The Socially Aspiring Woman Comedy Trope

socially aspiring woman Hyacinth Bucket and her husband Richard

Recently the Woman’s Hour podcast talked about a gendered comedy trope which I’d never really noticed was gendered: the socially aspiring, snobbish female.

Hyacinth Bucket is a standout example, along with:

  • Linda Snell from The Archers
  • Audrey fforbes-Hamilton from To The Manor Born
  • Margo from The Good Life (Penelope Keith is especially good at playing these characters)
  • Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) from Keeping Up Appearances
  • Sybil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers
  • Doreen from Birds of a Feather

In literature, Britain has several archetypal socially climbing women:

  • Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair
  • Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice

These women living in the 1800s had no choice but to be socially climbing, because for them, living in a patrimony, marrying well was a matter of life or death.

Although the trope is very old, the socially climbing female a little out of fashion at the moment. Note that those sit-com examples listed above are concentrated in the 1970s and 80s.

The standout modern example in England right now is Pauline from Mum, written by Stefan Golaszewski, who grew up on those older sit-coms. However the tone of Mum is quite different. Margo can laugh at herself on The Good Life, but Mum is ‘impenetrable’.

We do still see them as a part of a wider cast in a show starring a different kind of comedic character. Fleabag’s step mother (from Fleabag) is another modern example of the socially aspiring woman.

You tend to see these women in the following situations:

  • She affects an accent which she perceives to be higher class, but gets it wrong.
  • She is completely self-absorbed and blind to other people’s wishes.
  • Her fashion choices are over the top, whatever that means for her milieu. Her choices are perceived by the actual powerful class as kitsch (‘stuff other people unaccountably like’)
  • There will be something about her home environment which stands out as very ‘her’. With Hyacinth it is her home decor, full of flowers and perfectly dusted. She’s often holding a duster.
  • There will be a skeleton in the closet which comes off in each episode to great comedic effect. This is the ‘mask coming off’ comedy trope.
  • If she’s a mother she’s either overbearing or distant.
  • This is a white and heterosexual archetype.
  • If she’s married, her husband is henpecked and mild-mannered.
  • She is disgusted by people who she perceives as lower rank than herself.
  • These women strive to be powerful (that’s their Desire) but they are not in fact powerful. They therefore surround themselves in people who are less powerful than themselves. They may have a kind of lackey best friend.
  • As you can probably tell, her psychological weakness and moral weakness is perfectly set up and inherent to the trope — she feels inferior and she steps all over others in an attempt to rise above her own station.
  • This lackey best friend (or neighbour, or sister) will be a ‘see saw’ character, who is very, very nice and a people pleaser. Other people pleasers are vicars, postmen, people working in service industries, and they all tend to crop up to allow this woman full comedic flight. It’s not as fun to watch her come up against someone with more power than herself because we don’t really want to see her get quashed, but in a show such as To The Manor Born, it is satisfying to see Richard, with far more actual power, afford her a certain respect.
  • It may be necessary for the audience to feel a little sorry for these women, in lieu of actively ‘liking’ them. We will usually be shown her ‘behind the scenes’ self. That might be the character without her make-up, with her hair looking wild; her poor relations; her economically destitute situation.
  • The archetype rests upon the stereotype that women are impossible to please; flighty, capricious — for husbands there is ‘no winning’. These women are insatiable, unable to be satisfied, so you shouldn’t even try. Pacifying her is your best bet. This stereotype can be deployed with much malice or less — the degree of sexism depends partly on how it is written.

THE SOCIALLY ASPIRING WOMAN IN AUSTRALIA

Australian audiences understand this comedy trope perfectly. Our own standout example is Kim from Kath and Kim. Kim is stupid rather than wily, which is what keeps her in her position of no power.

However, it is said on Woman’s Hour that this trope is a specifically British one which we don’t really see much in America. The closest example they could think of was Monica from Friends, who aspires to have everything tidy, but it’s not really the same thing.

THE SOCIALLY ASPIRING WOMAN IN AMERICA

Why don’t we see much of this woman as a comedy trope in America? Probably because social climbing is actively encouraged. Why would you not aspire to have more capital, economically, socially and otherwise?

I do think America has a related trope: the woman who wants to be more sexually alluring than she is perceived by those around her. It’s the Bouquet/Bucket dichotomy only in relation to sexuality. This gag only works if the woman in question is not perceived by the audience as sexually alluring, in the same way the Bucket joke doesn’t work unless we all read B.U.C.K.E.T. as ‘bucket’. The actress who plays her cannot conform too well to the Western female beauty standard.

Sometimes the character is indeed sexually alluring by everyday standards, but that’s the only nice thing about her. Every other attribute is exaggeratedly terrible. Regina George from Mean Girls is the stand out example of that. We see this archetype in British comedy as well, for example Jen’s insistence on wearing too-small shoes in The I.T. Crowd.

However, I do think America is starting to embrace this comedic archetype, perhaps because the culture is starting to question the American story that everyone can rise above their station given enough work.

I’m thinking of Moira Rose of Schitts Creek, whose accent is a comedic affectation. This character considers herself queen of the town despite being widely disliked. However, Moira Rose does have an admirably wide vocabulary:

Moira owns a vast collection of precious wigs, which is the classic trope of putting a headdress on yourself as a ‘crowning’ glory. Moira is a very camp character as well — she revels in putting on ‘the mask’, and knows exactly what she’s doing. Someone like Hyacinth Bucket doesn’t seem to realise she’s wearing a mask at all.

Perhaps Moira Rose is the modern, ’empowered’ version of the socially aspiring woman: she has no power, but she takes it anyway, knowing no one is about to give it to her for free.

Types Of Invisibility

How To Disappear

As a teenager I loved Fade by Robert Cormier. Fade is a creepy story about a teenage boy who learns he has inherited the superpower of invisibility. If I read it again today I’d probably find it even more creepy than I did then — stalking is sexualised, women are objectified, etc. Time puts a new spin on that story.

Fade is an example of literal invisibility in storytelling. This is invisibility as a kind of wish fulfilment; what would you do if no one saw you do it? Personally, I would enjoy walking at night in summer, free from high UV, harsh Australian sunlight and street harassment.

When women on Twitter were asked what they’d do if men had a curfew in October 2018, many answered the same: We’d go outside and enjoy the freedom. Turning invisible would be similar, and I think it serves the same basic wish fulfilment: The wish to move freely in the world.

In storytelling, invisibility is a fairly common trope, but it doesn’t always serve this exact purpose. Writers use it in a variety of different metaphorical ways.

Weird and Hilarious Anti Smoking Ads - Please Don't Smoke
Invisibility is used in this anti-smoking ad like a horror trope

Continue reading “Types Of Invisibility”

Deep Holes by Alice Munro

“Deep Holes” is a short story by Alice Munro. You can find it in the June 30 2008  edition of The New Yorker. I’m very much reminded of Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and the real life of Christopher McCandless.

But “Deep Holes” is not the story of the son — it’s the story of the mother, left behind to deal with the loss of a child in this way. How does a mother cope with that? Continue reading “Deep Holes by Alice Munro”

Free Radicals by Alice Munro

free radicals

My reading of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro (2008) is highly metaphorical. To me, this is a story about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and the new vulnerability older women feel when their male partner dies before them.

Read literally, though, and this is the story of one woman’s brush with a serial murdering intruder — a rare crime story from Alice Munro.

Continue reading “Free Radicals by Alice Munro”

The Psychology of Hoarding

hoarding

How is hoarding treated in fiction, if at all?

In her short story “Free Radicals“, Alice Munro portrays a woman working through the recent loss of her husband.

First, the way friends react — helpfully and unhelpfully. Funeral arrangements, immediate aftermath.

Memories, both painful and beautiful, mixed in together to paint a portrait of a rounded life.

The lonely act of walking into rooms and finding him conspicuous by his absence.

Then, the following detail stuck out to me:

She did make up the bed and tidy her own little messes in the kitchen or the bathroom, but in general the impulse to take on any wholesale sweep of housecleaning was beyond her. She could barely throw out a twisted paper clip or a fridge magnet that had lost its attraction, let alone the dish of Irish coins that she and Rich had brought home from a trip fifteen years ago. Everything seemed to have acquired its own peculiar heft and strangeness.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”

Alice Munro must have observed that the recently bereft tend to hold onto things.

A few days before reading the story I listened to a completely unrelated interview between Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland. (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”) Coupland happened to get talking about the psychology of hoarding.

Hoarding behaviours are often a way of dealing with trauma and grief. Hoarding tends to run in families.

Anecdotally, hoarding disorder (HD) may have links to autism and other neuro-differences, though studies don’t tend to show this.

So far, HD seems most clearly linked to obsessive compulsive disorders behaviours rather than other forms of mental ill-health.

What I didn’t know before listening to Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland speak on it (at about the 27:30 mark): Certain medications can provoke hoarding behaviours. Coupland mentions a drug for Parkinson’s disease, which also treats restless leg syndrome. This leads to hoarding behaviour in some people. This is not widely known.

Also not widely known: The genetic link between restless leg syndrome and ADHD. I’m sure this all triangulates eventually. (I have all three in my extended family.)

Kim Hill says she’s not ‘hoardy’, but admits that most people don’t think they’re hoardy. Then someone comes round and points out your massive and totally reasonable collection of dishcloths.

Psychology has much to learn about hoarding and related psychologies. But one thing is clear: Hoarding is not a moral issue. A behaviour which can be provoked by medication, or quick and extreme loss, suggests hoarding disorder could happen to any of us. You can almost set your clock to it, Coupland says. “Eighteen to twenty months later [after the loss], hoarding kicks in.” Being self-aware, knowing that you have a predilection for hoarding, makes no difference.

And Douglas Coupland, sometimes accused of being a hoarder himself, counters the museum minimalist types with this: If you live in a white box, you’re just a different kind of hoarder. You’re simply hoarding space.

So what of the proliferation of reality TV shows which make a spectacle of hoarders and their houses? Why is there so much appetite for those shows? Does it say something terrible about our natural human voyeurism? Is it exploitation? Much has been said on this matter already, and I agree with it all, but what lessons might storytellers learn about the content people crave?

I believe it comes back to ‘glamour’, in one specific sense. The archetypically ‘glamorous’ place is the store that sells containers for keeping our stuff in. We walk into those stores and are immediately charmed by the idea that we, too, could be super organised, and this would improve our lives.

We love the hoarding shows because we look at that mess and we see how much better it could be. Just hire five skips, we think. Bleach the hell out of that place and it would look so much better. Audiences widely love Marie Kondo. We love building shows, home renovation shows, move to the country shows and even cooking shows, for the same deep-rooted reasons.

This desire to improve plays into a specific wish fulfilment: for order, for constant improvement, for the opposite of entropy. For safety. For this same reason I loved Little House In The Big Woods as a six-year-old. In the fictional Ingalls’ lives, things were constantly getting better. Log cabins were getting built, food was getting preserved for winter, ground was being covered.

Now, for storytellers to meet that need without real life exploitation.

RELATED

Listen to Australian podcast All In The Mind for an episode on the psychology of hoarding. (There’s also a transcript.)

Header photo by Onur Bahçıvancılar on Unsplash

Fiction by Alice Munro, Nuanced Infidelity

bookstore

“Fiction” is a short story by Alice Munro (2009). From the title itself we might expect it to be metafictional. Sure enough, there are constant reminders to consider the role of fiction in our lives.

The following interview, from 2006, offers some extra insight into the story, and why Munro may have written it. For a few years she owned a bookstore and people used to come in to the store and tell her, as a matter of pride, two things: They don’t read Canadian books and they don’t read fiction. However, she also says that is no longer the case.

I don’t want to map Munro’s fictional Joyce onto Munro herself, but there are some parallels:

Like Joyce, Munro divorced her first husband during the hippie revolution. Though unlike Joyce, Munro explains that ‘everyone was doing it’ during this era and people who didn’t seemed ‘almost apologetic’ for staying together. Joyce does not feel like that at all. She feels grief and anxiety.

Continue reading “Fiction by Alice Munro, Nuanced Infidelity”

Tom Barling Illustrations?

A while back I blogged about Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton, illustrated by Tom Barling. There is remarkably little on the Internet about Tom Barling considering how much work he produced.

Perhaps you are knowledgeable about this English illustrator and can tell us whether the following illustrations are indeed by him? We have good reason to believe that they are.

But it would be great to have that confirmed and to know which project they were for. Please get in touch if you know anything about them, or would like to hazard a guess!

In any case, they’re beautifully rendered and deserve to be on the Internet. They remind me a little of Maurice Sendak’s work.

The eyes on this girl are quite unusual.

I think I might get nightmares tonight. She reminds me of a Black Eyed Kid of the urban legend:

Black-eyed children (or black-eyed kids) are an urban legend of supposed paranormal creatures that resemble children between the ages of 6 and 16, with pale skin and black eyes, who are reportedly seen hitchhiking or panhandling, or are encountered on doorsteps of residential homes. Tales of black-eyed children have appeared in pop culture since the late 1990s.

Apparently the paranormal stories started around 1996, but these illustrations look a bit older than that to me. What do you think?

But that smile… That pasted on smile…

Is the horse stylised based on cave drawings? I notice the girl’s eyes are drawn differently here.

Is this a piece of jewellery, or a ninja weapon that you throw at enemies? What better image to put on a shuriken than a black eyed kid and her pasted on smile?

The Gendered Appeal of True Crime

psychological benefits of true crime narrative

When I was in Form 2 (now called Year 8), our teacher set a transactional writing exercise: Does violent media make a culture more violent?

I’d never heard of Rudine Sims Bishop who, five years earlier, in a different hemisphere, had been writing about how story functions as a mirror as well as a window, and also as a sliding glass door. I could’ve applied this to violence as well as to representation if I’d known about it. Continue reading “The Gendered Appeal of True Crime”