‘Women are born with pain built in. We carry it within ourselves. Men have to seek it out.’
Fleabag, the protagonist of one of the most successful British comedies in the past 10 years, is a woman suffering profound grief who is forced to navigate a seemingly hopeless love life, an emotionally distant father, and an infuriatingly neurotic sister. The show explores themes of loss and the complexity of love for women in the modern age within a witty, unusual and truly heart-breaking narrative that has been hailed a BBC modern classic.
It’s Fleabags take, or critique, of modern feminism that is its most compelling component. Claire (Fleabag’s sister) is a woman who outwardly presents as a successful, if a tad highly-strung, character who is often shown on the edge of some sort of mental breakdown. Claire is a representation of the consequences of the pressures of women to achieve. Social expectations of women have done an about-turn. Once upon a time, women were expected to be content with family life in the domestic sphere, but now women are expected to ‘have it all’ as they have access to careers and positions of power that were previously restricted to men. However, the pressure to be a successful businesswoman, a successful mother, a successful wife and a successful daughter is Claire’s biggest battle. She is thought of highly within her company, she is married (rather unsuccessfully) to a wealthy, yet intolerable, husband, and provides the kinship her father lacks in her sister.
Yet, these high expectations of women, as shown in Claire, is a further aid to the patriarchy as it guarantees a woman’s failure. Women falter under the stress to achieve perfection which is quite explicitly shown through Claire’s turbulent obsession with control. In this way, writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge exposes the consequences of unrealistic standards for women, suggesting such pressures are arguably more destructive than progressive.
This is aptly demonstrated in Fleabag’s character. Fleabag tends to combat these ideas of success as she is anything but, yet she is not unaffected by modern feminist discourse. Fleabag is shown to fall into the unhealthy coping mechanism of hypersexualising herself and valuing sex and her body over healthy relationships. This may be a comment on modern feminism having failed many women (including the two sisters) provides set ideal ways for women to conform within society and Fleabag is a direct contrast to these expectations in many ways. To be a woman in a modern world should not mean you have to live up to masculine stereotypes that most men can’t achieve.
Claire and Fleabag both claim they are ‘bad feminists’ for wanting the ‘ideal body’ yet this is what we are taught to believe. Women shouldn’t be blamed for living up to or believing the ideals that they have been taught to value their whole lives and nor should they gain any guilt from these admissions. Secretly pining for an ‘ideal body’ should not be a source of shame for women but rather a point of criticism of what we are all taught to believe. Fleabag judges her value to others, specifically lovers, in a sexual manner and based on her physical appearance. This isn’t to say Fleabag isn’t a feminist, shes simply a woman suffering the consequences of patriarchy.
The end of series one leaves us with an emotional damaged main character who has ruined her relationship with almost every person in her life and reveals to the audience she is inadvertently to blame for her best friends’ death. Fleabag admits that she was the one that had the affair with Boo’s boyfriend which was the catalyst for Boo’s death, which again, continues to show Fleabags self-destructive tendencies at the whim of her reliance on sex. She is a woman whose own actions are her worst nightmare; she weaponizes sex and gruellingly suffers the consequences. This heartbreakingly shot emotional breakdown was the perfect end to a triumphant first season.
However, the show’s second series provides a sharp contrast as Fleabag actively works to improve herself. To kick-off, we are gifted with one of the most dynamic family dinner scenes I have ever watched. But ultimately, the opener starts to show Fleabags need to change, she’s trying to fix the mistakes she made. This is mostly in relation to her relationship with Claire, who is shown to be even worse off than she was at the start of series one. There is clearly a reliance on the sisterly bond they both hate to admit is there - after all Fleabag is the only person Claire would run through an airport for - or it could be Claire having to live with a husband she has come to realise she doesn’t love.
This is also the episode we meet the Priest, the only person who stands outside of this destructive cycle in Fleabag’s life. The series, after all is a something of a sitcom, so seeing such a deep romantic connection is not necessarily unexpected. However, it’s largely unlike a character such as Fleabag who chases after relationships she often doesn’t really want.
A large part of the genius of this show is Waller-Bridge’s use of breaking the fourth wall throughout the two series which further isolates her from the rest of the characters. She is connecting with the audience when she can’t with the characters. This is also a device that makes the finale that much more devastating. The significance of the breaking the fourth wall is a few things. The fourth wall represents her guilt and regret and how much of her is dishonest and untrustworthy, making the camera a constant omnipresence in her life, and a reminder of her many wrong doings. As well as this, it is a device used to demonstrate her connection to people. Specifically, The Priest.
During season two, Fleabags journeys to attempt to better herself, and The Priest gives her that opportunity. She attempts to do this by taking on his vow of celibacy, which again promotes the idea that women must by hypersexual and unhappy, or sexless and seeking self-improvement. He reacts to her fourth wall breaks as if they are further parts of the conversation and senses her disconnect. This highlights Fleabags true loneliness as she realises that no one has cared enough to notice she is absent from large parts of most of her interactions. Until him. The way the fourth wall break is structured creates a relationship between the audience and fleabag which is one of the reasons the show is so compelling, we are privy to the inner workings of her thoughts which makes The Priest noticing her addressing us feel intrusive. Their connection is above lust, above everything else, and most importantly above her relationship with the audience. The emotional connection Fleabag develops with The Priest is something she simply wasn’t capable of in series one and demonstrates her journey against her hyper-sexualisation of herself and others. She loves him strongly and truly, which makes the end (which I don’t wish to spoil) that much more painful.
My only critique is the lack of diversity. The show delves into the depths of the modern woman and all the things that come along with it yet lacks the intersectionality to fully explore those themes. Including diverse characters would have made little effects on the writing and possibly added a further dimension of womanhood for people outside of whiteness.
The show is as high acclaimed as it is for a reason. It is a wonderfully heart-breaking exploration of what it is to be a modern woman. I thoroughly enjoyed this show and all its witty and tear inducing moments and would recommend it full-heartedly. Fleabag is complex character that it doesn’t feel quite right to love as much as Waller-Bridge’s writing leaves you loving her. Phoebe Waller-Bridge herself as the writer, the starring role and the producer of the programme, performs painstakingly and beautifully throughout the two seasons and leaves her audience appropriately injured after such an outstanding narrative and magnificent performance from the entire cast.