Mention the county of Essex and many people’s initial reaction is to make a joke or a derogatory remark about ‘Essex Girls’. In this piece I will use the Essex-based sitcom Birds of a Feather (BOAF) – a popular and long-running British television situation comedy that began in the late 1980s – to trace the origin of the term Essex Girl and expose its social and cultural significance as well as its roots in the rapid economic changes that took place in the 1980s. After setting the societal context within which the show was created, I will use BOAF to show how – in spite of Thatcherite rhetoric optimistically heralding the end of rigid class hierarchies in the 1980s – a renewed insistence on the use of traditional class-based assumptions to judge and classify people occurred at precisely the same time as these hierarchies were said to be breaking down. I will show how BOAF reasserted traditional notions of class belonging in the 1980s by inserting ideas about class, gender and consumerism into mainstream television to be absorbed by the viewer, as well as playing to anxieties around working-class social mobility that arose as a consequence of Thatcherism. I will perform a close analysis of BOAF’s three central female characters as a way of introducing the work of Thorstein Veblen, and to show how each character’s behaviour – and especially their spending habits – reinforced ideas about class belonging in Britain and played to pre-existing tensions around social mobility, using humour to reinforce class stereotypes and attitudes towards ‘new money’ and the 1980s nouveau riche. I aim to show Veblen as not merely a social satirist, as he is sometimes portrayed, but also as a thinker whose work remains relevant for an analysis of contemporary spending habits. By examining BOAF’s female characters’ background and lifestyle I will show how each of them is an outsider in their suburban Essex home and demonstrate how the sitcom

uses humour to mock the characters’ attempts at adjusting to the affluence of their new environment, reinforcing class-based hierarchies of deservingness and cultivating snobbery in the viewing audience.