Film & TV Muse

"Women are born with pain built in": Fleabag's Love Letter to Modern Feminism

Camila Hernandez analyses the inexorable relationship between Phoebe Waller-Bridge's meta-comedy and current feminist discourse.

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Image Credit: BBC

Who is Fleabag? She answers this herself: “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist.”

Throughout the show, Fleabag proves these traits several times over — yet her poise, charm and dark wit make her an utterly compelling protagonist. Though her decisions are, more often than not, poor and uncalculated, Fleabag doesn’t force us to feel any sort of way. Despite the cleverly cut-off jokes and Waller-Bridge’s signature contorted face of amused disgust (you know the one), there’s an alluring yet twisted autonomy that our ‘narrator’ possesses. At the core of her character is the unrelenting expression of the ribald, aggressive and independent behaviour that women, in real life and in television, are discouraged to display. In fact, Fleabag is not a ‘difficult’ woman after all — she is just real.

Although fans come to the show time and time again for the funny antics and quick-witted asides, the untethered intimacy between Fleabag and the camera (and also men) is what makes her seem like a redeemable character. Working as both a comic relief and as an intimate confessional, it seems like the perfect, self-aware technique. And though these devices have long been gathering the dust of cliche and don’t seem that effective on paper, Waller-Bridge somehow finds a new way to make them flourish on screen.

Breaking-the-fourth-wall is a trope that has been used primarily as an extension of a screenwriter’s limited male perspective. Think of film and TV’s famous examples of to-camera asides: Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. Of course, there have been some female-driven narratives carried out through the agency of a main character voice, such as in Clarissa Explains It All and Sex and the City, but in these their dialogues read like a hollowed-out email from a female colleague.

However, Waller-Bridge doesn’t stop here in her revolutionary journey to deface every detail of conventional television from their macho origins. Fleabag, and we are not eased into this at all, has a considerable sexual appetite. Writing for The New Yorker, Nussbaum adds that “ her libido feels punishingly theatrical—she’s addicted to the “drama” of sex, its awkwardness and cruelty, detumescing intimacy whenever it emerges from the bedsheets.” This is another clear way in which Waller-Bridge pits femininity against its own system, a system that our protagonist is always trying to game. “I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.” Fleabag remarks snarkily at one moment. As well as more satirical statements like this one: “If you rid a woman of her head and limbs you can’t really expect her to do anything other than roll around.”

Waller-Bridge’s desire to challenge our relationship with Fleabag is evident in the second series, which shifts beyond raised eyebrows, smirks and exposition. The fourth wall device is still an important part of the narrative structure, but its role expands beyond an extended conversation between character and audience. We are no longer her only source of salvation. She leaves the camera resting on the frame of a bus-stop, and we are left feeling unwanted, unneeded. We have served our purpose.

In a conversation on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, Waller-Bridge detailed Fleabag’s ‘vulnerable’ relationship with feminism: “She doesn’t understand the rules of it.” she says. Yet, “she knows in her bones that it’s the thing she wants to be and she wants to identify as a feminist but she feels like she’s letting feminism down all the time.” The screenwriter herself stated that even she feels “slightly frightened by the nuances [of feminism] and that there are traps out there.”

Despite this undercurrent of anxiety surrounding feminism, there is nevertheless a hopeful potential to the ‘bad feminism’ Fleabag half-jokingly subscribes to, portrayed in both her and Waller-Bridge’s belief systems. For what appears to be a quintessential ‘bad feminism’ in the first season slowly reveals itself, in the second, to also be a mesh with a kind of humanism. In this shift, Fleabag brilliantly bridges the two, conjuring up humanistic questions of meaning and existence while also revealing humanism’s limits, forever distorting it with the ‘badness’ of feminism. Such a hilariously flawed and outrageously female character as Fleabag herself may be, these two important components are what make her the perfect imperfect human for voicing the struggles of what it means to forgive ourselves for self-destructive tendencies.

But what makes the rest of us, with our socially-mediated outward glances, so different from her? Everyone else in Fleabag’s life is pretending as hard as she is, after all, just without an audience to talk to. We can never tell what anyone is really thinking, and we will never really know who ‘we’ are to Fleabag. Perhaps it is when she stops talking to us that she stops dissociating, becomes less isolated from herself, steps out of the frame of our gaze, and into her own.

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