17 October 2016 | Gina Maya
There are comedies that play with the drabness of British life, like The Office. Then there’s Absolutely Fabulous celebrating some of the grotesqueness of past decades: 1960s flower power and 1970s glam; from the 1980s it captures yuppy excess, and from the 1990s, the obsession with designer labels and supermodels. All these cultural shifts are captured hilariously in two figures of the fashion world, Eddy and Patsy, who stagger around London’s fashion scene in their platform heels like time-travellers in a drug-addled haze.
Like so many other British sitcoms, including The Office, Ab Fab brought out a film this summer, leaving fans of the TV show to wonder: what British fashions or pretensions of the last two decades would the film satirize? What has Britain been of late? Reality TV and X Factor shows? Cookery programmes? Bankers. Economic crashes. Former children’s entertainers exposed for their acts of horror. What would this film seize upon and ridicule?
Then in the cinema as I sat and watched, the first of the movie’s jokes emerged about being transgender.
The first is the most striking. We see one of Eddy’s ex-husbands, the one so clueless he can barely function without his nurse-turned-wife. On this occasion, his domineering partner announces he’s transgender. It’s set up for laughter, and Eddy snaps at him for jumping on the transgender bandwagon. I wonder, sitting there in the cinema, if I should laugh as well. ‘Show them your breasts,’ the nurse-wife says, trying to free his folded arms. He won’t, he’s shy, he mumbles something. Meanwhile I’m conscious of my friend next to me, who’s probably wondering what I’m thinking. To my lasting shame, I expel a chuckle, to show this doesn’t bother me, and I can laugh at this depiction.
The film continues, with examples of male and female masquerade, drag and transsexuality. Patsy pretends to be male, in order to marry a rich benefactress; later she discovers the woman she married is actually a man. Elsewhere, Eddy’s prudish daughter, Saffron, enters a gay club and sings with drag queens to earn their trust. At the end, the story resolved, we get a final image: the clueless ex-husband, in a bad wig and make-up, going out shopping.
In a film about fashions and trends in modern Britain, Ab Fab laughed at gender, and in the most unsubtle way, about being transgender. It’s not the first film to laugh at a certain kind of identity. I think about the 1960s movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Mickey Rooney’s toothy, oriental impression of a neighbour haranguing the film’s sexy couple. Then in the 1970s, the super-camp attendant in Are You Being Served? who beams at male customers with the catchphrase, ‘I’m free.’ I think of these depictions, and wonder if it’s just Ab Fab who got this uncomfortably wrong in a comedy showing its age, with humour as artefact from the 1990s. Or is it a sign of a broader trend? Is transgender identity in 2016 what homosexuality was in the 1970s, or non-white people were in the 1960s? In Ab Fab transsexuality is the punchline that barely needs a build-up; trans people don’t make the joke, trans people are the joke.
I suspect modern Britain has moved beyond Ab Fab’s awkward portrayal. But the show’s creator, Jennifer Saunders, is a talented writer and if this particular joke misfired for me, then I would like to draw on another topical issue, cultural appropriation, and offer a suggestion: how about a bit more balance? Show a ridiculous trans person (or in truth, a joke character playing at being trans) if you like, but why not show someone else who just happens to be trans, where being trans isn’t the joke. Appropriate as you desire, the identity of whomsoever or whatever social group captures your imagination. Is it too much to ask, though, to do so with a sense of responsibility? I understand this was only comedy, but it’s sad that we’re just the edgy props or punchlines in your film and nothing more.
I’ve just started an English-Lit PhD on transgender discourse. I enjoy watching great films, and reading the reviews of bad ones. I love Edinburgh, and hate its weather. I’ve read Derrida, and didn’t understand it. My cultural highlight is driving along highways in Saudi Arabia while listening to Lady Gaga.
Article Edited by Anahit Behrooz and Laura Karpyte.