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Psssst. For those of you lechers who are hot to see Bubbles naked, check out UK Unrepentant Commie [TM] Mike Leigh’s flick, “Life Is Sweet.”

  • 25. gc  |  March 13th, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    @ 23

    “And I’ve never met a woman who didn’t think she was a member of the “more evolved and put-upon gender,” even if she genuinely liked men.”

    Dear Skeeve,

    Your resentment is making us look bad. Please stop talking.

    Sincerely,

    The male half of the species

  • 26. Mr. Bad  |  March 14th, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Yup, I’m basically taking cover here from the Breitbart shitstorm, you can’t argue with duggar scum, the feedback is deafening but anywhooo… nice job Eileen, way to hit this stuff at the peak of it’s relevance (apologies family guy) you’ve really earned that warm spot in Dolan’s sleeping bag. In case you idiots didn’t notice this is Dolan’s sweet little piece pretending to be him, he edits all the articles, curates all the comments but his sweet lass drinks the red vino while she thinks and, well, she writes. What a fag.

  • 27. Ingenjören  |  March 14th, 2012 at 6:20 am

    @Skeeve:
    “That does sound like Dolan, actually. And I’ve never met a woman who didn’t think she was a member of the “more evolved and put-upon gender,” even if she genuinely liked men. Dolan or not, that’s a dude writing this.”

    And I’ve encountered plenty who doesn’t think so. Maybe it’s time you got to meet some new friends?

  • 28. gary  |  March 14th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    see benny hill if you want to put women in thier place…you have to love the clothes

  • 29. Hamsterfist  |  March 15th, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Girl power.

  • 30. Menachem  |  March 15th, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Dudes, Eileen Jones is a real person.

  • 31. Menachem  |  March 15th, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Thank you dear AEC for letting me off with a warning.

  • 32. Menachem  |  March 15th, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Okay, I can see how having that link up here might have unintended consequences.

  • 33. captain america  |  March 15th, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    re #23

    he might only know liberal women. that’s pretty likely in some parts of the US, like my native denver. still, it’s definitely not true that all women think of the female gender as enlightened and opressed. take my italian ex who i broke up with last year. she had lots of nice stuff to say about mussolini, lived to cook and clean for me, and thought most other women were ridiculous. or my ukrainian ex-wife who once said that “feminists are just ugly women who can’t get a man.”

    i have no idea why i keep breaking up with these women (no irony intended).

  • 34. Joffslap  |  April 26th, 2012 at 12:00 am

    Dear Cap,

    You’re breaking up with them because all that internalized self-hatred creates a lot of baggage. Tends to play havoc with the personal relationships, ya know?

    I love the clueless rubes who think they’ve really lucked out by bagging some lady who hates her gender, because they imagine that every woman who self-identifies as a feminist is some dour first-wave suffragette. Meanwhile it’s the conservative girls who are afraid to do anything FUN in bed, and start sobbing uncontrollably when they admit to having sexual fantasies. Yes, that happened to me. Then I gave up fundies halfway through college, and my sex life has been 100% better ever since. Granted there are lots of great reasons to date lib ladies, but given that your nom de plume is a piece of half-assed propangda from the 40′s I figured most of the loftier ideals are beyond you.


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