Does Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Darkly Comic’ Fleabag Really Disrupt Feminine Conventions?

As the BBC comedy ends its second series, its wide acclaim and supposedly universal appeal begs questioning

Towards the end of Season One, Fleabag has a synthetic moment where she considers her life regrets in a flashback, whining, ‘I wish I could just meet myself and have a go at myself.’  She tolerantly does: ‘You need to reach out to your family. You need to stop provoking your sister. Just grow up. You do not take yourself seriously as a business woman. You need to pay your fucking bills. You need to be nicer to Hilary. You need to get a new hat.’

Fleabag’s pity and awareness are imprisoned in the vacuum that is her own thought loop. Narcissism combined with self-deprecation is hardly neoteric, so why is it being held up as ‘dark’, ‘inventive’ and ‘mordant’? Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag makes elemental jokes about wanking, urinating on cushions and vibrators. She publicly points out her father’s penis from a wall of phallus casts at her stepmother’s ‘Sexhibition’, then turns to camera, ‘oops!’ She continually breaks the fourth wall, outstretched for laughs, acutely swelling it during sex scenes, perhaps associating it with a confession box; her oppressor, a Catholic priest, jewelled and spritzed in Chanel No 5.

Fleabag has a mild fixation with boobs – ‘evil boobs’, ‘tiny boobs’, ‘bouncy boobs’ – which is enforced by philanderers commenting on her ‘sexy plank’ chest. She is also constrained to using the self-perpetuating ‘meta’ medium, thinking only about herself and supposedly coming across as ‘identifiable’ in the process. She has some easy-going anal sex, then spends an entire day contemplating the size of her arsehole – indulgent. She ‘turns men over fast’; the same kind of men – beige, faceless, reductions with parted hair who take bubble baths, eat prosciutto, sit on the edge of her bed and stroke, who chaperone her to family events where they genteelly peck on canapés and last out for trifle in a glass centrepiece – weepy softboys. She smokes to ‘look cool’, jogs in a graveyard and wrecks a few champagne flutes. And this is supposedly a ‘transgressive’ character that ‘fucks everything’?

371 days later – Season Two – Fleabag nudges the camera with her fixed red lip and utters, ‘this is a love story’. We’re back to her theatrical mugging: eyebrows raised, eyebrows lowered, eye-roll, smirk, search for reassurance. Her father whirrs, ‘You look strong, are you?’, a value judgment that seeps through from the previous season. Because of her arranged hair, pale mineral skin and creaseless appearance, she is presentable; physically, she is more-or-less ‘ladylike’. She’s hardly liberated from the conventions of femininity, other than her supposed appetite for the drama of sex (which is unconvincing) and masturbation (which was once). There is no parody, no slurping, no subtlety, no new framework. She feigns a few minor responsibilities, conceding to arbitrary conventions like endless family meals – napkins on laps – and church tombolas.

No character can encompass one common experience as there is no such thing. But what is profoundly difficult to go along with is that this series is ‘observant’, and Fleabag’s character ‘original’. Is a new space being occupied? Are the errors of a social system being questioned? Does she disrupt anything beyond bourgeois notions of civility? There is a lot of canapé action, which accompanies a dualistic, almost fetishized notion of feminism, smirky scatological humour and then late into the second season a desperate attempt to appear sexually fluid – with an unconvincing lesbian kiss (a stage-managed stunt that Madonna and Britney did in 2003, which was monotonous then). This is not a character that actually does whatever she likes, steals whatever she likes, kisses whoever she likes. In order to depart from heteronormative behaviour, a character needs to conjure a more convincing, slippery existence, to question the machine and how spoiled the world is. I think of Daisies, a 1966 Czech film by Věra Chytilová. The two main characters Marie I and Marie II decide that, because the world has gone bad, they will go bad too, so they act as spoilt as possible. They tease, plot, steal, use; they dine with sugar daddies and binge on entire chickens and creamed deserts with their hands, only to leave the worn-out pets with the bill. They jump off moving trains, lick bathwater like cats, are hungry to try anything once. They parody a stereotypical ‘femininity’ with garlands in their hair – they paint on obnoxiously thick black eyes and march down the street chanting, ‘We are, we are we are!’ They stride and sashay through the cream and the filth; they take control and question the mechanics of society, culture and gender. 

From New Wave to the mainstream, linking these disparate female identities is slightly futile, since what they are fighting against is diametrically opposed. But some 50 years after Chytilová’s film, we are left with Fleabag; a woman crying in a box, waiting for a man to dictate her choices to her, to tell her (in her own words), ‘what to wear every morning’, ‘what to eat’, ‘what to rage about’ – and there seems to be a phenomenon of gormless praise. This is a female character who is only interested in her own privilege, arrogant indifference and fragility –  stunned with restriction rather than freedom. 

Main image: Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Courtesy: BBC

Pandora Lavender is a writer and artist based in London. 

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