A Toast For The Fleabags: How ‘Fleabag’ Gets Messy Women Right
Introducing your new favourite show.
A friend of mine once shat herself outside her own front door at the end of a Tinder date. Another one, a vet, accidentally expressed a dog’s anal glands incorrectly and got a mouthful of anal fluid. One time, I fell down a poison ivy-covered hill while traveling, swelled up dramatically and couldn’t find a pharmacist who understood the words coming out of my giant face.
The general truth is that we’re all a bit of a disaster now and then, and it isn’t news that it’s comforting seeing people fucking up in similar ways on screen. But this can be particularly more satisfying for women. In a film and TV landscape that’s historically been full of shiny heroines with that one perfectly waved hairstyle or wives/girlfriends/mistresses drawn in broad stereotypical strokes, a woman who is inherently NQR and standing on her own is sometimes exactly what we find ourselves gravitating towards.
The ‘Flawed’ Woman
It’s a relatively new concept to see a show centred on women who are, for lack of a better word, “flawed”. From the ’90s on, popular TV has moved away from patriarchal family sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond and The King Of Queens, to a slew of brooding male antiheroes like Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Dexter, to crews of “boys being boys” like in Jackass and Entourage. Though Two And A Half Men only got axed last year (???), we seem to be gravitating towards a fairness in TV that isn’t just based on the fact that there’s now an Aussie Bachelorette. Imperfect (and occasionally unlikeable) female characters are getting more and more screen time.
It feels like much of this took off in the mainstream around the time of 30 Rock; Liz Lemon was a brilliant, occasionally inept, night-cheese eating woman who gave ridiculous one-liners and validations for the socially awkward. Then, Lena Dunham’s Girls offered a more realistic view of (a certain type of) young creative — those who struggle to be ‘heard’ and struggle to pay rent, all while overlooking their own narcissism and relative privilege. Shows like Transparent and Jessica Jones have both been worthy examples of more complex representations of women on screen too — women that, through traditional understanding of what it means to be a woman, could be considered flawed.
Flawed in this context means women who struggle with more than just on-again-off-again romantic relationships, and who tackle grittier problems, often unsuccessfully. It’s the antithesis to the damsels of shows like The Vampire Diaries and their episodic narrative redemption. To be flawed is to be inherently wrong in some way that can’t be fixed in the 39th minute of a 40-minute episode, and therefore, far more real.
This is what we see with British mini-series Fleabag, a show written, directed by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose character — by her own admission — is a mess. Fleabag (the only name given to the lead character played by Waller-Bridge) is a young woman who, dealing with a recent tragedy, a breakup, a dead mother, and the reality of her business going under, is blundering through life on her own. She’s sexually uninhibited and unrepentant, has an older sister who is less so (though highly successful), and the show revolves around her life in the present, while telling her past through brief flashbacks.
Fleabag is hilarious, though (lovably) a bit shit. She accidentally takes off her jumper in a business loan interview because she forgets she hasn’t got a shirt underneath; she charges people 12 pounds for a cheese sandwich to keep her ailing business afloat; she gets dumped for masturbating to Obama next to her boyfriend in bed. She’s your biggest FML moment personified, and her hijinks — and flaws — will make you chuckle with familiarity. But the show also dances around the fact that Fleabag is very sad, and therein lies what she sees as her biggest flaw: none of her hijinks make her happy.
Fleabag often breaks the fourth wall with the audience so that we are let in on personal wisecracks (in the middle of sex, on the toilet, buying tampons… nothing is sacred) and her gut-reactions, sometimes just by her glancing at the camera. We’re brought into her life as a silent outsider who she uses for sympathy, laughs, and assurance, and we get the feeling she is avoiding our eyes when the real melancholy hits. The audience becomes the close friend she is missing.
Through all this, we’re party to her loneliness. She pushes her family away, unable to put her unhappiness into words, before admitting it to a near stranger in the sixth and final episode: “Either everyone feels like this a bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I am completely fucking alone”.
Spoiler: Everybody Feels Like This A Bit
These complex feelings that encompass a lot of us from time to time aren’t so often dealt with by female characters on the screen. The men, though? Walter White of Breaking Bad was a flawed man coming from a place of deep unhappiness, and a character study on moral reprehensibility when faced with rock bottom. Tony Soprano was just a conflicted dude trying to provide for a family while killing some people on the side. Don Draper was angst personified. The men of “the golden age of television” have long been provided with the means to be sad without recovery in sight, but not so much the female characters.
Sadness stemming from nothing too much, and sadness that seeps into everyday lives, and sadness that is sadness just because — this is what we see in Fleabag. Rarely has this felt so close to home and strangely gut-punching as with Waller-Bridge, as she puts forth a convincing representation of someone who is almost okay at pretending to be okay, but isn’t really.
Fleabag is worth a watch because, aside from the hilarity, it humanises flaws that, in actual fact, aren’t flaws at all; they’re just feelings which everyone has sometimes and finds hard to talk about. If you’re a disaster — whether you’re falling down hills or getting poop in your mouth or just feeling like crap — bear in mind you’re not alone. All us fleabags are right there with you.
Fleabag is exclusively available on Amazon Prime Video which has just become available in Australia.
Kat Hayes is a Melbourne-based freelance writer who also slings flat whites at a cinema bar. Her interests include film, feminism and pleading with her herb garden to stay alive.