Term Paper: Tales We Know

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[. . .] "Absolutely Fabulous" plays with this idea of female jealousy, which is usually subsumed between the main characters because of their friendship. But we see it always as a potential element of the relationship between women. The women of "Absolutely Fabulous" compete with each other in a way that they do not compete with the male characters (or that the male characters do not in fact compete with each other). The women are always aware of their status vis-a-vis each other within the context of a patriarchal world.

Fairytales, like other commonly performed cultural texts, must be seen in some sense as methods of instruction. We tell stories to our children to entertain and amuse them, to help lure them into sleep at the end of the day, to drive away boredom and crankiness. To effect these ends, we might tell them stories about almost anything at all, especially to young children, who desire really only the sound of an adult's voice and to be held by adult arms.

Sit-coms -- like "Absolutely Fabulous," which follows all of the most important structural elements of the sit-com even as its tone suggests that it is a more revolutionary form of narrative -- are also a form of instruction, a different commonly performed text in a different medium, but essentially the same in terms of its function.

But in fact we use the stories that we tell children and adults -- and especially those that we tell over and over -- to instill messages, to teach cultural norms, to establish the roots of what we hope will be proper behavior as the children grow up. Fairytales are a form of propaganda. The traditional fairytale almost always reflects (and therefore works to reproduce) the power relations of patriarchy; its rigid sexual patterns teach that fear and masochism are tenets of femininity and all of the symbolic inversions that occur are not chances to upset the standard patriarchal hierarchy but are instead ways of maintaining it (Bacchilega, 1997, pp. 50-1).

These same messages are played with in "Absolutely Fabulous," in which women are allowed (because of money an class position) to have power in the world that they normally would not -- but it is still very much a world defined by the same rules.

To return for a moment to "Snow White," the fact that women are presented so often as the oppressors of other women (or girls) is an essential aspect of fairytales, for it is an essential aspect of any patriarchal culture. One of the great question for contemporary feminist scholars has always been, if women do not want to live in a sexist world, then why do they not raise their sons differently? Given that women are in almost all cases the primary caretakers of both sons and daughters, surely a determined generation of mothers could raise up an entire generation of sons who would behave very differently than their fathers had done in terms of treating women as equal partners.

Precisely because of this potential power that women have as mother to change the gender relationships by the way they raise children, there is a great deal of emphasis on teaching children proper gender roles from very early on. This includes everything from how they are dressed to the kinds of toys they are encouraged (or allowed) to play with to the content of the stories that they are told: Each of these elements helps establish (for example) that boys don't cry, they girls wait to be rescued and that those who try to change the rules are horribly punished (Rohrich, 1979, p. 31).

Among the lessons that children are taught (and that mothers are reminded of in each retelling of such stories as "Snow White" and "Cinderella" is that women cannot be allies to each other. Men work together all the time to defeat common enemies in fairy tales, but women can never forms ties of solidarity with other women. In fact, members of any oppressed group (whether discriminated against because of gender, race, religion or any other factor) are natural allies: part of the subtext of fairytales is to guard against such alliances.

To the extent that we see women allied with each other in "Absolutely Fabulous" we see that it does contain truly feminist elements in it. It is not, after all, just a fairy tale. But nor is it a rejection of the essentially conservative message at the heart of each fairy tale.

We see a more convincing inversion of the tradition gendered narrative in a text like the recent film version of "Cinderella," ("Ever After"), in the orphaned girl saves herself both through physical bravery and by preaching socialist principles to the aristocracy. When the prince finally realizes that he wants to marry her and that she may be in terrible danger, he rushes off to the castle of the villain only to meet the heroine just after she has vanquished the villain herself. "What -- you thought I needed to rescued?" she asks, thereby completely rewriting her gendered role.

This possibility of truly upsetting traditional gender structures is easier to bring about in a movie than in a series. Much of the delight of the movie arises from the fact that the ending that we are expecting throughout does not materialize: We are surprised and (perhaps) delighted.

But the true inversion of power that occurs at the end of this movie is not something that can be maintained for years. "Absolutely Fabulous," because it returns us again and again to the same narrative, must play by different rules.

Cultures are full of what anthropologists call "inversion rituals." The most famous of these within the modern Western tradition are Mardi Gras and April Fools' Day: Each is a time in which the powerful may be mocked with impunity. But the point of these rituals, anthropologists argue, is not for any fundamental reordering of society. Rather, they allow the oppressed a few hours to get their aggressions out, to blow off steam -- and so to resume their normally oppressed role in a happier, and more passive frame of mind.

We see this same dynamic, vis-a-vis both gender and class but especially gender, in "Absolutely Fabulous" in which women are given power for the 23-minutes of the show that they normally do not have. But we know -- and the characters know, and we know that they know -- that the fundamentally ordering of the world will remain the same.

The happily-ever-after of fairy tales is always a conservative ordering of the world, a state of stasis, an unwillingness to throw out the old rules and begin again. Narratives like "Absolutely Fabulous" make us laugh because they mock the absurdities of the structures of our societies. But the laughter is temporary, the inversions fleeting and in the end quite illusory.


Bacchilega, C. (1997). Postmodern Fairytales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Rohrich, L. (1970). Folktales and Reality. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

Waddell, Terrie. "Revelling in Dis-Play: The Grotesque in Absolutely Fabulous" in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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