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.


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.


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.

The lyrics to Jolene are regressive and speak to the weakest place in a woman. But they strike me as the meditation of a woman who is far more interested than this other woman than in… her man.


Comparative Children’s Literature: Britain

Best Loved Books

(Not sure where to start)

A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-pooh stories in the 1920s

Peter Pan, which few children find readable today, was the first novel in which ordinary children enter a magic world and have an adventure there – something that readers of Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials will recognise.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has also fallen out of favour with present-day readers, but any number of adventure stories, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to The Action Hero’s Handbook derive from it. Stevenson’s young hero, Jim Hawkins, foreshadows the plucky resourcefulness of Anthony Horowitz’s reluctant teenage spy, and Eoin Colfer’s criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl.

Enid Blyton (the most prolific of British children’s authors)

Roald Dahl

David Walliams is the new Roald Dahl, and has been paired with Roald Dahl’s illustrator Quentin Blake, so the publishers are obviously pushing that comparison, too.

Julia Donaldson is currently one of the biggest selling picturebook authors, paired with illustrator Axel Scheffler

Jacqueline Wilson writes gritty realistic stories for adolescent readers and has been criticised by conservative adults for introducing horrible things to children who are too young to deal with it

J.K. Rowling of course, who is popular all around the world, and has perplexed kidlit academics as to how on earth the Harry Potter series has been sooo successful given the many similar works which, by any yardstick, are just as good.

The ‘classics’ are generally thought to be: Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Arthur Ransome, William Maybe, Philippa Pearce. (Of course, the notion of ‘classic’ is problematic.)

On Wikipedia British children’s literature has been grouped by century to make it more manageable:

18th Century British Children’s Authors

19th Century British Children’s Authors

20th-century British children’s literature

British children’s and young adults’ authors active between 1900 and 1949

Geographical Subcategories

Then there’s the thing this non-Brit can never get my head around in which Britain/UK/British Isles comprises separate areas:

Scottish Children’s Literature

Welsh Children’s Literature


A Brief History Of British Kidlit

  • The 1740s are commonly regarded as the decade in which both the English novel and the English children’s book got under way. This is connected to new ways of thinking. There was a rise and growing refinement of the middle classes in the 18th century. A growing number of people had the time, the money and the education to read books. Middle class readers were more domestic — they had their own homes — no more great houses or street bustle. Children stopped being dressed as little adults and a specific idea of childhood emerged. Children started to call their parents ‘mamma’ and ‘pappa’.
  • Publishing houses also started up around this time. Generally until the mid 18th century, people who sold books also made them themselves.
  • John Newbery (1713-67) was an influential person in the children’s publishing trade. He was wealthy, but not for his interest in printing books for children — he had another job selling pharmaceutical products, and bought the rights to sell Dr James’s Fever Powder, which took off. He married the widow of the previous owner of a printing house, which is how he started in the printing business. He published 30 titles for children. It’s thought he wrote a number of those himself, but no one knows exactly which ones; he employed cheap hacks to write many of them.
  • Of the titles published by Newbery, the most influential was ‘Goody Two Shoes’.
The hero is Marjery Two-Shoes. May have been written by Newbery himself, or perhaps one of the others who worked with him.
The hero is Marjery Two-Shoes. May have been written by Newbery himself, or perhaps one of the others who worked with him.
  • Though Newbery was English, and his books have fallen out of common use, his name lives on in the prestigious prize for American literature; Newbery was as influential to American children’s literature as he was to English.
  • In the 1840s less didactic books started to be written, though didacticism was by no means dead. e.g. Captain Marryat’s adventure stories, pointing the way to Ballantyne, Kingston, Robert Louis Stevenson and Henty.
  • In the 1860s through 1930 or so, English kidlit was characteristic for its misgivings about Christianity and the wish to create imaginary paradises as alternatives. e.g. The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald. There was a desire to destroy the old order. On the other hand, Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, books of E. Nesbit, Richard Jeffries’ Bevis etc. the authors’ disenchantment with religion led not to destruction but to the construction of green alternatives. (Enchanted places, arcadias, never-never lands.)
  • By the end of the 18th C, the writing of children’s books was considered to be a job suitable for gentlewomen: Anna Letitia Barbauld, Lady Fenn, Priscilla Wakefield, Dorothy and Mary Jane Kilner, Mary Elliott. These ladies mixed didacticism with a little fun.
  • There were also some fierce old Puritans: Mrs Trimmer, Mrs Sherwood.
  • Then there were the English followers of Rousseau: Maria Edgeworth, Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley, incidentally). Rousseau was all for naturalness and simplicity (the language of the heart, the idea of the Noble Savage.) The fact that Rousseau didn’t like books has been forgotten — he had an unintended influence on kidlit regardless.
  • The educational purposes of literature have always been an issue, with official reports and curriculum documents from the 1920s emphasising the importance of the role of literature. By implication, children’s literature is influenced by the educational market. The English National Curriculum has spawned a market for certain classroom aligned topics.
  • In Britain as in America, attention has been given to ‘diversity’ in children’s literature since the 1970s, when it was noticed that a fantasy world populated by middle class white boys isn’t really all that great. However, that hasn’t had much effect. Books which were criticised in the 70s are still being used widely in schools. White middle class male characters still dominate.
  • Homer, Dickens and Defoe wrote for adults, but their stories are often offered to children in simplified form.
  • In older works, the notion of the ‘gentleman’ is very important.
  • In the 1890s, British kidlit was utopian. By the 1990s it was all about children’s needing to/struggling to grow up.
  • The First Golden Age, which took off in the 1850s, thanks to the increasing number and status of children, was particularly dominated by five authors: JM Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson, E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Anna Sewell. These authors have been hugely influential on subsequent authors.
  • The First Golden Age of children’s literature ended with WW1, meaning this was the end of the dominance of Arcadian-type books. However, the era of utopian domestic fiction or animal stories definitely didn’t end then.
  • Carnivalesque children’s stories were popular mid 20th Century. (e.g. The Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles)
  • The decade of the 1920s was a sorry one in England, with few new stories being published, and old ones being reprinted which were nonetheless second-rate. (This contrasts with America, where children’s literature was starting to boom.)
  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (starting in the early 1930s) marked the beginning of a story now seen as far from ‘realistic’, but Ransome did write seriously and without condescension, similar to the ‘realistic’ writers of today. There are 12 in the series published over 18 years, but the time span they cover is only 5 years. In these books there’s a clear preference for country over town, for wind-power over mechanization. The parents are understanding figures in the background and the children are always right-minded. In the books, they are always on holiday.
  • Ballet Shoes (1935) by Noel Streatfeild was the beginning of a new genre: The career novel. This book and all that followed by the same author were all based on detailed research.
  • In Britain, the 1950s were a hopeful decade. Publishing houses at last appointed children’s editors with standing and ambition.  Puffin Books had been established by Penguin during the war with Eleanor Graham as editor. This company became the world’s first major children’s paperback imprint. A new wave of writers included: Rosemary Sutcliff, Philippa Pearce, William Maybe and artists such as Brian Wildsmith and Charles Keeping.
  • By the 1960s many talented writers had been attracted to the children’s book world. Educators started to take notice of kidlit. The term ‘reluctant reader’ first started being used. A big complaint of books of this era was that they were too middle class. They reinforced the existing social structure.
  • The recession of the 1970s hit Britain as much as it hit America.  A declining library market meant that publishers became more dependent on sales in the bookstores (and supermarkets) with the result that they were on the whole selling to less informed purchasers than the librarians. There was more demand for shelf appeal and less for literary quality. Even libraries started to look for popularity rather than literary merit.
  • While American kidlit tries to be conservative, British kidlit encourages children to grow up.
  • By the mid 1990s, experienced editor David Fickling said, ‘Nothing can save the hardback at its present price‘. Gone were the days  of ‘librarian books’, which only librarians knew about and would recommend to their more discerning child readers alongside the top sellers.
  • In both America and Britain there has been a swing from library to bookshop sales. Books are published by corporations which operate on both sides of the Atlantic. Fiction for older children suffers most because while adults are happy to guess at what a toddler wants to read, they’re less likely to guess what an older child is interested in, and don’t gift books so readily.
  • While there were plenty of new writers in Britain in the 1950s-1970s, there has been a dearth of them since then. Too high a proportion of the worthwhile children’s books of the 1980s came from writers whose reputations were already made.
  • Realism started mainly in America, but has made its way to Britain.
  • Fantasy continues to be huge in YA everywhere, but historical fiction has taken a steep dive. The historical story has traditionally had high standing in Britain. The standard is still very high, but there has been a shift in the perception of children’s needs. It used to be thought that an education in history was necessary for children but now it’s thought that history lacks relevance for children. The big name in British historical fiction is Rosemary Sutcliffe (1920-1992). The young heroes of historical novels tended to be very right-thinking and upright. The trend is towards replacing such heroes with ‘real children’, whose flaws are obvious. (See also: notes on Historical Realism)
  • It used to be easy for Britain to sell its writers in America, but now it’s more the other way around — British teens are reading American fiction but not so much the other way around. One or two generations ago, most British children would hardly have been aware of quality American literature.
  • Children’s literature is getting less and less attention in major newspapers and magazines, and the status of children’s authors is low.
  • Picturebooks started to bloom in the 1960s. (In America they had started to bloom after the second world war.) Leading names of the 1960s: Charles Keepings, Brian Wildsmith. John Birmingham and Quentin Blake also started illustrating for children in the late 1960s.
  • Today, children’s books, new and old, are actually what is keeping publishers in business.


Features of British Kidlit

  • Food fantasies are important in kidlit because children, ideologically, are supposed to be very interested in food. But in British children’s literature food has been particularly copious and rich and sweet. Fat-laden foods are frequently served to children who seem to have huge appetites. Food in seemingly never-ending quantities is a regular feature in classic British stories for children, but can also be seen echoed in many early Australian stories such as The Magic Pudding.
  • Traditionally, British kidlit is good at fantasy whereas American kidlit is great on realism, but of course now you find great realistic stories coming out of Britain and great fantasy coming out of America, not to mention the rest of the world.


  • Here is a ridiculously inflammatory clickbait article which nevertheless detaials interesting points about how American literature and British literature for children differ — writte I think by a fan of fantasy rather than by a fan of realism.
  • Although Britain is part of the European Union, when it comes to children’s literature, it makes more sense to regard Britain as standing apart from Europe.

    Here’s why.

    When you talk about your writing with Europeans, they’re more interested in what you’re saying with your fiction–your themes and influences. Americans tend to be interested in how much it pays, and when the movie’s coming out.

    – Olen Steinhauer

    Could this mean that Europeans have more interest in themes and messages in kidlit, also?

    • In European countries that remained as dictatorships after WW2 (like Spain), the production of children’s books remained very much under state control and didn’t flourish.
    • With the exception of Britain, translated books are seen to have an important educational and hence ideological function, fostering mutual understanding and European unity.
    • With the exception of Britain, in European countries up to 35% of their published children’s literature has been translated from another language. (Britain’s rate is 1%.)

    Britain, like America is not translating enough European children’s literature.

    Walking around at Bologna [International Children’s Book Fair], there is so much good work from so many countries (as well as a lot that is, well, market driven, to be polite), whether in text or illustration, that you wonder why more of it isn’t represented in Britain. Take the Andersen and Astrid Lindgren award winners for instance. [Argentinian writer] Andruetto isn’t published at all in English and only two of [Danish writer] Guus Kuijer’s over fifty titles have ever been translated. And this isn’t just about translation, because there’s a lot from other countries that publish in English that doesn’t reach us. … To be at Bologna, then, is to be astonished both by what is published for children internationally, how little of this we see in Britain, and yet how large a presence British children’s books have worldwide.

    Books For Keeps


    If anyone would like to see this changed, do support small publishers such as New Zealand based Gecko Press who translate some of the best work from (mainly) Europe for English speaking children to enjoy.

The Female Maturity Formula Of Modern Storytelling

When it comes to modern storytelling in Hollywood animated films for children, Pixar is at the top of the field. In fact, The Good Dinosaur, released late 2015, might have been their very first lemon, depending on what you’re looking for in a film for children.

What happened there? Interestingly, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic felt that perhaps The Good Dinosaur hasn’t been well received by adults becauseitis Pixar’s first film to explicitly target children (rather than doing the usual ‘dual audience’ thing), which leads me to my main point, as encapsulated by Roberta Trites (Illinois State University) in her book Literary Conceptualizations of Growth:

Disney has a long tradition of appealing to a dual audience. In Disney’s major releases, the story frequently includes adults who need to grow as much as adolescents do in a clear bid to pull parents into theatres along with their children.

This has lead to another shared feature of almost all of the Pixar films, unintended or otherwise: what Trites calls The Pixar Maturity Formula. It goes like this:

A mature female, who is coded as an adult, accepts responsibility for herself and for others. Even in the beginning of the movie, she can intuit how other people will react by anticipating their feelings and the relationship between cause and effect and […] she has a higher cognitive facility than the male characters around her do because she can accept death and control her sexuality.

Trites explains that Pixar characters can be easily divided into two distinct categories:

  1. Immature, insensitive, conflict-ridden, funny (and therefore very likeable)
  2. Mature characters (like parents/teachers — and therefore distanced from child)

Note that even though some Pixar protagonists are coded to look like adults, they don’t act like adults. So you can’t judge which are the ‘mature’ characters based on their onscreen age.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, characters from group 2 are pretty much always female, whereas characters from group 1 are pretty much always male.

Continue reading “The Female Maturity Formula Of Modern Storytelling”