The Portrayal of Feminism in Fleabag (2016)
If you had to pick a few traits that significantly set Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag apart from other TV programs, you might mention something about its hilariously flawed protagonist, whose name we only ever know as the show’s moniker itself: Fleabag. It is through her eyes that we explore her world as a self-proclaimed sex addict and “bad feminist,” constantly feuding with her perfect sister and stepmother, and reliving the traumatic loss of her best friend and business partner, Boo.
But what were the director’s intentions behind creating this imperfect, loveable character, and what does the show have to say about feminism?
Fleabag: the “Bad Feminist”?
We get a taste of the show’s views right off the bat as the sisters attend a feminist talk and hilariously admit they would elect to lose five years of their lives if it meant having the “perfect” body. Here, Fleabag tells us herself: “I am a bad feminist” (Series 1, Episode 1). Immediately, we are introduced to the mindset of these characters through their flaws, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. Unused to this admission of imperfectness among portrayals of leading women in media, we follow Fleabag’s story with interest as she stumbles through her day to day life, doing things like feuding with her sister and stepmother, and attempting to use her body to get a loan for her failing café. When you put a character like Fleabag next to a female DC superhero, for example, Wonder Woman, one definitely stands out as a more “perfect” depiction of what feminism and female empowerment looks like. But what does feminism look like outside of the curated media environment?
Well, it might look something like Fleabag.
Unlike a lot of other media depicting the “strong female character,” Fleabag gives us the unfiltered story of a woman struggling with real-life issues and real-life insecurities. In another scene much later in the series, we see Fleabag attend a meeting with “The Hot Priest” in which she admits that: “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger tits” (Season 2, Episode 2). If there’s one thing we know about feminist teachings, it is that we are supposed to accept our bodies as they are and to stop curating ourselves as objects of the male gaze. But that’s often easier said than done, and many die-hard feminists still struggle with body image and self-worth no matter how much Judith Butler we consume. Here, we get a much needed a taste of the human side of feminism; the relatable and the real struggle of trying to accept ourselves without judgment.
Even Claire, who Fleabag constantly reminds us is the “perfect” sister, struggles with self image and repeatedly references an eating disorder. From her prestigious job to her supposed perfect marriage, Claire represents the life every woman wants. But she, too struggles as we all do, and lapses in judgment when she sides with her lying husband over Fleabag as she is presented with accusations of his act of sexual harassment and infidelity. The scene represents the familiar scenario of the accuser and the accused in a sexual harassment case, and Claire makes the decision to oppose her sister’s claims on the basis of the betrayal of Boo. Here, we feel Fleabag’s distress and her own sense of betrayal as her sister refuses to believe what has happened, mimicking the feeling of what it is like to come forward with a story of sexual assault and to be turned away.
“I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt, woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”Fleabag, Season 1, Episode 1
Seen, but not Heard
Later in the series, the sisters visit a women-only healing retreat in which they are asked to do menial housework in complete silence. At the same time, a retreat designed for men who have harassed women is happening on another part of the property, and Fleabag overhears them screaming vulgar slurs at a blow up doll dressed as a woman. The dichotomy is priceless; while men are permitted to be vocal and expressive, women are told to quiet themselves and dedicate their energies to snipping grass with nail clippers. In the powerful and funny culminating point of the retreat, Fleabag tells Claire a joke while they scrub the floor, and Claire’s sudden burst of laughter turns into sobs which echoes the sentiment of many women whose voices have been silenced.
Hidden in the obvious comedy is the message: women are still often unable to freely express themselves when there is an issue. The pithy scene also pokes fun at the fact that even though the men at the retreat are the ones who have committed an offense, it is still the voice of the female victim that is missing. She is reduced to the silent fate of a crude blow up doll.
The Spirit of Competition
Fleabag’s turbulent relationship with her stepmother is also worth consideration. Here, we see the effects of regarding other women as competition and the passive-aggressive feuding we are conditioned to partake in. During almost every interaction they share, there is something unsaid being communicated between the two women, often unbeknownst to the girls’ father who is an emotionally unreachable fixture in their lives and serves as more of a pawn in their stepmother’s game than as a father. Here, there’s a little play on the “evil stepmother” trope which also adds an almost satirical layer to their relationship. Throughout the series, a headless bust of a woman’s body is passed between the two as Fleabag steals and replaces it, which symbolizes the strained power dynamics between them. It is also ironic that the bust represents the “ideal” woman, and that she is headless, which Fleabag also briefly comments on.
A similar but more subversive dynamic develops between Fleabag and her best friend Boo, as a horrible betrayal on Fleabag’s part indirectly causes Boo’s death. Fleabag’s choice to sleep with Boo’s boyfriend causes a rift in their friendship that never comes to light, but is carried by our protagonist and probably fuels most of her thoughts about being a bad feminist and an overall horrible person. Fleabag’s actions speak to the consequences of betraying the women in our lives in a way that benefits patriarchy–neither women have control in the situation.
The discombobulated music that plays at the beginning of each episode in season one sets the tone very well for the turmoil that occurs within our protagonist as she attempts to root herself in feminist values while also combatting her natural, and often self-destructive tendencies. The show ultimately unveils the more human side of trying to be a better person. And while we are encouraged to do and be better, we are also taught by an imperfect human to forgive ourselves.
What do you think? Leave a comment.