by Laura Minor
British writer and actor, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writes and stars in BBC and Amazon television series Fleabag. Waller-Bridge’s character is unnamed throughout the episodes, though the viewer is meant to directly conjure this soul-infested heroine. A single woman appearing to be in her early 30s, she wallows in her financial despair, the loss of a best friend, family trouble, and a flimsy breakup, all the while fucking her way through her pain with a morally rudderless abandon. I’m not usually the sort who would fall in love with a woman who “can’t even call herself a feminist,” but the surprise here is that Fleabag turns out to be incredibly endearing.
Fleabag’s delivery of the term, ‘bad feminist’, recalls a more heady delivery of Roxanne Gay’s bestselling 2015 book, Bad Feminist. Fleabag grapples with a similar complexity of “post-feminist” thought, and given the several times Fleabag uses the phrase ‘bad feminist’, it is probable that Waller-Bridge is familiar with Gay’s work. Like Roxanne Gay, she defiantly contradicts any singular kind of feminism by suggesting that sometimes all we ever really want to do in the face of unrelenting, daily misogynies, but rarely take the chance, is to “shut the door and cry.”
I came away from my six viewings of Fleabag wanting to be Waller-Bridge’s new best friend. In fact, I’ve been waiting for her all my television life; this singular performance of the single woman’s plight. Fleabag is not as materialistic or broadly comic as the characters in Sex in the City, and she is wiser, cooler, and more irreverent than the gaggle of twenty-somethings populating Girls. With her emotional authenticity and vulnerability as a character, her unusual depths, Fleabag captures my greatest empathy.
We have seen plenty of shows about quirky, intelligent female rebels who both reflect and bridge the stupidity of our mid-twenties (That Girl, Friends) to the hard won and often lonely wisdoms of our middle thirties (Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). That foxhole of a decade is to women the moment when the culturally assigned expiration date on our packaging becomes unavoidably apparent. As a woman writer and musician, still paying my dues and hustling, I have more than my share of friends who are still in this transformative and enervating phase.
Friends, it’s going to be a dog dick of a decade.
But feel the love; Fleabag‘s themes center around our basic human condition: grief, dysfunctional relationships, sexual liberation, familial discomfort, female relationships, kindness, betrayal, failure, and atonement. It puts women’s relationships at the center of the narrative, and whilst we’ve seen that before, this is more devilish. She is the girl you wished you were, and the woman you secretly want to be, if only because she finally gets honest with herself. She is a funny, flawed, badass, and an irreverently admirable asshole. She understands the binaries, the dichotomies, the -isms, the prism of -isms, and the “What did I just do?!” moments.
What Fleabag does especially well is represent the vulnerability of female desire and the sneakiness of want. When do women stop feeling bad for the various things we crave sexually, emotionally, professionally? What puritan hell has the world handed us? This is what Fleabag enacts. Beta-male righteousness disguised as cool belongs in the ’90s, and “awareness” is the new liberal. Are people inherently bad or good? It’s a boorish, limited question. Fleabag lives in the gray area, as we all do. And it’s not some riotous come-together; it’s a subway that has stopped underground, and everyone is terrified. Sometimes, that scary, all-around feeling gets the best of you, and the best of fleabag is a moment of relief, like a force field against the terrible. What it feels like when every patch is a bad patch, then you feel a Band-Aid of grace from nowhere. You can’t always win.
But, sometimes your days are peppered with tenderness. For a moment, it’s anyone in the dark, any stranger offering a kind deed. Fleabag makes us fearless in the face of so much awareness, and courageous in the face of so much fear and fraud. Fleabag presents an angle on the ideation of suicide, and just as suicide can feel like betrayal, our own actions and transgressions haunt us daily, leading to the kind of dull accretion that can arrive at this place. Most people go there for a second on occasion, that ideation, and it might be the only moral tether left to us; you don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s misery and subsequent death. Fleabag reminds us our actions always affect others, as do our words.
In service to this cause, Fleabag goes into every romantic encounter with a silent hope, and there is something humanizing about that juxtaposed to her carnal appetite. Fleabag tells us that the 21st Century woman has sex with as many men as she wants, and your judgment means nothing. Only hers does. She does not hear your slut-shaming, virgin-whore binaries over the sound of her Hitachi vibrator, after her unsatisfying lover leaves.
This honest self-awareness is what humanizes Fleabag from rando cuntbus to an essential soul, a complicated woman rescuing herself in the most honest way she knows how. So thrilling, and admirable, how the show finds a way to sneak in the patronizing nature of whiney boyfriends with her erstwhile lover’s mansplainey line, “You’re not like other girls. You can keep up.”
Women think about sex. We think about it. Hear me. We think about it. It’s mechanisms, sounds, all of it. We have vaginas, and we want to use them, especially now that we’re somewhat free from the automatic expectations of a life that must include marriage and children. The awkwardness of being lives for the bedroom. Fleabag makes a standup, shut-the-fuck-up case for being the biggest smartass in the relationship. In fact, Fleabag as a character, is genius in publicizing male micro-aggressions in gendered relationships. She is the funnier one, and she’s not afraid to own it.
Because Fleabag implements, and then tears down, the fourth wall of shame as the series does literally (it was originally written as a play). She lets you know just how much we make fun of the size of our assholes and the weekend walks of shame. This character is flawed and wears it like a boss. She reveals through an acceptable amount of voice-over that the single woman’s hubris is as tatty as the married woman’s defense. And, when Fleabag is confronted with sexism head-on, she uses her wit to rhetorically arm-bar any brazen douche without apology. That does not mean she does not feel the pangs of disconnection and disappointment every time. She is hurting from her choices. But honestly, are not all women human, beings of our own degree, trying to find some love, beauty, and pleasure, without hurting anyone or anything?
Turns out we are all Fleabags, spinning the notion of slutbag on its back and kicking its denigrating ass. We are all frustrated, in public, everyday, and making the normal strange is the trick of any writer (and the job of all writers). But making the normal strange in your own life is an act of rescue. Even the most put-together of women fail to meet the standards of decency, and we love it. We love it when our perfect sisters shit in sinks.
About the Author:
Laura Minor is the recipient of the 2016 Emerging Writers Spotlight Award at Florida State University, chosen by D.A. Powell. Her poetry has most recently appeared in Hobart, Spring Gun Press, and Lungfull. She was a Teacher’s College Fellow at Columbia University, the recipient of the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Award, and a finalist for Steel Toe Books & Pudding House Press. A celebrated singer-songwriter, she is also currently working on a third record (forthcoming in winter 2016) while she finishes her debut book of poems as a doctoral candidate in poetry at Florida State University.